INTERVIEW

'In some ways, a vote is a little bit like falling in love. People do not fall in love with the best-qualified candidate.'

March 3 2008
INTERVIEW

'In some ways, a vote is a little bit like falling in love. People do not fall in love with the best-qualified candidate.'

March 3 2008

'In some ways, a vote is a little bit like falling in love. People do not fall in love with the best-qualified candidate.'

INTERVIEW

DAVID FRUM TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT CLINTON AND OBAMA, INEQUALITY, AND WHY THE REPUBLICAN PARTY IS IN ENORMOUS DANGER

Q You were a speech writer for George Bush, and your last book offered a favourable appraisal of his presidency. Your new book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, does not. Did you feel you had to eat crow publicly?

A: Definitely there were four or five sentences in The Right Man that I wouldn’t write today. I said George Bush had the virtues of tenacity, moral clarity and commitment, and the vices of being very hasty and not getting enough information before making decisions. I talked about what a shambles the first nine months of his administration had been, but predicted he’d be a superb war leader. Well, I was wrong.

Q: Has blogging made you more flexible, intellectually and politically?

A: Blogging makes you accept you’re going to make errors in judgement, errors in fact, and they’ll be pointed out to you instantly. What you learn is if you acknowledge a mistake, express regret and fix it, it’s not a problem. It’s only a problem if you dig in and refuse to admit you’re wrong.

Q: In Comeback you argue that American conservatism as it’s currently formulated is irrelevant, in part because of conformity and corruption within the conservative movement, and in part because of an unwillingness to respond to the new realities of an era of inequality. Do I have that right?

A: I would add one more thing: in many

ways, we did what we set out to do. We succeeded in stopping the growth of the state that had been such a strong feature of life in the 1960s and ’70s. We emancipated the creative powers of the marketplace so that North American society, which had been enjoying economic growth of two per cent a year in the 1970s, achieved better than three per cent in the 1990s and beyond. And it’s the successes that caused the problems. Today, I think the Republican party is in enormous danger. We are looking at the potential of 198O in reverse, with a huge Democratic win that, unlike 1992, doesn’t just change the party in power, but actually changes the whole political outlook of the United States.

Q: Are you starting to feel like the Cassandra of the Republican party?

A: Given the nasty fate that overtook Cassandra, I certainly hope not! And anyway, I’m not an important person in Republican politics. I’m just the anonymous guy standing by the washed-out railway track with the red flag, waving as fast as I can.

Q: Who do you think is responding best to the deepening American economic crisis: Clinton or Obama, McCain orHuckabee?

A: Each of them has glommed onto a part of the problem, but won’t address the whole thing. For example, the rise in inequality is driven by events in the economy, yes, but it’s also driven by changes in family structure. Children who grow up with two parents have a much better chance in life than children who don’t. The fact that families of the wealthi-

est third of Americans are becoming more stable, while the families in the bottom third are becoming more unstable, is as important as globalization, or trade, or technology. And yet, if you held the Democratic candidates over a hot griddle, they wouldn’t talk about that. Secondly, though immigration is not the most important cause of the increase in inequality, when you import 40 million poor people into your country since 1970, as the U.S. has done, you should not be surprised if they gather at the bottom income distribution, especially when your public school systems have broken down as a mechanism of assimilation and upward mobility. None of the Democrats nor McCain want to talk about immigration problems. School reform is also a dangerous issue because it involves changes in the work practices of teachers.

Q: Republican politicians are fond of invoking Reagan, but you say this is a mistake, that his politics and policies belong to another era. Has this been greeted as heresy?

A: Elected officials are very receptive. But the keepers of the Republican flame don’t accept it, partly because they don’t remember what happened in 1980. I was recently scolded by a very prominent figure in the conservative organization, who said, “The question we need to ask ourselves is, ‘What would Ronald Reagan do?’ ” There’s a bitter irony in saying that the lesson to learn from Reagan is to imitate him, because imitate is not one of the things he did. He was an innovator, he did not repeat.

Q: You worked on Rudy Giuliani’s campaign. What went wrong?

A: I’ve always thought of him as an “in case of emergency, break glass” kind of politician. The core of his appeal is: here’s the one guy who’s tough enough to do whatever it takes to turn a difficult war around. In some ways,

I think the success of the surge in Iraq weakened the case for Giuliani. Iraq is not like Vietnam. It’s like Korea, which wasn’t unpopular because it was wrong, but because it didn’t seem to be working. Americans would like Iraq to work if possible, and the success of the surge has caused a real modulation in the importance of Iraq as an election issue. Furthermore, when the war seemed to be turning around on its own, the Republicans said, “We don’t need Giuliani as badly as we thought we did six months ago, we can do something a little more comfortable.”

Q: But McCain isn’t exactly comfortable for the Republican party.

A: Whatever his other unorthodoxies, he is at least pro-life.

Q: Does Obama impress you in any way?

Ain a lot of ways. Let me compare and contrast. In 2000, in the South Carolina primary, the Bush people launched a whispering campaign against John McCain, who had already won New Hampshire and Michigan. They spread all kinds of rumours, and McCain lost his temper and denounced religious conservatives as agents of intolerance, completely alienating South Carolina conservatives. He lost the primary and with it, most likely, the Republican nomination. Flash forward to 2008: the Clintons began to needle Obama in South Carolina with a lot of criticisms that, to black ears, sounded racially charged. It would’ve been very natural for Obama to complain, but he did not allow himself to be goaded, and the result was that the needling backfired and he sailed through. He is also able to do that most astonishing thing: to somehow, through the camera, persuade tens of millions of total strangers to see him as the champion of their best hopes.

Q: But although you think Obama has more political talent and would be the stronger candidate in the general election, you believe Clinton would be the better president.

A: Right. She knows her brief. She’s also a much more pragmatic and prudent politician than she once was. The terrible irony for her is that with Obama, the Democrats have a candidate who is much more left wing than he seems. It’s Hillary’s bad luck that she’s much less left wing than she seems, so the left-wingers in the party don’t like her now that they know she’s not really one of them, and the rest of the country distrusts her,

because they see her as a much more ideological figure than she really is. Her other problem is that it’s very hard for her to capture the aspirational side of politics. People look at her and say, “She’d do a good job of managing the shop.” But the presidency is not just a matter of shop management. It’s a matter of inspiration, it’s a matter of presenting an American face to the world.

Q: Most pundits parse what’s going on in the Democratic race solely in terms of race and gender. Do you agree?

A: Obviously race and gender matter a great deal. But it’s wrong to say Hillary’s supporters are women—in fact, she draws support from a particular kind of woman, especially down-market white women. What seems to be going on is that women look at the compromises she made to survive and succeed, and better-educated women, to generalize, reject those compromises, find them shameful. Less-educated women say, “I understand, I’ve made similar kinds of compromises.”

Q: Is Obama more vulnerable than she would be against McCain, because of the gap in experience?

A: In some ways, a vote is a little bit like falling in love. People do not fall in love with the best-qualified candidate. If paper credentials were what qualified you, then George

H. W. Bush, not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would’ve served four terms. For American voters, experience is a threshold question: do you have enough? Think of i960: Nixon was a much more experienced candidate than Kennedy, but voters made up their minds that Kennedy had a sufficient amount, and that made him acceptable.

Q: One of the big stories this election cycle is that pollsters keep backing the wrong horse. Why is polling not working?

A: Because people are reluctant to spend time on the phone with pollsters during the supper hour, polling is becoming more difficult to do, therefore more expensive, and you see more and more polling companies using samples of 500 rather than the 800 to

I, 000 they used to use, which introduces more uncertainty. If you ask the typical American, “Who do you think you’re more likely to support, John McCain or Barack Obama?” it’s a hypothetical question he or she probably won’t give any serious thought to until about 72 hours before voting. But if you ask, “Are you upset about your family’s economic future?” the answer is going to be pretty revealing, because people have thought hard about that. You need to be careful what you ask and how you use the answers.

Q: Is division within the Democratic party good for Republicans, or do you think it’s energizing Democrats at Republicans’ expense?

A: Definitely the latter. Both Clinton and

Obama are acceptable to almost all Democrats, so whoever wins the nomination will not have a hard time unifying the party. This intense primary season has also had the effect of bringing Democrats out to the polls in large numbers, about 50 per cent more Democrats than Republicans, and that means they’re able to raise more money. That has all kinds of impact on [Senate and congressional] races down the ballot.

Q: You’ve embraced environmentalism, rejected further income tax cuts, and are proposing new consumption taxes. To me, your politics now seem closer to your mother Barbara Frum ’s than ever before. Two of your own three kids are now teenagers. Are their politics similar to yours?

A: My son sees politics as people slamming one another, and he wants no part of that. My daughter is very political, and her politics are

of course different from mine. What I learned from my mother is not what to think, but the way to think. Her great lessons were that politics is about the public interest, not your personal advancement, and she insisted you have to be fully informed before ever opening your mouth, and that you should pay special attention to people who disagree with you, because it’s probably from them that you’ll learn the most. If I can teach that to my children, I’ll be content, even if they wind up casting votes for Barack Obama. Happily, they’re not eligible to vote in this election! M

PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIN TRIEB/GETTY IMAGES

'The fact families in the bottom third are becoming unstable is as important as globalization’