Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Difference of... Style?

David Frum, attempting to rehabilitate his conservative bona fides after being rebuked by Mark Levin, presents a tepid defense of his criticisms of Rush Limbaugh.
Now, of course, Mark Levin knows perfectly well where I come from. We've known each other for years, had dinner together. I'm a conservative Republican, have been all my adult life. I volunteered for the Reagan campaign in 1980. I've attended every Republican convention since 1988. I was president of the Federalist Society chapter at my law school, worked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and wrote speeches for President Bush—not the "Read My Lips" Bush, the "Axis of Evil" Bush. I served on the Giuliani campaign in 2008 and voted for John McCain in November. I supported the Iraq War and (although I feel kind of silly about it in retrospect) the impeachment of Bill Clinton. I could go on, but you get the idea.
The only thing on that list that makes him feel silly is his support for the impeachment of Bill Clinton? (Why did he even include that, then, in his list of conservative "credentials"? Is it to convey, "I can be as knee-jerk as anyone"?) As a résumé of conservative credentials go, it seems like weak tea, and seems more designed to convey a sense of similarity to to likes of Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin than to create any point of distinction. So it's fair to ask, how does he distinguish his brand of conservative from Rush:
And for the leader of the Republicans? A man who is aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic, who dismisses the concerned citizens in network news focus groups as "losers." With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence—exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party. And we're cooperating! Those images of crowds of CPACers cheering Rush's every rancorous word—we'll be seeing them rebroadcast for a long time.
That entire criticism is stylistic, verging into ad hominem, not substantive. Rush is "aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic", and dismissive of his critics - style. He is a rich, self-indulgent, cigar smoking recovering drug addict... I guess distinguished from Frum's "lord and master" by the fact that he's also fat? But it's somehow problematic that factions of the Republican party are lining up behind Rush they way they lined up behind GW, because... he's problematic as the "public face of the enterprise", and it's thus important to make plain that he's just one Republican voice among many.

Responding to Limbaugh's statement, "I Hope Obama Fails", Frum proposes:
Notice that Limbaugh did not say: "I hope the administration's liberal plans fail." Or (better): "I know the administration's liberal plans will fail." Or (best): "I fear that this administration's liberal plans will fail, as liberal plans usually do." If it had been phrased that way, nobody could have used Limbaugh's words to misrepresent conservatives as clueless, indifferent or gleeful in the face of the most painful economic crisis in a generation. But then, if it had been phrased that way, nobody would have quoted his words at all—and as Limbaugh himself said, being "headlined" was the point of the exercise. If it had been phrased that way, Limbaugh's face would not now be adorning the covers of magazines. He phrased his hope in a way that drew maximum attention to himself, offered maximum benefit to the administration and did maximum harm to the party he claims to support.
This from Frum, who even now can't stop himself from implicitly crowing about his role in the coining of the phrase, "the axis of evil". More accurately, he suggested "axis of hatred", but has no apparent problem with the modification of that phrase and its use to falsely suggest alignment and cooperation between Iraq, Iran and North Korea, or to distort and impede debate on important foreign policy issues. Proud and smug, he has effectively declared for years, "It was me who coined the phrase that subverted debate and helped advance Bush's Middle East and North Korea policies without regard to facts," but apparently that's okay because his approach is more nuanced than Rush's. Again, Frum's cricism is stylistic - It's okay for Rush to hope for Obama's failure, but the leader of the Republican Party needs to at least pretend to be hoping that things will work out. (This is reminiscent of fellow Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson's "Gawrsh, I hope I'm wrong" editorial.)

I'm not sure if Rush has the courage in his convictions that his public pronouncements suggest. He's first and foremost an entertainer. I can't recall a single time in his entire history of broadcasting that he's demonstrated actual leadership - intellectual or otherwise. Frum's correct to note that Rush's principal goal is to draw "maximum attention to himself"; that's Rush's job, not offering the damage control to the Republican Party that Frum would prefer.

Step back for a moment. Rush launched his nationally syndicated show in 1988, more than 20 years ago. He's been saying incendiary things over the course of his entire career. Throughout that time, he's been treated as a demigod by many in the Republican Party. Now, as that party's intellectual foundations have collapsed, Rush is perceived as a Republican leader because, in a sense, he's the last man standing. And only now do people like Frum decide that his approach to conservative politics is problematic.

Frum also complains that Limbaugh is defending conservative principles from the 1970's, even though "the connection between big government and today's most pressing problems is not as close or as pressing as it was 27 years ago". Frum laments, generally, about Republican leadership, that there's a reluctance to address how the issues of our time differ from those faced by Reagan, or presenting a set of possible solutions to current problems. But while that may help explain why Rush Limbaugh has ascended - at least he's putting forth the solutions of the 1970's as the others sit silently - it doesn't suggest how his leadership is less desirable than that of other Republican leaders who also have nothing fresh to contribute to the debate.

Frum offers a lengthy statistical dissertation on the poor showing of the Republican party among key demographics, none of which are comprises of rich, older white men. That may help explain why certain Republicans have latched onto the likes of Sarah Palin or Bobby Jindal as the future of the party, but that's not a reasoned approach to selecting leadership. There's also a certain naivete in the notion that there's something inherent about Rush's style, as opposed to his political ideology, that alienates key voter blocs from him. As if they're hungering to vote for a Republican leader who has Rush's certitude, but Frum's personality.

Frum proposes three reforms that he apparently believes will reinvigorate the Republican party:
  • "We need to put free-market health-care reform, not tax cuts, at the core of our economic message" - That's great, but it would help if somebody could define a meaningful set of "free-market health-care reforms" that can reign in costs and inflation and/or increase universality. The last great free market idea was the introduction of HMOs and PPOs, which have proved wholly inadequate.

  • "We need to modulate our social conservatism (not jettison—modulate)." - by this, Frum apparently means adhering to a pro-life, anti-gay agenda but not excluding potential vice presidential candidates (like Tom Ridge) on the basis that they're pro-choice or accepting of gay marriage. I'm not sure how Frum thinks this will help - it weakens the party's position with the religious right, while doing nothing to reassure the small bloc of "single issue" pro-choice voters that the Republican Party is for them.

  • "We need an environmental message." - Frum apparently wants to move away from "deny, deny, deny" mode on issues such as carbon emissions, and to recognize that environmental protections can serve to protect property interest as well as harm them (presumably by restricting polluting or environmentally destructive activity or requiring clean-up).

Frum concludes that "Above all, we need to take governing seriously again." Frum laments that the popular myth that the Republican Party represents "personal integrity and fiscal responsibility" has been shattered by reality. Yet he's upset that Limbaugh is a myth-builder? In what alternate universe can we find the Republican leaders who, but for Limbaugh's prominence, would be ushering in a new era of fiscal and personal responsibility? No, really, the problem is stylistic:
And if we allow ourselves to be overidentified with somebody who earns his fortune by giving offense, [voters who can't stand Rush] will vote against us.
Yeah. The Republican Party needs somebody who's a "uniter, not a divider." (Which speechwriter came up with that one?)

Frum's argument gets more self-pitying, and more hypocritical, toward the end.
Most of these e-mails say some version of the same thing: if you don't agree with Rush, quit calling yourself a conservative and get out of the Republican Party. There's the perfect culmination of the outlook Rush Limbaugh has taught his fans and followers: we want to transform the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan into a party of unanimous dittoheads—and we don't care how much the party has to shrink to do it. That's not the language of politics. It's the language of a cult.
Where can I find Frum's similar lament that, during or after his tenure as a Bush speechwriter, similar efforts were made to shout down the debate on issues such as the Iraq War, warrantless wiretapping, respect for human rights.... Didn't it bother him that people who tried to introduce traditional American values into the debate of important subject, some of whom approached the issue from the standpoint of conservative thought and tradition, were shouted down, shut out, and even derided as being a "fifth column" or something just shy of traitors? No, this says it all:
I'm a pretty conservative guy. On most issues, I doubt Limbaugh and I even disagree very much. But the issues on which we do disagree are maybe the most important to the future of the conservative movement and the Republican Party: Should conservatives be trying to provoke or persuade? To narrow our coalition or enlarge it? To enflame or govern? And finally (and above all): to profit—or to serve?
So again we find Frum's disagreement with Rush is stylistic, not substantive, and he takes umbrage only in that he is being derided for having challenged Rush. Even when singling out a few of Rush's more inflammatory statements, Frum couldn't bring himself to say, "I disagree with this," as opposed to, "I would have said it differently." He's perfectly happy for people who disagree with his own (and apparently also Rush's) political views to be treated with scorn.
Update: Clark Stooksbury reminds us of Frum's attack on paleoconservatives:
The antiwar conservatives aren't satisfied merely to question the wisdom of an Iraq war. Questions are perfectly reasonable, indeed valuable. There is more than one way to wage the war on terror, and thoughtful people will naturally disagree about how best to do it, whether to focus on terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah or on states like Iraq and Iran; and if states, then which state first?

But the antiwar conservatives have gone far, far beyond the advocacy of alternative strategies. They have made common cause with the left-wing and Islamist antiwar movements in this country and in Europe. They deny and excuse terror. They espouse a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism. They publicize wild conspiracy theories. And some of them explicitly yearn for the victory of their nation's enemies.

* * *

There is, however, a fringe attached to the conservative world that cannot overcome its despair and alienation. The resentments are too intense, the bitterness too unappeasable. Only the boldest of them as yet explicitly acknowledge their wish to see the United States defeated in the War on Terror. But they are thinking about defeat, and wishing for it, and they will take pleasure in it if it should happen.

They began by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.
I guess that answers my rhetorical question about where Frum was when attacks like that were being made....

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