WASHINGTON — What’s the matter with conservatism?

Its problems start with the failure of George W. Bush’s presidency but they don’t end there. Inequality is rising and working-class voters are being hammered. The cost and availability of health coverage are a big problem, and some Republicans don’t want to talk about that simply because they see it as a “Democratic issue.”

Don’t take my word on this. The themes I just outlined come from two important new books written by conservatives. The authors are worried about their movement’s future, and accept — to use the language directed once upon a time against liberals — that the right is tired, short of ideas and mired in the past.

The appearance of these books is a sign of something deeper: Much as liberals and Democrats realized in the 1980s that their side needed to rethink old assumptions, the shrewdest conservatives understand that the old faith, if it goes unreformed, is in danger of dying out.

David Frum, a one-time speech writer for President Bush and the author of “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again,” says nice things about the president but concedes he has “led his party to the brink of disaster.”

Frum is not one of those conservatives who think that running against government is always the right thing. “There are things only government can do,” he writes, “and if we conservatives wish to be entrusted with the management of the government, we must prove that we care enough about government to manage it well.”

Many on the right think there is no problem with conservatism today that doing a better job of imitating Ronald Reagan wouldn’t solve. But the 1980s were a long time ago. What made Reagan great, Frum argues, “was his ability to respond to the demands of his times. We must respond to the demands of ours.”

Frum acknowledges that the problem of economic inequality is real. “The American economy grew handsomely between 2001 and 2006,” he writes. “But over those five years, the income of the median American … did not rise at all. The number of people in poverty rose by 5.4 million between 2000 and 2004.”

A concern for the working class animates the other hot, new critique of conservatism from the inside. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam give their book “Grand New Party” (to be published in June) a long but revealing subtitle: “How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.”

They admit upfront the challenges and problems created by globalization: “the rise of the knowledge-based economy, growing outsourcing and the demise of lifetime employment, the expansion of credit card debt, the decline of retirement and health care security, the pressure from below created by unprecedented illegal immigration.”

Their last point about immigration might arouse some dissent from liberals, but not their conclusion: that “these developments of the last three decades have made American workers feel more insecure.” More pointedly, Douthat and Salam add that “the Republican Party has failed to adequately address these concerns.”

On policy, the books are less persuasive, partly because conservatism, almost by definition, has trouble achieving the level of intervention in the economy that the current inequities may require. Nonetheless, these writers at least acknowledge the need for public action to bring health coverage to everyone.

Both books stress the costs of family breakdown to Americans of modest means — and particularly to their children.

Here is an area where liberals could make common cause with these next-era conservatives. Douthat and Salam suggest expanding the current tax credit for children from $1,000 to $5,000. It’s a relief to see conservatives willing to make a link between economic forces and family life, something their more radically free-market comrades are rarely willing to do.

Two books do not a revolution make. But they are a symptom of a healthy dissidence within the conservative movement and a sign of its instinct toward survival.

“There is emerging within the Republican Party a very interesting debate about whether we need to change our approach, or just reassert the policies we already have,” Frum said in an interview.

Frum would like the heretical Republicans to come together to create their own version of the Democratic Leadership Council. The GOP sure could use something. A Pew Research Center survey released last week found that only 27 percent of Americans now identify themselves as Republicans, the lowest percentage in Pew’s 16 years of polling. If ever there was a moment for change agents within the nation’s conservative party, this is it.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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