David Frum is a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a writer for the National Review. He, along with some other conservatives in the public square, propose that the Republican party is mirred in its nostalgia for the Reagan era. According to Frum, this fixation on Reaganism renders Republicans unable to reach the contemporary voter and to deal effectively with current American challenges.
In this vein, he attacked Rush Limbaugh’s “blueprint” for Republican renewal this week. I wrote Mr. Frum the following letter in response:
Dear Mr. Frum,
I respect you and your writing, and I thank you for your years of insight, criticism, and commentary. You are innovative in problem-solving, and new perspectives are always necessary to evaluate the best way to achieve a goal. However, you may count me as one of the many conservative readers who are disappointed by your noble company’s drift to accommodate the Left (the company includes, of course, Noonan, Brooks, and yourself). I understand that elections matter and that a political movement with fine principles but no power has little influence in national affairs. Strategically, then, I am not sure which course would be best if the nation has really drifted to the Left.
Yet, I do not believe that such has occurred. You accuse Limbaugh of blindly believing (or dishonestly spoonfeeding his right-wing audience) that the United States remains a political body where classical liberalism and cultural traditionalism hold a great many adherents. For evidence, you point to lost elections—of 2006 and the likely Republican massacre this year. Moreover, you mention Greenberg’s study where Republican respondents differ widely from all respondents.
I think that you (and the “end of Reaganism” crowd) make the mistake of thinking that voters follow political principles at all. In any democracy, and especially in the United States of today, I would not admit more than a quarter of the electorate to have any political principles. Most people vote in a state of ignorance and follow the herd around them. Unfortunately, a Leftist media has a lot of influence in determining herd behavior.
A clear indication of this is Mr. Greenberg’s study. Republicans do not think that the party lost in 2006 because of its being too conservative, while the general voter thinks the opposite. Mr. Frum, do you think that the Bush administration has been a right-wing, conservatively behaving presidency? Bush’s enemies have leveled that charge, and Bush has declined to respond to the attack. Bush’s utter unwillingness to communicate with Americans let the opposition, in their pet words, “frame the debate.” The foolish masses, hearing one message, took it to heart. Bush did not articulate a defense of conservatism (or anything else), and, in significant areas, he has not governed as a conservative.
Bush’s defense of the unborn did not earn him his unpopularity. Bush’s commitment to justices who follow the law did not cause the American public to abandon him. Bush’s tax policy did not lose the 2006 elections.
What if you asked those survey responders how the Republicans were too conservative or not conservative enough? How many could articulate an answer? Most self-identifying Republicans probably could not . . . they just know that “conservative” is a tribal marker and that, if Republicans are not doing well, it must because they were not real Republicans, i.e. not conservative enough. The same holds true for Democrats in the reverse. The unaligned broke for “too conservative” because the Left has dominated the national discussion for the past eight years. It is a meaningless label for most people.
Had Republicans been able to argue conservative points without appearing shamelessly hypocritical, especially on matters of fiscal discipline and limited government, they would have won the day.
Let us consider, however, that the electorate has moved in a socialist, welfare state direction. As I stated above, I have no idea what would be the best path strategically. Yet, what did accommodation get for the establishment Republicans after the New Deal? They were implicated in government’s expansion, and they legitimized soft socialism and the erosion of American liberties. You could respond that Goldwater was soundly defeated, but was he so defeated because for decades, Republicans had accepted and normalized the New Deal? Wouldn’t a better long-term strategy have been the consistent repudiation of destructive social and economic policies that betray our constitutional traditions? When such policies bring upon the hell that they inevitably produce, then the country will be ready to reject them. Wasn’t that what allowed Reagan to win?
I am sorry that some on the right have accused you and the like-minded of betrayal and ulterior motives. I do not doubt the integrity of any of you; in my opinion, Noonan is as close to a good, wise, and honest person as a public figure can be. However, I think that you are wrong here—perhaps from despair at the lost opportunities of the last eight years.
Nonetheless, keep writing, and we’ll keep reading. Conservatives are generally a tolerant and forgiving people.