At the Legatum Institute we recently hosted a dinner featuring David Frum as the guest of honour. The topic of conversation was the future of conservatism (US and UK). Below is a short summary of the evening, which first appeared here.
“Insult fewer people next time.” This was David Frum’s advice to the Republican Party following its defeat in the 2012 Presidential Election. While this analysis is no-doubt deliberately facetious it can almost certainly be filed under the “it’s funny because it’s true” category of jokes.
Over dinner at the Legatum Institute David Frum explains that there are three dominant theories circulating inside the Republican Party as to why, in 2012, it lost one of the most winnable elections in modern history. The first, he says, is trivial, the second is false, and the third is pernicious.
Theory number one says that the Republicans were simply caught off guard by a better organised, more social media-friendly Democratic Party. This, of course, may well be true but it is not the reason for defeat. In fact, Frum suggests that the failure to be as well organised as the democrats was more a symptom of defeat rather than a cause.
Theory number two says that the Republican message on immigration was wrong. The Party failed to tailor its message towards non-white voters and ultimately paid the price at the polling stations. Again, there is some truth to this theory but it is not the main reason why the GOP lost in 2012.
The third explanation is that the Republicans were simply the victim of a huge historical tragedy in which the American public made a grave error in not picking the right party. Put another way, the Republicans didn’t lose the election, rather the American people failed in their responsibility to elect the right person! “If the customer doesn’t like what you are selling, that’s not the customer’s problem”, suggest Frum.
While these reasons may provide a partial answer, the primary reason why the Republican Party lost the 2012 election, explains Frum, was much simpler than that: it did not have a message for middle class Americans. Rather than focussing on immediate issues such as jobs, Republicans instead focussed on a deficit reduction plan, the effects of which will not be seen for 20-30 years. That message, argues Frum, lacks relevance for the middle class American voter.
In a wide ranging discussion on the future of conservatism – on both sides of the Atlantic – David Frum concluded with another piece of advice to conservatives seeking election: to be successful conservatives need to have an inclusive message that is culturally relevant. On top of that, the manner of discussion needs to be more responsible, less socially reactionary, and less rage-filled. On this point he is certainly right. Let’s hope he is listened to.