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The Right and David Frum: The Real Issues to Confront

PJM seems to be the only website that has not had a single posting on the recent brouhaha over David Frum, and the reasons for his leaving -- or being fired from -- the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). So I have decided to join the fray.

First, on the issues of whether or not Frum was dismissed suddenly and without good reason, or whether he voluntarily left, I have no great insight on to what happened behind the scenes -- only opinions derived from what Frum and others have recently said. There has been vitriolic comments on all sides, the most harsh coming from his former colleague and friend, Charles Murray. Frum’s own response can be found here on Frum’s own website. Readers can go to all the links and reach their own judgment about what happened.

I think we can all agree that if AEI decided to let him go for what they thought were valid internal reasons, the timing itself was quite bad. It took place immediately after Frum penned a piece arguing that Republicans could well have dealt with the Democrats in forging a different health care proposal, his now famous Waterloo column. That was followed by a rather unprecedented Wall Street Journal editorial condemning Frum as “the media’ s go-basher of fellow Republicans.” AEI President Arthur Brooks’ dismissal of Frum certainly made it appear that he was worried about donors contributing to his institute after Frum had been subject to such major condemnation from influential conservative figures and newspapers.

What has been forgotten in all of this is that if you regularly read Frum -- and respect his serious analytical mind, his sharp insights and his willingness to go where he believes the evidence leads -- what one can find is the judgement of a man who believes the Republicans must succeed in advancing alternatives to ObamaCare and other Democratic programs that he believes are ill founded and dangerous to the nation’s eventual health. What he is arguing about are really tactics -- the question of how to reach a population that has serious grievances with the current Democratic agenda, but that is equally repelled by the rhetoric and approaches of what we might call the hard Right. This includes many conservative Republicans, moderates, and of course the centrists who are quickly making up a majority of voters and who do not register as either Democrats or Republicans.

Frum, along with John Avlon and others, regularly makes a strong argument that without obtaining the support of this center -- a necessity for governing a center/right nation -- it will become more and more impossible for Republicans to succeed in gaining both houses of Congress as well as the White House. Frum, Avlon and Scott McClellan made the case for this the other night on Larry King Live. You can see the video here, or read the entire transcript.

Frum explained himself in this way: “And what we're hearing right now from a lot of people are our fantasies, delusions, things that can't work. And that means -- that opens the way to an easy run for Democratic and liberal success to expand government. We saw the catastrophic result of that with passage of this health care bill. I think that is not an effective way to proceed. I'm a competitor. I want to win.”

I happen to disagree with David in his judgement that “there were opportunities to deal [with the Democrats] on the Senate Finance Committee,” and thereby Republicans sought instead to “break” Obama, and failing in that goal, succeeded only in allow an Obama victory that led to “tremendous political success for the President.” But this is a judgement call, one in which good people can differ. I think that the Democrats never were serious in accommodating real Republican concerns, and preferred to gain a victory for their own agenda even if it meant trying to govern when half the country is against the bill they used reconciliation to pass.

But I think we all agree with David’s call that “the result is we have a bill that is neither shaped by Republicans, [that] doesn't reflect Republican and conservative values.” So the question becomes where do we go from here, and how do we act to reach the goals we all want? And on this issue, I think David hit the nail on the head when he said that the “center of gravity of American politics [is] strong on national defense, fiscally conservative, socially modern.” And that means forging a Republican program that changes with the times, and does not rely on platitudes of arguing we must return to the Reagan agenda of a past time.

And it also means that on other issues, such as that of Sarah Palin as a potential Republican candidate, the Republicans have to understand that, despite her great appeal to the conservative base, her ascension to the candidacy would be a disaster in the waiting. Writing in The Wall Street Journal the other day, Norman Podhoretz advanced a lot of reasons as to why he thinks intellectual conservatives mistakenly disdain her, “and the criteria by which she is being judged by her conservative critics— never mind the deranged hatred she inspires on the left—tell us next to nothing about the kind of president she would make.”

I beg to differ with Podhoretz. He compares the distaste for Palin among some conservatives to that they held against Ronald Reagan after he already had been Governor of California. Reagan, as he points out, came to be heralded as a great leader and as a man of intelligence who had a clear view of America’s positive role in the world, and he quickly undercut the negative views that some conservatives had of him at the start.

But the comparison is inept. For one thing, Reagan was not only a successful Governor who stayed in office, but he had first cut his teeth in politics decades earlier as an anti-Communist liberal who supported the Humphrey wing of the Democratic Party in its fight against the left-wing of the Democratic Party. I recall listening to a broadcast of  his introduction to Humphrey at a campaign rally, for example. Before that, as John Meroney will soon show in his long-awaited book on Reagan in Hollywood, he led the fight against the Hollywood and pro-Communist left in the 40s and early 50s, again as an anti-Communist liberal and trade union leader. In other words, those who showed disdain for Reagan overlooked or ignored his years of experience and leadership -- something Sarah Palin does not have.

When Podhoretz argues that the conservative intellectuals -- I count myself in this camp, as well as Frum -- do not like Palin because they mock her poor “oratorical gifts” compared to Obama’s smooth delivery and persona, and hate the Tea Party movement because they think it composed of “base enthusiasms and simian grunts” that lead to what one observer he quotes calls the “loathsome Tea Party rabble,” he is setting up a straw man to knock down and evading the big issue of whether or not Palin could ever be a viable candidate who could appeal to the necessary center.

On these basic essential issues, David Frum is continuing to make the strongest case possible for a Republican alternative that can reach the wide public at large. If we are ever going to be able to change America and move it away from a growing movement to Europeanize the country and create an American style social democracy, we need the biggest tent possible. That means listening to people like David Frum, and stopping the storm of attacks seeking to isolate his voice from being heard in conservative circles.