Rewriting Mount Vernon

February 18th, 2010 at 12:34 pm David Frum | 10 Comments |

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So, smart-mouth, what would you do different?

Yesterday, Allahpundit over at linked to my blogpost on the Mount Vernon statement with the rhetorical question:  ”Isn’t David Frum right, just this one time? (Note to Allahpundit – if you add up all the times I’ve been right “just this one time” the total amounts to quite a few times!)

The commenters on his post were not so favorable however. And many of them asked some version of the question atop this post.

An answer:

You don’t start writing until you know why you are writing. The Mount Vernon Statement was written to demonstrate the unity of various conservative factions. But the great question overhanging the conservative movement is not its unity, but its relevance. Yes, you can pile the major conservative groups into a conference room and find forms of words to which they will all nod. No news there: conservatives do that every Wednesday morning in Grover Norquist’s conference room. But will those words address any of the important problems of the country? Will they galvanize anybody other than self-identified conservatives? For that matter, will they offer even conservatives any kind of legible road map forward?

The Mount Vernon statement only confirms these doubts about conservatism’s relevance. If you must have a manifesto, write one that answers the questions people are asking:

1) Why are we in this mess?

2) What’s wrong with President Obama’s approach?

3) What would you do differently?

4) Can we trust you to do better than you did last time?

A good manifesto would be realistic. It would not blame the president for conditions he inherited, but only for his own actions. It would attack the Democrats’ decisions, not their motives – it certainly would not suggest that they were inspired by some anti-constitutional hostility for public liberties. If it wants to speak to specific concerns – for example, the risks in the Obama healthplan for the freedom of conscience of medical providers – it would do so directly, rather than lodging those concerns in mystifying language about “true religious freedom.”

Where there are unresolved differences within the center-right coalition, a good manifesto would put those issues aside rather than try to present a false image of unity through empty verbal formulas (as happened in the foreign policy section of the Mount Vernon Statement). A manifesto does not need to deal with every issue: it’s a tool for mobilization, not an apologia pro sua vita.

But there is one issue with which a manifesto must inescapably deal: the recent past. In 2010, unlike 1960, American conservatism is not a new movement. Nor is it a movement of outsiders. Conservatives may tell themselves — as Mitt Romney told them at the Republican convention in 2008 — that Washington has been “liberal” oh these many years. The American public however will remember that self-described conservatives have held the presidency for 20 of the past 30 years – a Senate majority for 18 of the past 30 years – and the majority in the House for 12 of the past 30 years. The chief justices of the Supreme Court stretching back to 1969 have been conservatives by any definition. Every one of the nation’s four biggest states has had a Republican governor for at least 8 of the 14 years since 1994. There has to be some form of reckoning with this history: the “who us?” attitude often expressed in conservative circles will convince nobody, not even conservatives ourselves.

I mention this not to pick at scabs, but because conservatives who wish to carry the country with them need some answer to the fourth question above: not an apology, but a new reason to believe.

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10 Comments so far ↓

  • DFL

    The Cold War has been won. Democrats have been pretty much forced to keep taxes low compared to the Truman/Eisenhower/Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon consensus. The Left has won the culture wars; conservatives were too stupid to engage effectively in those wars. Conservatives are fearful of enacting the massive budget cuts needed to reduce a future American fiscal implosion despite their moaning the mantra of small, constitutional government. Conservatives continue to uphold the Cold War defense state despite not only the collapse of the USSR but the fiscal crisis America is experiencing. No, the Conservative Movement has atrophied. It offers pablum and Reagan nostalgia rather than practical solutions. Then again, the country seems to have a death wish so maybe the dearth of fresh thinking in conservative ranks is not really a problem. After all, James Burnham once wrote that where there is no solution, therre is not problem.

  • TAZ

    I would like to see a smart, realistic, contract with America type document come out of CPAC.

    It should address the major issues of the day with practical, SPIN-FREE, solution suggestions.

    Dump the birthers, truthers, and other crazies and get back to adult leadership.

    Its time to take Obama up on his moves towards deficit reduction panels, nuke plants, off shore drilling, cross state medial insurance plans, small business tax cuts, etc……

    I didnt vote for the guy (Obama) but I think its time we Republicans got over the fact hes the president and started to work on some of the issues WE SPONSORED that he will back.

  • Mandos

    1) Why are we in this mess?

    This is the crucial question to which no part of the conservative movement, neither the Davidfrumians no the Glennbeckians, have an actual answer. Actually, the Glennbeckians have a slightly better answer in some ways: at some level they seem to recognize that the value of and bargaining power of workers has gone down.

  • mike farmer

    Being neither conservative nor progressive, I painfully realize that both have failed miserably in many areas for a long, long time. Libertarians haven’t been given a chance, so it’s an open question whether libertaran principles would work better — I’m open, however, to giving them the good old college try.

    The question remains, though, what should be done going foward?

  • Kanzeon

    This document isn’t intended to be realistic, conciliatory, or moderate. It is phrased in generalities because the right, most especially the far right, is not conservative and not interested in the basic principles of government. They are, by and large, radical reactionaries.

    Again and again, when I run across “conservatives” on the internet, they hold radical ideas: they want to abolish the federal reserve, don’t believe in public education, they want to dismantle social security and all forms of welfare. On of the authors of the Mt Vernon document explained to Wolf Blitzer that he doesn’t accept Marbury v. Madison. To be relevant, and especially to be conservative, you need to accept the basic foundations of society and government and work within them. The Senate health care bill is conservative. Although many Democrats in the Senate probably would probably ideally support single-payer, they created a bill that does not alter the fundamentals of the private insurance system.

    The document isn’t intended to be relevant, in the sense of solving people’s real problems. The goal of the right is not to solve unemployment or reduce suffering, but to make sure that people blame their suffering on the other side. They don’t need to propose actual policies to regain power. Obama came to power on vague promises of hope and change. They can do it on the Mt Vernon principles, which in themselves are meaningless, but which, in practice, encourage radical positions that will just lead to a constant cycle of frustration and blame.

    There has been no major social welfare program or environmental program enacted in this country in 40 years. The Republicans have held the White House the vast majority of that time. It is only by speaking in these generalities that they can hide the simple reality: the problems of this country are not the fault of the far left, because the far left has been completely shut out of power since the early 70s, and they will not be solved by the post-Reagan philosopies of the Republican party, which have failed again and again.

  • mickster99

    DavidF, (or anyone else) if you were a Republican president with a large majority controlling the House or Representatives and say 60+ Republican senators what would be your legislative agenda to put a conservative agenda for smaller government, lower taxes, elimination of waste, etc into effect in the U.S.?

  • mickster99

    Kanzeon: Something seem incorrect about one of your assertions. Unless I have misread your comment you seem to assert that there have been no major social welfare program have been enacted in this country in 40 years. Hmmm. I guess you are discounting the Republicans passage of Plan D Medicate Drug Prescription plan in 2006 ( with a unpaid for cost of $600,000,000,000 in 2006 which some have called the greatest increase in Federal Entitlements ever.

    Am I misunderstanding your point here?

  • mickster99

    This site could use a classy upgrade by loosing the story that features the clearly wellworn MILF and her cleavage and the photo of a conservative kid’s idea of what a pimp with one of his ho’s/bitches looks like. Or maybe this gets more page hits. Way clever Frumster dude.

  • mickster99

    David these are not scabs. They are gangrenous sores oozing vile green puss. Wasn’t it W.F. Buckley who observed that he could tell the difference between the kooks and the conservatives. William F. also gave the boot to the Robert Welch and the most fowl Birchers but who are now back in power with millionaire demagogue Glen Beck firmly in control of his poltical movement the witless clueless teapartier. Conservatism is now firmly in the hands of the kooks and the Birchers. I see no proof to the contrary. I grew up on eisenhower, nixon, kennedy, johnson, nixon, carter, reagan so it have seen the festering and decay of the right for a very long time.

  • Carney

    Frum makes some very good points here. It’s this kind of thinking and writing that keeps me coming back to FrumForum.