The Conservative the Right Loves to Hate

David Frum made headlines by branding Obamacare the Republicans’ Waterloo and now he’s been dropped from conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. Tunku Varadarajan on the rise of the ‘polite-company conservative’—and how Frum gets it all wrong.

Getty Images; AP Photo

Yesterday, I got an email from a prominent conservative academic; it was, I think, a touch harsh on the object of its attention. Here’s what it said: “Frum's pathetic, desperate whining reeks of self-loathing. At least that shows good judgment: I loathe him, too.”

The Frum in question is David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, and the “whining” that so goaded my correspondent was a blog by David, written on the day the House voted on health care, in which he described the bill’s passage as a defeat for the Republicans akin to Waterloo. He called the bill the Republicans’ “most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s.” The GOP’s tactics—“No negotiations, no compromise, nothing”—led, he wrote, to a “disaster” for conservatives: “We went for all the marbles, we ended with none.”

Passionate "extremism" is part of any political debate, and the more of it the better. I especially don't want lectures about excessive rhetoric from the man who wrote “An End to Evil.”

Matthew Yglesias: Romney Is America’s Most Shameless Pol David is a man I’ve known professionally for almost a decade, and with whom my social interaction has always been very genial. He is a good and energetic man, and has, in the years since he left service at the White House, dedicated himself to being what I call a “polite-company conservative” (or PCC), much like David Brooks and Sam Tanenhaus at the New York Times (where the precocious Ross Douthat is shaping up to be a baby version of the species). A PCC is a conservative who yearns for the goodwill of the liberal elite in the media and in the Beltway—who wishes, always, to have their ear, to be at their dinner parties, to be comforted by a sense that liberal interlocutors believe that they are not like other conservatives, with their intolerance and boorishness, their shrillness and their talk radio. The PCC, in fact, distinguishes himself from other conservatives not so much ideologically—though there is an element of that—as aesthetically.

So, having read David’s “Waterloo”—which might be regarded as a paradigmatic polite-conservative performance—I cannot help but make a few observations.

First: I think the big fallacy in David's piece is his assumption that the GOP could have struck a deal that was remotely compatible with its supposed principles of small government and low taxation. He says Obama was “desperate” for GOP votes, but I’m not so sure that’s true. Obama would take them, naturally, but his course (and its terminus) proves that he was happy enough to go ahead without them, and to vilify his opponents remorselessly in the process.

If the GOP had done what David wishes, what would they have left to play for politically? How could they ever claim to stand for limited government again? They did enough damage to that with Medicare drugs and all the spending in the last decade. If they'd sold out here in the interest of “bipartisanship” or “polite conservatism,” what would be left to distinguish them from the competition? Obama was never going to give them more than token gestures of support in any bill, anyway. He wanted an ideological bill, whose centerpiece is regulation and wealth redistribution, and he got it.

The Republicans, I’d like to think, may well have compromised on anything that remotely shared their world view. That even Olympia Snowe and the gang didn’t compromise shows just how wide the gulf was. So I ask David: Can there be “compromise” between a hyper-paternalist Democratic ideology in which the population is infantilized and a Republican position that regards citizens as adults broadly capable of good—and bad—decisions?

Second: The president’s vote-haggling with liberal Democrats was as serious as his negotiations with centrist Democrats. There is no reason to believe that the Republicans, had they been more conciliatory, would have squeezed out anything more. After all, the liberal Democrats were threatening to jump ship, and—whatever David might think—they are a much more important part of the Obama constituency than are Republicans! Besides, some of the people who cooperated early—Big Pharma, for instance—wound up with a dud deal.

In any case, the GOP didn't come away empty-handed. The “public option” is out, and the subsidies don't kick in until 2014. David’s vision of Waterloo rests on the unlikelihood of repeal, and yes, there won't be repeal: But there could still be genuine reform—reform that addresses the actual cost-drivers, and rolls back some of the new regulation, and most of the subsidies.

Third: David underestimates, or ignores, the political value of taking a stand. Clear opposition is critical to the Republican Party’s future electoral success. Clarity of opposition was a significant part of what got Scott Brown elected—in Massachusetts!—and ended the filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate, so crucial for so many issues.

Fourth: I cannot escape the conclusion that David’s piece was, in broad terms, simplistic. His argument that Republicans and Democrats were not that far apart just goes to show how naïve he is on this question. Health care, for anybody who has been paying attention, is becoming a referendum on bigger issues like the size of government, and personal freedom. The public option, the individual mandate, all the bill’s taxes, the end of Medicare advantage, none of these were “little” questions to negotiate over and move on. (I also marveled at the audacity of the little fillip—“Could a deal have been reached? Who knows?”—with which David tosses off the most pertinent question.)

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Fifth: I come to my biggest personal beef with David’s piece, his sermonizing about rhetoric. David acknowledges that he has been on a soapbox for a while, arguing that “hysterical” talk radio, etc., has “overheated” the debate and done harm to the conservative health-care cause. Nonsense, I say. Passionate "extremism" is part of any political debate, and the more of it the better. I especially don't want lectures about excessive rhetoric from the man who wrote “An End to Evil,” and whose post-9/11 cover story in National Review called a whole cluster of tough-minded conservatives “ unpatriotic” (mostly, in the end, because they had criticized Israel). Among the vilified group was Robert Novak, who fought in Korea. Unpatriotic!

Finally, may I end with an observation on what makes David so attractive to the bien-pensant crowd? It is the fact that he comes coated with the delicious flavors of apostasy. This has happened a lot with Bush: Scott McClellan, Matt Latimer… David Frum. Anybody who was inside, didn’t like what he saw, and then came out and took a shot at the boss is immediately exalted as a wise man. The press is especially vulnerable to this pattern, seeing the whole thing as a battle for conscience in which truth prevails, while conveniently turning a blind eye to the opportunism that’s usually involved.

Which is why David will continue to write and be published, his conservatism tailored to East Coast tastes—and will continue to be read in polite company, far removed from all that is shrill and from a party he once embraced.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)