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A Conservative's View Of Life After Reagan

DOES wisdom rub off on furniture? I hope so, because these days I'm sitting behind the same desk once occupied by David Frum. Since leaving the Wall Street Journal, he has worked for Forbes magazine and moved back to his native Toronto. Now he's produced an insightful critique of America's conservative movement.

The launching point of ``Dead Right'' is what Frum regards (to borrow a chapter title) as ``The Failure of the Reagan Gambit.'' In Frum's view, Ronald Reagan swept into power by rejecting the old, skinflint GOP message (we will cut your favorite government programs), in favor of sunnier rhetoric (we will cut your hated taxes). The gamble was that ``after the tax cuts had worked their magic, there would be plenty of time to start chopping at the excesses of big government.''

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The tax cuts did work as intended; government revenues shot up and the economy was off on its greatest peacetime boom. But, Frum writes, the spending cuts never materialized, a failure he blames on the ``fecklessness'' of conservatives unwilling to challenge the status quo and risk alienating voters.

This part of Frum's thesis has been controversial in conservative circles. National Review, the conservatives' Bible, has written that federal spending growth under Reagan fell sharply before shooting back up under Presidents Bush and Clinton. It's a good point.

But as Frum notes, it would have been nice if Reagan had managed to hold spending constant with the rate of inflation. That, he writes, would have wiped out the federal budget deficit by the end of the 1980s.

Having offended quite a few conservatives by blistering Reagan, Frum proceeds to step on a few more toes with his criticism of Reagan's would-be successors.

While he is on target with his criticism of Jack Kemp's failure to curb the growth of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he's hasty in his dismissal of enterprise zones, school vouchers, and other ``empowerment'' ideas. Those free-market ideas may not be panaceas, but they're a lot better than the alternative, which is more Great Society spinoffs.

Frum is more on target with his scathing criticism of the ``nationalist'' conservatives led by Pat Buchanan. This small but growing faction advocates protectionism, isolationism, and nativism - the very policies jettisoned by an earlier generation of conservatives after they were discredited in the 1940s. Frum notes that the nationalist wing is increasingly finding common ground with the far-left on such issues as opposition to the Gulf war, which gives an idea of how far Buchanan and his ilk have moved from mainstream conservatism.

The author is more sympathetic to the third major group within the conservative movement, the ``moralists,'' led by former Education Secretary William Bennett. This school focuses on the moral decline of America and doubts that drug use, out-of-wedlock births, and crime can be solved through economics alone.

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But Frum suggests that focusing solely on cultural problems misses the real point. The ``bourgeois virtues'' - including thrift, diligence, prudence - treasured by moralist conservatives cannot exist under an ever-expanding government. For example, he asks, ``Why be thrifty any longer when your old age and health care are provided for...?''

The solution, Frum suggests, is for conservatives to refocus their energies on cutting the size of government. While he's vague on this point in ``Dead Right,'' in another forum he has suggested aiming for a 30 percent reduction. It may not seem like much to some libertarians, but in the current political climate that's probably the best we can hope for.

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