Posted on | November 21, 2011 | 61 Comments
Folie à deux — shared psychosis; a psychiatric syndrome in which symptoms of a delusional belief are transmitted from one individual to another.
Who’s nuts: David Frum or the Republicans who hate him?
It’s a very strange experience to have your friends think you’ve gone crazy. Some will tell you so. Others will indulgently humor you. Still others will avoid you. More than a few will demand that the authorities do something to get you off the streets. . . .
It’s possible that my friends are right. I don’t think so — but then, crazy people never do. . . .
When I entered Republican politics, during an earlier period of malaise, in the late seventies and early eighties, the movement got most of the big questions — crime, inflation, the Cold War — right. This time, the party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong.
You can read the whole thing, but I think the basic problem can be traced back to the Bush administration, when we were told that profoundly un-conservative things — “No Child Left Behind,” the USA-PATRIOT Act, Medicare Part D — were in fact fundamental to the conservative agenda. And when those things failed (either as policy or politics), the “brand damage” to the Republican Party was blamed on conservatives who had advocated those things.
Cronyism in federal appointments (“Heckuva job, Brownie“) is no part the conservative agenda, and yet when FEMA screwed up, conservatism got the blame. Micro-managing public school curricula from D.C. isn’t conservative, but when No Child Left Behind forced schools to “teach to the test,” enraged teachers didn’t blame liberals, did they? And you can’t find anything reading Burke, Kirk or Buckley that would support a policy of encouraging lenders to give poorly documented mortages to unqualified buyers, yet this is what the Bush administration did — and called it “conservative”!
We are dealing with the results of a confusion, one which previously developed during the administrations of Eisenhower and Nixon, and which recurred under Bush. This confusion is between:
- The policies pursued by Republicans; and
- The policies advocated by conservatives.
Frum is a wonk very much concerned with the question of what legislative and policy initiatives can be feasibly enacted (and politically defended) by Republican elected officials. That’s a very different thing than declaring, broadly, what the ultimate objectives of the conservative movement should be.
For example, were it in my power to accomplish one thing in Washington, D.C., the federal Department of Education would be abolished and its employees summarily dismissed from public service. Except for funding necessary research and providing educational benefits for military veterans, we would get the federal government entirely out of the education business.
This is not how wonks talk or think, however, because nobody in Wonk World has that kind of profound loathing for federal bureaucracy. When you suggest a genuinely bold proposal like zeroing out the Department of Education, a Republican wonk immediately imagines the hue and outcry from the Democrats, the teachers unions, and the New York Times. They can’t imagine Republicans withstanding such angry criticism and, they’ll point out, Reagan never followed through on his promise to abolish the Department of Education.
So your bold proposal is immediately dismissed as “unserious,” impractical as either politics or policy, and you’re back to arguing about how the Department of Education can be reformed, as if there is some conservative way to reform a bureaucracy that — by conservative principles — shouldn’t exist to begin with.
Also, abolishing whole departments of the federal government would deprive the next Republican president of the opportunity to appoint their cronies to top jobs in those departments. Maybe you have no desire to be an assistant deputy undersecretary in the Department of Education, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t well-connected Republicans who covet such posts. So you’re messing with the “jobs for the boys” factor of partisan loyalty, which doesn’t matter to you — the rank-and-file voter — but matters a great deal to young GOP operatives who see an administration position as a stepping stone to a lucrative career as a K Street lobbyist.
What can be done? I think the important thing is to be honest about motives, and to clarify the difference between long-term objectives and near-term legislative proposals. Keep in mind that Hubert Humphrey and other liberals were advocating for nationalizing health care as early as 1948. it took them until 1965 to get Medicare and Medicaid, and until 2010 to get ObamaCare.
Democrats are willing to push relentlessly for their policy preferences, and to suffer political unpopularity to achieve their goals.
Republicans, by contrast, have developed a habit in the past 30 years of looking around for a chance to support something that seems popular — Bomb Saddam! — then lashing the hell out of anyone who criticizes them — Un-American! – and thereby confusing people about first principles. (The democratization of Mesopatamia might be a good thing generally, but is it really so central to the conservative agenda that it must be implemented at all hazards?) While I don’t want to turn this into a schismatic dispute among paleocons and neocons or between any other of the various cliques inside the Big Tent, can’t we agree that the “brand damage” legacy of Bush-era Republicanism had something to do with the ascendance of certain people and certain ideas to positions of dominance in the GOP coalition over the past 10 or 15 years?
When we see GOP primary voters embrace the populism of Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, or the libertarianism of Ron Paul, we have to recognize this as a reaction to what went wrong with the GOP between 1995 and 2006. Populism involves a rejection of the elite, and who can deny that the Republican elite has made a botch of things in the past 15 years? Libertarianism involves a hostility to statism, and who can deny that the GOP didn’t become entirely too statist during the Bush years?
Over the weekend, I exchanged e-mails with Brad Thompson, author of Neoconservatism: Obituary for an Idea. Critics of neoconservatism have had something of a field day since the 2006 mid-term elections brought the collapse of what we might call the “Bush bubble.” Whether Dr. Thompson’s criticisms are fair or unfair, I can’t say, as I haven’t read his book. But I would suggest that what we’ve seen in the past three years suggests that, if neoconservatism is implicated in the “brand damage” issue, is it because of whatever there is of elitism and statism in the neoconservative worldview.
Unlike David Brooks — I walk out of room the minute he starts talking — David Frum is someone I consider a friend, which causes me to get a lot of heat from some of my conservative friends, including those friends whom Frum has attacked by name.
Frum stubbornly believes he’s right (and also, Right), and any attempt to argue him out of his position is doomed to failure, simply because it’s his position and he feels honor-bound to defend it. Being rather mule-headed myself, I can relate to that, even when I know Frum is wrong, wrong, wrong (as is anyone who disagrees with me). However, I believe the point of arguments among conservatives is always to find the best way to stomp liberalism into smithereens. And I wish Frum would stop carping so much about conservatives, and start stomping some liberals.
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