Newsweek‘s favorite conservatives are either dead or not very conservative. Its obituary of Bill Buckley serves as exhibit A. The current David Frum-penned cover story, featuring a muzzling “Enough!” that covers talk-host Rush Limbaugh’s moneymaker, is exhibit B.
“I’m a conservative Republican,” writes Frum. “I volunteered for the Reagan campaign in 1980. I’ve attended every Republican convention since 1988. I was president of the Federalist Society chapter at my law school, worked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and wrote speeches for President Bush — not the ‘Read My Lips’ Bush, the ‘Axis of Evil’ Bush. I served on the Giuliani campaign in 2008 and voted for John McCain in November. I supported the Iraq War and (although I feel kind of silly about it in retrospect) the impeachment of Bill Clinton. I could go on, but you get the idea.”
Indeed, he could go on. Frum supported the banker bailout. He wrote last September, “I say ‘aye’ to the proposed national debt bailout — and a big shout out to Rep. Barney Frank, one of its early authors, who has been a prescient early voice on the need for a big solution to a big problem.” He is pro abortion-rights: “I am not pro-life. I think abortion ought to be legal for the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy and available to protect the health of the mother during the weeks thereafter. I don’t see this as a matter of fundamental human rights, so much as one of accommodating reality.” In his latest volume of advice to conservatives, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, he advises them to get over their fixation of lowering income-tax rates and offers a massive “carbon tax” as a way of promoting “green conservatism.”
David Frum, in other words, isn’t very conservative these days. One might say he has evolved. Twelve years ago, for instance, Frum brilliantly schooled Andrew Sullivan in an online debate over gay marriage. Now, despite ballot rejections of homosexual marriage in such deep-blue states as California, Michigan, and Oregon, Frum inexplicably argues that the gay marriage train has left the station and it’s time for conservatives to, if not get on board, at least get out of the way.
Frum’s embrace of various liberal positions doesn’t make him a dummy, or an unskilled writer, or someone who should be excluded from a necessary conversation among self-identified conservatives about the direction of their wayward movement. It just makes him rather hubristic to envision himself as a general giving marching orders, or as a pope issuing excommunications, to a movement he no longer has much use for.
The piece suffers from the same delusion its writer has: the conflation of the cultural and policy objectives of the conservative movement with the electoral success of the Republican Party. The first six years of the Bush presidency, when Republicans controlled all three branches of government, have cured some conservatives of that delusion, but not Frum — as the article’s interchangeable use of “conservative movement” and “Republican Party” demonstrates. This common error does more to explain the conservative movement’s sorry state than any “aggressive,” “bombastic,” “cutting,” or “sarcastic” utterance of the talk-radio king.
Frum’s premise is one that nobody privately accepts: Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party. As Frum notes, this is a useful notion for Barack Obama and Rush Limbaugh. It allows the president to hand-select his opposition, with the hand-selected opponent naturally going along with the flattery. It’s good for the president’s Gallup poll numbers and the talkmeister’s Arbitron ratings. Unstated is that the situation also presents an opportunity for a writer to land space in a mass-circulation liberal magazine by trading on his credibility as a “conservative” voice to mouth ideas soothing to the editors at that mass-circulation liberal magazine.
Frum points out that Limbaugh is a fat, thrice-divorced, cigar smoker who once had a major drug problem. Ad hominem masquerades as argument, as so many talk-radio critics imagine it does on the airwaves, in the pages of Newsweek. The pot calls the kettle black throughout.
The Newsweek article informs, “In the conservative world, we have a tendency to dismiss unwelcome realities. When one of us looks up and murmurs, ‘Hey, guys, there seems to be an avalanche heading our way,’ the others tend to shrug and say, he’s a ‘squish’ or a RINO — Republican in Name Only.” Or how about an “Unpatriotic Conservative“? It neither occurs to Frum that he once served as the chief enforcer of the very real narrow-mindedness that he now castigates, nor dawns on him that the avalanche “heading our way” has already hit.
For Frum, it’s not the failed president he dubbed “the right man,” or the far-fetched utopian military crusades he advocated as “an end to evil,” but Rush Limbaugh who is to blame for the Republican Party’s sorry state. It’s worth remembering that Limbaugh is neither a new phenomenon nor at the apex of his influence (Remember the bestsellers? The magazine covers? The late-night television show?), which makes laying the blame for the Republican Party’s current woes on a radio host in national syndication since the Reagan years a rather dubious proposition.
Frum’s Bush-worshipping book, Torquemada-like intolerance of Iraq war dissent, and big-government conservatism is what got conservatism into the mess. Just as Rush Limbaugh serves as a useful distraction from the president’s economic woes, the radio yakker serves as a useful distraction from the destructive role Frum has played within the conservative movement during the Bush presidency.
When liberals adopt you as their token conservative, kiss your credibility among conservatives goodbye and say hello to writing gigs at the Atlantic, appearances on Keith Olbermann’s program, and lectures at the Kennedy School of Government. David Brooks, who serves as the house conservative to both PBS’s News Hour and the New York Times op-ed page, could have told David Frum this. To be the liberals’ favorite conservative is usually an indication of just how alienated from conservatism one really is.