Sunday, March 28, 2010

Frum Schlub to Stud

If you haven't been following the whole David Frum drama that's been unfolding in Washington over the last week, it offers possibly the best window into the dysfunctional state of the Republican Party available.

To recap as quickly as possible: David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush (and man who had a hand in writing the infamous "Axis of Evil" speech) posted a column on the healthcare vote saying that it was so much worse for the Republican party than anyone was saying -- and that the legislation could have been much better, if only the GOP has been willing to work with Obama.

Days later he was fired from her perch at the American Enterprise Institute.

Of course, the substance of what Frum is saying is undeniably true. There is no universe in which the healthcare bill's successful passage isn't a major defeat for the GOP. And President Obama was so desperate for a bill he could call bipartisan, that he would have changed the legislation much to the GOP's liking, if they were willing to meet him halfway. They didn't. They lost.

Getting fired for saying this -- which is about as uncontested a truth as you can come up with -- is pretty astounding. The GOP is lashing out. And what's more of a shame is that they're lashing out against one of their most interesting minds.

Prior to this dust-up, I didn't know much about David Frum, other than the fact that he was a speechwriter for Bush. But I did notice a few columns he wrote during the 2008 campaign which were a lot smarter than the standard party grist. And that he recently wrote a long article in Newsweek attacking Rush Limbaugh, which was pretty dead on. But since this whole scandal started unfolding, I read his book Comeback, and looked at a couple of TV appearances on youtube, and I must say this:

The guy is brilliant.

I still disagree with him on 70 percent of what he's saying. But he is eminently sensible. His thinking about America and her problems doesn't have the same jingoistic varnish that you hear from most of the figures on the right. He faces American decay squarely. And he says some things that are shocking to hear out of a Republican mouth.

Of Republican icon Ronald Reagan: "The most dangerous legacy Reagan bequeathed his party was his legacy of cheerful indifference to detail. Yes, it worked for him. It worked for John F. Kennedy to run the presidency buzzed on painkillers. Kennedy's ability to beat the odds is not a model to be emulated, and neither is Reagan's. The next Republican president needs to master details, understand his options, and make his decisions with care."

On healthcare: "Why shouldn't we claim universal health insurance as our issue, while holding fast against state control and government monopoly?"

On taxes: "The days of broad, across-the-board, middle-class tax cutting are over."


Of course, Frum has plenty of contempt and criticism for the Democratic Party, too. And plenty of Frum's criticism of the Democrats I would describe as unfair. (Some are uncomfortably fair.) Moreover, I'm somewhat wary of trusting his numbers, because I've noticed more than a few mistakes and misreadings. (For a small example: "In 2004," Frum writes, "George Bush won seven out of the 10 most [income] equal states in the country, including Nebraska, Utah and Indiana. John Kerry won three out of the four most unequal including New York, California and Louisiana." Of course, John Kerry did not even come close to winning Louisiana. He lost six out of seven congressional districts, and the popular vote 42 to 56 percent.)

But you shouldn't really read Comeback with an eye towards correcting the record. Most of Frum's mistakes are insignificant. And, even when I disagreed with him, I found that most of the time he had a good-faith argument that was worth making, even if it wasn't necessarily correct.

His TV appearances are no less interesting and enlightening.

Andrew Sullivan posted this clip of Frum from Canadian television which left me practically slack-jawed. It's downright refreshing to see a party man this disarmingly frank. I never quite know whether Bill Kristol believes what he's saying. Kristol will always toe the party line -- at least when a television camera is on him. And that's not David Frum. Frum is an empiricist. When a Republican says something stupid, Frum seems to believe it's worth calling the person out on it, party loyalties be damned.

In a way, I'm surprised that a man like Frum would choose to delve into the grittiness of party politics. I'm surprised that he's not the lone conservative teaching at some west coast university writing books and not a person who actually speaks to heads of state, who makes official visits, who has a say in the political strategy of the Republican Party (as well as the policy side). Frankly, he seems too smart to make politics -- with all its theater, all its silliness, all its deference to populist dumbness -- his profession.

But I will say this: It's a genuine shame that David Frum is being shown the door. Yes, if the GOP had more guys like David Frum, they'd be a much more formidable force. But they'd also be a much better force. The next time the Democratic Party loses a big election, I'd much rather have a guy like Frum running things than Glenn Beck.

Nevertheless, congratulations, David. I hereby name you schlub of the week.