Scorched Earth Conservatives

September 24th, 2009 at 11:19 am David Frum | 165 Comments |

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In a fiery debate, Frontpagemagazine.com editor David Horowitz accuses NewMajority’s David Frum of “scorched-earth attacks on Glenn Beck.” Frum replies:

 

David, your piece above is a real service. It focuses the issues very clearly and tightly in a way that helps everybody understand this discussion better, whatever side they ultimately end up on.

It’s bad luck for you that we are having this discussion in the same week that Glenn Beck a) expressed his enthusiasm for a Hillary Clinton presidency, b) stated that he thought Obama a better president than John McCain would have been, and c) wished that he could travel back in time to vote for Ron Paul. Now do you see what I mean when I call Beck “unscrupulous”? He’s an act, a showman, as indifferent to the future of conservative politics as he is to the facts of Cass Sunstein’s career. I agree he’s a very good showman, a natural TV talent. But he cares nothing, David, about politics in the way you care about it, and you are in for more nasty surprises if you continue to place your hopes in him.

In this, Beck is very different even from Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. I’ve crossed swords with these other broadcasters for other reasons. I believe that their rage and extremism repel more supporters than they attract. But at least these broadcasters do know a lot about politics and hold considered and coherent worldviews. Beck, by contrast, is a random walk, capable of reaching any outcome. And I have to believe that after Beck’s performance over the past couple of days, you probably inwardly agree with me.

However, David, your post deals with more than Glenn Beck personally. You raise other important issues and present some personal challenges – and I take both very seriously.

You write: “[Al] Franken is now a U.S. Senator in part because conservatives of whom you are typical want to conduct politics by the Marquis of Queensberry rules when the other side is in it as war in which destruction of the enemy is the game.”

I am as disgusted as you by the election of Al Franken. Norm Coleman was one of the senators I admired most, and his defeat in the courts was a severe blow to the country and to the Republican party.

But it’s just plain wrong to suggest that Coleman lost because Republicans were not war-like enough in their political tactics. Coleman was the senator from Minnesota! His well-deserved reputation for decency, integrity and civility were huge political assets to him.

No, Al Franken is a senator for three very different reasons, which call for a different political approach than you propose.

Coleman lost (1) because the Democrats learned from the 2000 Bush v. Gore recount experience to organize much more effective close-election responses than the GOP. They worked better with local government officials, they fielded larger legal teams, and they did more effective media messaging. In other words: The Dems come to these kinds of fights better prepared, more sophisticated, and better financed than the Republicans.

Coleman lost (2) because five years of bad economic and foreign news had corroded support for Republicans nationwide – and not even as attractive a candidate as Coleman could survive in a state like Minnesota.

And Coleman lost (3) because beyond these political cycles, there has been since the mid-1990s a deeper and broader national trend away from a Republican party that seems out of touch and out of date to voters under 40 and outside the South.

The kind of “in your face” conservatism that you laud makes all these problems worse.

You challenge me to notice that the “embarrassments to our cause – the shrill, the enraged and the paranoid – who in your mind – seem to be Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and now Glenn Beck” are also our “most powerful and feared and charismatic conservatives.”

I challenge you to notice that all three of these people repel and offend many millions more Americans than they inspire and attract.

Look at the impact of this kind of politics on the three points I itemize above.

(1)   If we accept that conservatism will remain a politics that is unacceptable to the young, the urban, and the educated, we will have great difficulty raising the resources and finding the volunteers to fight a recount battle on anything like equal terms. Jon Stewart’s audience will sleep on the floor, five to a room, through an Iowa winter. The Fox audience won’t and can’t.

(2)   We lost in 2008 in large part because we had not governed successfully over the previous eight years. More than political tactics, more even than media, what matters in politics is results. If national incomes had grown by 1% a year under George Bush instead of stagnating, Al Franken would have lost in a landslide. Populists like Sarah Palin may excite a TV audience, but they cannot govern. They don’t like it and are not good at it. (That’s why Sarah Palin did not even complete one term in office, let alone run for a second.) Limbaugh and Beck style politics can gain ratings. It will not win re-elections.

(3)   See point 1, only with triple exclamation marks.

Let me end by responding to your more personal remarks. You criticize me for being too tough on fellow-conservatives – and for taking some of these criticisms to a more general domain rather than keeping them in-house. And you know what? I too worry about this a lot.

I suppose I could point out in self-defense that nobody ever seems to mind very much when one or another of these conservatives speaks far more stridently about me than I have ever spoken about anyone – that the movement conservative version of Reagan’s 11th commandment seems very much a one-way option only to be exercised in favor of radio and TV hosts, never enforced against them. As self-defenses go, that would not be a very interesting one. Here’s something however that might be more interesting:

I speak out against people like Palin, Limbaugh and Beck because in my estimation they do enormous harm to the causes in which I believe. In my view, the talk-and-Fox complex marginalizes Republicans – and backs us into demagogic and unsustainable political positions. David, do you really want to abolish the Federal Reserve? Do you think the United States should have allowed Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and other banks to follow Lehman into bankruptcy in October 2008? Do you think that any cuts to Medicare amount to a death panel for grandma? Do you think we can sustain an adequate military – never mind finance future tax reductions – if we allow healthcare to continue rising from its current 16% of GDP to a projected 20% of GDP a decade from now if nothing changes?

I can’t believe you do. And if you don’t believe these things, is it not dangerous to have talk-and Fox whipping a couple of million conservatives into frenzy over things that are not true?

On the other hand, maybe I’m entirely wrong. Maybe “end the Fed” and “death panels” are a sustainable future for the conservative movement. Maybe talk-and-Fox are (as their admirers claim) energizing new and previously apolitical people to join the political process. If so, that would be a real achievement.

But is it so? I don’t believe it. I believe that their ratings and advertising imperatives are pushing them in a direction fundamentally antithetical to the electoral and governance imperatives of the GOP and the conservative movement.

Of course I could be wrong in my belief. So let me finish by issuing a proposition to you. Let’s test our diverging intuitions. Let’s sit down together and hire a mutually agreed  pollster – Gallup? Whit Ayres? – to design a survey that can test whether the 9/12 protesters, the tea party attendees, the Glenn Beck audience really are new participants in politics.

If Beck is energizing new and previously apolitical people, then I will join you in saluting his achievement.

But if we discover that he is not energizing the previously apolitical – that he is instead inviting the Ron Paul contingent to take over as the new base and face of conservatism and Republicanism – then you’ll have to agree with me that we are witnessing a disaster in the making.

We don’t have to guess. We can know. Will you work with me to find out?

 

Click here for earlier posts in the debate.

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165 Comments so far ↓

  • Jim

    And of course, we couldn’t have expected any fiscal self-restraint under eight years of Clinton.

  • Jim

    I take that last comment back; I realize it makes no sense.

  • Jim

    Well, balcones, you can’t expect social conservatives to just roll over and spread ‘em to win a few elections either. I think this thread is becoming flaccid.

  • Jim

    I assume you’re giving Gingrich and his team 50% of the credit for any fiscal restraint between 1992-2001, of course.

  • balconesfault

    I assume you’re giving Gingrich and his team 50% of the credit for any fiscal restraint between 1992-2001, of course.

    50%? Nope. Because virtually the same cast of characters leading Congress over the next 6 years, with Bush in office, saw rampant growth in the national debt.

    There was a big debate in the Clinton White House in the second term. On one side stood classic liberals like Robert Reich, who believed that more of the new tax revenues needed to be diverted to expanding social programs after the cutbacks of the last 16 years. On the other side stood the Wall Street types like Rubin … who argued that the most important thing for preserving America’s social programs – and perhaps even sometime in the future being able to expand them – was to work to eliminate the debt, so that payment on interest on the debt wouldn’t eat up money that could be used to benefit the American people.

    Clinton sided with the Rubin faction – he had actually been there all along, having called for welfare reform as part of his 1992 campaign. The Republicans were useful, and deserve credit – maybe 20-30% – but Clinton deserves the lion’s share.

    We’ve seen what Republicans in control of the process does to the debt. And the first 9 months of the Obama Administration are representative of nothing except the actions of an Administration dedicated to trying to save the economy in a crisis after the mismanagement of the last 8 years.

  • balconesfault

    grackle: And they ALWAYS describe Republicans who are more moderate than themselves as “liberal Republicans.” The MSM has its Template and the social conservatives have theirs.

    You’re having a definitional problem. A fundamentalist who believes that gays have the right to live … and not be stoned for their sins … already considers themself a moderate. A fundamentalist who believes that abortion clinics should be abolished … but not that women who get abortions should be tried for murder … already considers themself a moderate.

    Thus, those who believe in more rights for gays, or any freedom of choice for women anywhere in America … are by that definition liberal.

    FWIW, a lot of the labelling of the MSM as “liberal” stems purely from the social side. In economic matters, the MSM is extremely pro-corporate and for the most part anti-socialist, except for limited amounts of socialism which are useful at promoting business and corporate culture. In geopolitical matters, the MSM is often quite hawkish – they were front and center in promoting the “need” for invading Iraq, for example, while largely silencing and ignoring voices against war.

    Consider the case of Scott Ridder – in 1998 when he was complaining about lack of America access to Iraq’s weapons sites, and was being used as a justification for Clinton’s bombing of Iraq, he was all over the media. In 2003, when he was declaring that our inspectors were being granted full access, and that there was no evidence to support the WMD claims against Iraq at that time, he was persona non grata on the MSM.

  • grackle

    Reagan’s attractiveness was his charisma, that he sold Conservative Principles well, and countered the others arguments effectively…..and Jimmy Carter was a disaster who increased the misery index with his misguided policies. Remember Reagan lost to Ford in 76 primaries….they went for the Moderate Ford….and lost to a Peanut Farmer from Georgia.

    Carter won because Ford pardoned Nixon, not because Ford was a moderate. The pardon made it seem that Ford was part of quid pro quo transaction with Nixon. And Jimmy smiled that smile, looked the voters in the eye and said, “I’ll never lie to you.”

    Actually, Reagan held his own against Ford during the 1976 primaries, only losing to Ford at the last minute during the Republican National Convention. It was a close primary race and the nomination was still undecided going into the GOP Convention.

    Reagan won the Democrats that were tired of the incompetence of their leadership and furthermore were driven out of the party by the New Left Radicals.

    I would put it another way: Reagan won many of the moderates that might have voted Democrat. In Presidential elections it is the centrist voters that usually decide the election. Everyone knows how the Rightwing and Leftwing voters will vote, or at least they used to know how the Rightwing would vote, the big question is nearly always how the center of the political spectrum will vote.

    Now you might not like Social Conservatism….but they are big part of the base of the party and their concerns should be addressed in policy….when the GOP holds the House, Senate, and Presidency.

    I have nothing against the personal viewpoints of social conservatives. I am personally sympathetic to many of those viewpoints. My concern is that the social conservatives want to use a political party to further their personal beliefs to the detriment of issues of governance. Church and home are the proper places to decide religious issues – not campaigns for political office.

    Much has been written about government spending that drove up the national debt during the 8 years of Bush’s Presidency and the GOP’s domination of Congress. And why did this happen? One answer may be that the GOP was too much concerned with social issues and too little concerned with fiscal issues.

    I know you think that Social Cons should sit down and shut up. But you aren’t going to have a viable party without them.

    I don’t want social conservatives to shut up; I want them to start talking about issues of governance. I want them to take more interest in real political issues instead of all the morality malarkey. What I don’t want is for the social conservatives to continue to drag the political debate away from political issues into the inappropriate realm of their personal belief system.

    And there’s the question of loyalty. After the GOP nominee is decided in the next Presidential election I am confident about how I will vote and how GOP moderates will vote but I am unsure whether the social conservatives will show up. Social conservatives are always talking about loyalty but they displayed very little loyalty the last time around.

  • balconesfault

    And why did this happen? One answer may be that the GOP was too much concerned with social issues and too little concerned with fiscal issues.

    Seriously? There’s a decent case to be made that our national security was weakened by a focus on social issues – Bush famously spend August 2001 on his ranch meeting with experts to form a policy on stem cell research, ignoring a certain “Bin Laden Determined to Strike” memo … but there’s little evidence that the GOP was ever concerned with fiscal issues under Bush past (a) cutting taxes, (b) raising military spending, and (c) spreading money around on things like the Medicare drug bill to increase Bush’s chance of re-election in 2004.

    The risk that the Republican Party has, of course, is that if Social Conservatives get the message that the Republicans do not want to use the power of government to impose a “value voters” agenda … that some significant portion of them might not have any reason to vote Republican.

  • Cforchange

    “The risk that the Republican Party has, of course, is that if Social Conservatives get the message that the Republicans do not want to use the power of government to impose a “value voters” agenda … that some significant portion of them might not have any reason to vote Republican.”

    Hmmm, are you saying they are actually Rhino’s?

    Consider the gamble, 1/3 of the GOP(non base) + Independents + some fiscal Dems = a winning majority. Had it been Rudy, 1/3 of GOP + Indpendents + some fiscal Dems + 99% Italian American’s = winner 2008. The party just wasn’t forward thinking, it was hijacked.

  • balconesfault

    Hmmm, are you saying they are actually Rhino’s?

    I don’t think so … at least, not until they actually start talking nice about some Dems (a sure sign of Rino-dom). And the social conservatives right now are the most venomous opponents of Dems – the ones sending around chain e-mails talking about Obama the antichrist and Pelosi and Reid as haters of America.

    I am saying that many social conservatives would align with the Dems on purely economic and labor issues if they weren’t committed to the Republican Party as an agent of reactionary social change. I think that atheist Karl Rove agrees, which is why he pushes the God buttons so hard in any campaign he’s involved in.

    But there are almost certainly independents who would vote Republican more consistently if it wasn’t for the value voters agenda. John Cole who was a staunch defender of Bush for years says he “flipped” over the Terri Schaivo case, for example.

    I think the party right now is weighing the two – a fanatical group of social conservatives who are guaranteed to show up and not only vote Republican, but work their asses off for Republican candidates year in and year out … or those independents and some fiscal Dems who may or may not support a Republican candidate in any given election, depending on how he compares to the Dem candidate who’s running.

    And the Republican leadership is opting for the “bird in the hand” over the “two in the bush”.

  • grackle

    I think the party right now is weighing the two – a fanatical group of social conservatives who are guaranteed to show up and not only vote Republican, but work their asses off for Republican candidates year in and year out … or those independents and some fiscal Dems who may or may not support a Republican candidate in any given election, depending on how he compares to the Dem candidate who’s running.

    If only it were true … then McCain/Palin might have had a better showing. The problem that the Republican Party has now: What if in the next Presidential election a candidate of whom Limbaugh, Coulter and Malkin don’t approve wins the nomination?

  • grackle

    Me, earlier: Much has been written about government spending that drove up the national debt during the 8 years of Bush’s Presidency and the GOP’s domination of Congress. And why did this happen? One answer may be that the GOP was too much concerned with social issues and too little concerned with fiscal issues.

    Seriously? There’s a decent case to be made that our national security was weakened by a focus on social issues …

    Methinks the commentor misread my comment. My basic thesis: The social conservatives’ focusing of the Republican Party on social issues(“national security” is NOT a social issue) in the post-Reagan era in lieu of issues of governance, namely, limited government, a strong national defense(which would obviously include “national security”) and a free market economy, is not attracting enough voters.

  • Jim

    I’m a little teapot, short and stout. Here is my handle, here is my spout. I’m a little teapot, short and stout. Tip me over and pour me out.

  • EscapeVelocity

    Its unfortunate that we have to focus on “social issues” but alas, Secular Hendonism isnt worth fighting for.

    The culture war is a creation of the Left, dont be mad when the Christian Conservatives put up a fight.

    If you would like the Culture War to stop, then it behooves you to chastize the group pushing relentlessly the culture war, the Left….dont blame the reactionaries.

    Unless you are with the Left on those issues. Then dont be surprised when the base rejects you as RINOs and kicks you to the curb.

    Good Luck in the Democrat Party, I hope you can run the Socialists out of the Party. Then we can have 2 parties that advocate sane economic policy and squabble over social and moral issues.

    Id be all for that.

    Two parties of Secular Hedonists. Ill pass.

  • grackle

    Its unfortunate that we have to focus on “social issues” but alas, Secular Hendonism isnt worth fighting for.

    The culture war is a creation of the Left, dont be mad when the Christian Conservatives put up a fight.

    If you would like the Culture War to stop, then it behooves you to chastize the group pushing relentlessly the culture war, the Left….dont blame the reactionaries.

    Unless you are with the Left on those issues. Then dont be surprised when the base rejects you as RINOs and kicks you to the curb.

    Good Luck in the Democrat Party, I hope you can run the Socialists out of the Party. Then we can have 2 parties that advocate sane economic policy and squabble over social and moral issues.

    Id be all for that.

    Two parties of Secular Hedonists. Ill pass.

    But my opinion is that the Republican Party was successful during the Reagan era precisely because under the leadership of Reagan the party offered political principles to the voters instead of cultural issues.

    The voters of those days took a look at the 2 parties, one of which offered a cultural-based set of principles and the other which offered a set of principles based on issues of governance and mainly chose the latter.

    But after Reagan the social conservatives took the Progressive bait and engaged in a cultural war on Progressive terms under Progressive rules. The social conservatives allowed the enemy to dictate the rules of engagement and wars are never won by those who let the enemy dictate the rules of combat.

    It’s especially sad because by abandoning issues of governance and using the Republican Party as a weapon in a cultural war, a use for which political parties are ill-suited, the social conservatives have guaranteed that those who have the most influence on our daily life, our elected politicians, will have the least sympathy for those very issues of morality so dear to the social conservatives.

    Escape’s last line illustrates the fallacy: “Two parties of Secular Hedonists. I’ll pass.”

    If the phrase was “two parties of big spenders,” or “two parties of a weak national defense,” or “two parties of income redistribution. I’ll pass,” then it would make sense but the word, “secular,” takes it out of the domain of politics into the realm of religion, which our constitution, our history and our cultural consciousness decided long ago to be a matter for each individual to privately decide for themselves.

    The social conservatives have fought a war on terms dictated by the enemy for decades now. It is a war that they are losing. We now have a government comprised almost entirely of Progressives. The executive and legislative branches belong to the enemy. The only part of field not dominated by the Progressives is the judicial branch: the Supreme Court. But if Obama wins a second term that last bit of territory is likely to be overrun.