David Frum’s Five Essential Tasks

David FrumDavid Frum has announced that he going to discontinue his blog at The Daily Beast at least through the summer for personal reasons—among others, his father’s recent death from metastatic lung cancer. But in signing off, he presented “five essential tasks” that conservative reformers must commence before they can make progress.

There is a distinct cognitive dissonance in the article. He wrote, “As Ross Douthat has perceptively observed, the cause of conservative reform has gained increasing coherence and force since the 2012 election.” And that “every day in 2013 we seem to see a new green shoot emerging from once-frozen soil.” Given how fundamental these five essential tasks are, I can only see his claims of “coherence and force” and “green shoot emerging” as sugarcoating the very real problems that he sees not just with the conservative movement but with its would-be reformers.

His first task is most revealing:

There remain too many taboos and shibboleths even among the conservative reformers. If the only policy tool you allow yourself to use is tax credits, your reform agenda will sputter into ineffectuality. Conservative reformers need to do a better job of starting with the problem and working forward, not starting with the answer and working backward.

In the past, I’ve been extremely critical of David Frum—especially regarding just how “reasonable” he is. But this paragraph shows that at least in the abstract: he gets it. And what he is talking about here is the critical problem with conservatives in general and the reformers in particular. They never look at a problem and think, “What is the best solution?” A good example of this is the Heritage Foundation’s idea of the individual mandate, which is now codified in Obamacare. That was working backwards. First come the limits and then comes the policy solution. And what they came up with is a policy that is far more invasive and problematic for individuals than straight up government insurance would have been. No one would have come up with that solution if they didn’t start with the idea that the insurance and medical industries mustn’t lose any profits.

The argument against liberals that they want to throw money at every problem is not wholly without merit. And 40 years ago, it had a good deal more merit. But those ideas were in general straightforward efforts to solve problems. And often their ideas of throwing money at a problem cost far less than the conservative ideas. For example, it is cheaper to improve various forms of opportunity than it is to continue to build more and more prisons. What’s very clear is that the liberal approach to problems—especially coming from liberal reformers—is not working backwards.

This of course is the classic problem, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” This is usually applied to foreign policy. But in terms of economic policy, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that every problem has become a justification for a tax cut. That’s how Romney’s big idea for economic growth was to give rich people more money. No one thinks the answer to the question of poor people is to make the rich richer. At least it isn’t if you are actually trying to answer the question. If you are trying to justify another tax break, it is another matter.

Frum’s second task is a bit of a muddle:

Conservative reformers are understandably allergic to arguments about income inequality. The conservative project at its best has worked to raise the floor beneath the American middle class, not to lower the ceiling upon the middle class. But one of the lessons I think conservatives should take from the 2012 Romney defeat is that the increasing concentration of wealth in America has dangerous political and intellectual consequences. I’m not so worried that the oligarchs will pay for apologetics on their behalf. That’s politics as usual. I’m more concerned that so many people will identify themselves with the interests of oligarchy without being paid, without even being conscious that this is what they are doing. The whole immigration debate, for example, is premised on the assumption that the only interests that matter are the interests of the employers of labor.

Most of this is entirely correct. But what is that about the conservative project at its best? Surely he is not talking about Eisenhower. Since the modern conservative movement gained power 35 years ago,[1] the floor beneath the American middle class has at best stayed the same. I’m curious how Frum justifies saying that the conservative movement has done anything but change the country from one where productivity growth was broadly shared to one where almost all, and in many cases even more than all went to the rich. When he says that he’s worried about people doing the bidding of the oligarchy without payment, does he mean that it is okay for him to do it because he is being paid?

Other than that bit of confusion, he is highlighting a huge problem in our society. But he’s only implying what it ought to mean to the would-be conservative reformers. I guess he is afraid to come right out and say that if we don’t deal with income inequality—And fast!—we won’t have a democracy to reform. But other than Bruce Bartlett, none of the reformers seems at all interested in this kind of stuff. In fact, they mostly think it is hippy nonsense that should be left to Occupy Wall Street.

Frum’s third task deals with climate change:

Conservative reformers must not absent themselves from the environmental debate. Humanity’s impact on the climate —and how to address that impact—is our world’s largest long-term challenge. If conservatives refuse to acknowledge that challenge, they only guarantee that the challenge will be addressed in ways that ignore conservative insights and values.

This is interesting, coming from a man who has long tried to claim the “reasonable” middle ground while in fact being a global warming denialist. And I’m unclear what those “conservative insights” might be. After all, the Democrats have accepted the great conservative idea of a carbon tax. And this caused—What a surprise!—the conservatives to claim that their own plan was “cap and tax” and that global warming isn’t happening anyway. As Frum himself wrote in 2009, “Everything important about global warming remains disputed”! (Note: the original article on CNN will not display, so you will have to accept the secondhand Get Energy Smart Now article.)

Next up is Frum’s fourth task where he seems clueless of his fellow conservative “reformers”:

Conservative reformers should make their peace with universal health coverage. It’s the law, and it won’t be repealed. Other countries have managed to control costs while covering everyone, and the US can too. A message of “protect Medicare, scrap Obamacare” reinforces the image of conservatism as nothing more than the class interest of the elderly.

The reformers, as I noted this morning, are offering universal health coverage. They are in the business of providing plausible-sounding schemes that will allow conservative politicians cover to just repeal Obamacare and replace it with nothing—or at least something much worse.

Frum’s final task is for conservative reformers to tone down the anti-Obama rhetoric and to push back on the scandal mania:

I appreciate that conservative reformers must pay lip-service to shibboleths about Barack Obama being the worst president of all time, who won’t rest until he has snuffed out the remains of constitutional liberty, etc. etc. Dissent too much from party orthodoxy, and you find yourself outside the party altogether. Still… conservative reformers should admit, if only to themselves, the harm that has been done by the politics of total war over the past five years. Now Republicans are working themselves into a frenzy that will paralyze Congress for the next 18 months at least, and could well lead to an impeachment crisis. As it becomes clear that the IRS story is an agency scandal, not a White House scandal, conservative reformers need to be ready to do their part to apply the brakes and turn the steering wheel. There will be a Republican president again someday, and that president will need American political institutions to work. Republicans also lose as those institutions degenerate.

That’s the one place where I think the supposed conservative reformers have been okay. They generally try to seem reasonable and so they don’t go to extremes about this kind of stuff. Just the same, late last year, Frum himself was (in his quiet but insistent way) pushing the Benghazi scandal.

That gets to another aspect of the conservative “reform” movement. I don’t think they care any less for the extreme policies of the Republican Party generally. But they are all smart and they are very much aware just how bad it looks when a Republican politician gets on television and screams about that Kenyan Socialist in the White House. Frum may well be right that the reform movement is coming along. But thus far, all we see are careful words in support of the same vile policies. I do hope that Frum’s time off will help to heal himself and the rest of his family. But I don’t know the man, so my wish is the same as it is for any fellow human being in his situation. But in a much more meaningful way, I hope that his time off allows him to rethink reform and get rid of the excessive amount of dissonance in his positions.


[1] Carter was actually the beginning of the conservative economic agenda. Yes, it was Reagan that really put it in gear. But the ideological movement started with Carter. See Winner-Take-All Politics.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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