Veteran neoconservative journalist David Frum's judgment has proven so comically bad over the years that it's easy to overlook how often his analysis is acute. Now that Frum's comically long track record of inept enthusiasms and backstabbing has left him almost isolated, it's time to look beyond his failures and review what he gets more or less right in his campaign to revamp conservatism into a more…technocratic mold.
The motto of his FrumForum.com, borrowed from the subtitle of his fairly good 2008 book Comeback, is "Building a conservatism that can win again."
But perhaps it's not quite time to overlook the past … First, let's review some of Frum's legendary bad choices:
As a speechwriter for George W. Bush in early 2002, at the height of America's power and prestige, Frum allegedly concocted the diplomatically disastrous phrase "Axis of Evil." The best defense anyone could make of Obama's Nobel Peace Prize is: "Hey, at least Obama didn't lump sworn enemies Iraq and Iran along with the distant despotism of North Korea into a delusionary 'axis.' You have to admit Obama's got that going for him."
Frum then wrote a book about Bush entitled The Right Man. Seriously! (Like so many things Frum gets involved with, it's actually pretty good, except for its main point.)
Frum became a power at National Review. On March 19, 2003, on the eve of that ultimate triumph of neoconservative brilliance, the Iraq War, he published in NR his famously unhinged call to ostracize the neocons' conservative opponents, "Unpatriotic Conservatives: A War against America:"
"But here is what never could have been [expected]: Some of the leading figures in this antiwar movement call themselves "conservatives." … War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen — and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them."
Amusingly, VDARE.com came in for some abuse from Frum, despite being a website about immigration, not foreign policy.
And then there was his Invade the World book co-written with Richard Perle, An End to Evil.
Last I checked, Evil still hadn't gotten the message.
Since I wrote about Frum in VDARE.com in 2007 (here's his long reply), he has decided that the GOP must get better at "governance."
Unfortunately, Frum chose a strange way to show his concern for good government: he signed on in late 2007 as "senior policy adviser to the Rudy Giuliani [Presidential] campaign."
Giuliani is a creepy glory hog who forced out New York's excellent Police Commissioner William Bratton for cutting into his publicity, and later gave Bratton's old job to his mobbed-up chauffeur, Bernie Kerik.
Not surprisingly, Giuliani proved poisonous to voters outside the Five Boroughs.
On Inauguration Day, Frum loudly quit National Review and set up a collective blog ambitiously entitled NewMajority.com, determined to take back the GOP from Sarah Palin fans. Eventually, he discovered he didn't own the rights to that catchy moniker and had to switch to the more awkward-sounding FrumForum. There, he posts items about how a carbon tax is better than cap-and-trade, which is no doubt true (but a carbon tax isn't going to make conservatism win again), and about how "Joe Lieberman Saves the Country", which I'm not even going to read.
In March, Frum publicized his new venture by penning a Newsweek cover story attack on Rush Limbaugh, Why Rush Is Wrong, [Mar 7, 2009] that gave the magazine an excuse for running an even more unflattering than normal picture of Limbaugh.
(By the way, have you noticed how Newsweek seems to be aiming at an ever-narrower demographic slice these days? Ever since its redesign, it appears to be written solely for the next-door neighbors in the D.C. suburbs of the magazine's editors: a Sierra Club lobbyist, say, on one side and a Pentagon counter-insurgency consultant on the other.)
Frum's concern troll essay about how Limbaugh was playing into Obama's hands by setting himself up as the GOP's leader was derisory. The Party doesn't currently have a leader, which is one reason 2009 has been a better year for the GOP than 2006, 2007, and 2008—when the GOP was led by Frum favorites Bush, Giuliani, and McCain, respectively.
Limbaugh is a big boy, capable of defending himself. Still, it's worth noting that attacking a conservative in Newsweek was representative of Frum's modus operandi going back to Yale. He consistently tries to position himself as the acceptable face of conservatism with whom liberals can deal. (For an analysis of Frum's career, see Daniel McCarthy's essay in The American Conservative.) Typically, he's now a regular on CNN.com.
Despite all its Mainstream Media publicity, NewMajority, or FrumForum or whatever it's now called, doesn't seem to be making much of a splash. His group blog, with its many industrious contributors, doesn't get as many visits as my own haphazardly updated, unmentionable in the MSM, one-man blog.
In a way, that's too bad, because Frum has some ideas worth hearing, although he hasn't figured out how to fit them together coherently.
Internationally, his views have only matured over the years by a single letter. Instead of attacking Iraq, we're now supposed to attack Iran.
Domestically, Frum argues that the GOP needs to win more college graduate voters (which is true). So, he says, it should give up on resisting gay marriage (which isn't).
The AP reported on November 4, 2009: "Gay marriage has now lost in every single state - 31 in all - in which it has been put to a popular vote." The GOP unilaterally disarming itself on gay marriage would be like the Indianapolis Colts benching Peyton Manning.
(It's not as if the Republicans have a lot of other winning issues. Carbon tax, anyone?)
And is gay marriage "good governance?" Nobody knows. We likely won't understand its impact on marriage for another generation. As global warming advocates point out: Why take the risk?
New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, the epitome of the moderate Republican, thought he was engaging in good governance when his administration made it easier for unmarried mothers to qualify for Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Instead he governanced New York into crime and decay.
Frum asserts that instead of opposing the Democrats' health care plan, Republicans should have helped Democrats make it better, which just sounds hopelessly naïve.
I've voted for a lot of Republican politicians going back to 1977, but I can't imagine many of them would have done their country or their party any favors by sticking their mitts in the Democrats' bill.
Frum derides the obstructionism of the GOP in 2009. But it's been a solidarity-rebuilding year for Republicans. Negativism has allowed them to unite around something they can agree on: Democrats are bad.
Nevertheless, Frum's concern with the ability of Republican candidates to fulfill their duties once elected to office is valid.
Most of the debate surrounds the Democrats' ideological contention that being for limited government automatically makes you bad at governing. A more interesting question, one I've never seen addressed empirically, is: What kind of background makes you more likely to be a competent and popular officeholder?
The GOP should hire a market research firm to analyze the rates at which GOP candidates of various backgrounds get elected—and then re-elected—to local and state offices. For example, if CPAs get re-elected to executive jobs at an above average rate, the Republican Party could target more resources toward recruiting accountants as candidates.
It would be expensive to input all the data available from the Internet on thousands of office-holders, but the GOP has money.
This project would be similar to baseball analyst Bill James's analysis three decades ago that demonstrated major league baseball teams were wasting opportunities in the annual amateur draft on high school pitchers, when college pitchers proved much more reliable. (Our society devotes more energy to rationalizing baseball than to rationalizing public affairs, as shown by the overnight success of baseball expert Nate Silver when he set up his FiveThirtyEight.com election website last year. The political world had never previously seen anybody as quantitatively sharp as this baseball analyst.)
Another issue deserving empirical study by the GOP: the impact of officeholder salary on the recruiting of quality candidates. Because Republicans average higher incomes than Democrats, my suspicion is that moderate salaries deter more high potential Republicans than high potential Democrats from running for office. The kind of salary for an elected official that looks like a step up the ladder to a Democratic activist might look like impoverishment to a successful Republican businessman. For instance, Barack Obama's salary as an Illinois state senator was roughly double the $35,000 he made in his last year as a community organizer.
Strikingly, many of Frum's better ideas sound like they were lifted from VDARE.com's early years. For example, compare his clarion call in Comeback that "it is past time for us to rediscover our lost history as the party not only of conservatism but of conservation" to my pair of 2001 VDARE.com articles Conservatives v. Conservation and A Patriotic Pro-Family Conservation Program for the GOP.
At times, Frum goes way beyond anything I would say, such as his 2008 New York Times Magazine call for government subsidies to make eugenics available to the poor. [The Vanishing Republican Voter, September 5, 2008]
Frum's bravest stance is for immigration restriction. He even links occasionally to VDARE.com and to my blog. He was missing in action on the crucial immigration issue for a while, but now it has become a fairly routine, if limited, part of his repertoire.
Unfortunately, Frum hasn't figured out any way to make immigration restriction sound cooler to all those Washington D.C. college graduates he wants the GOP to appeal to (other than to try to silence VDARE.com).
This independent-minded view on immigration is very much to Frum's credit because he is Jewish (not just ethnocentrically, but also religiously) in an era when Ellis Island schmaltz has drowned out most intelligent debate over immigration. The sad thing is that Frum can't call attention to his personal triumph of reason over prejudice, because he is driven to sputtering outrage whenever anybody points out the substantial correlation between neocon ideology and Jewishness.
So, I'll do it for him:
Frum deserves praise for ranking with Mickey Kaus as one of the very few prominent Jewish pundits who, through study of the facts and sheer reasoning power, has publicly come to the conclusion that America needs less immigration.
[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]