Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Some Shrum from Frum

In response to this piece from Robert Shrum, David Frum here agrees that the coming wilderness years for Republicans cannot be a replay of the wilderness of 1993. Then, an eager and over-confident young Democrat was ascending to the nation’s highest office already tainted by scandal, with only 43% of the nation’s support, and working against an opposition poised to reunite (despite Perot) in response. Bill Clinton had genuine political savvy but he lacked self-control--and not just in in his private life. His lack of personal prudence was but a metaphor for his larger and ever-grasping public persona. True, he succeeded in holding on to office; but he also succeeding in uniting his opposition with his rash approach to the office in that first year, in losing majorities for his party in 1994, and in sacrificing the good of that party to his own political fortunes. Though Republicans could never quite turn the horse around, they did not come out too sore from the long eight-year ride.

Frum does not think the ride of 2009 is going to be anywhere near as smooth. Like Shrum, he thinks that Republicans seeking solace from the memories of the early 90s should be wary of such simple comparisons. Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton. And, though it is odd to think of the 1992-93 GOP as united and firm of purpose--for we’re talking of the aftermath of the H.W. Bush "read my lips" years and the immediate aftermath of the Perot revolt--Frum insists that compared to today, those were halcyon days in the GOP.

Still, it’s certain that Robert Shrum does not offer Republicans his advice in order to help them advance their future political prospects. His objective is to make Republicans believe that they court political disaster (and will deserve it) if they dare to oppose Barack Obama’s agenda. He is poised, once again, to admire the "Maverickiness" of a John McCain (or at least claim to) now that he believes McCain’s bucking will be in designed for the purpose of clearing the saddle of conservatives.

Frum’s response is to concede the point that the political winds have changed and that mindless opposition to Obama proceeding according to the notion that this is nothing but a replay of the 90s is suicide. Frum makes an observation that is uncomfortable both for the likes of Shrum and for the likes of certain hard-headed conservatives: this is not a parliamentary form of government. It’s not the case that Republicans elected to high national office are simply "out of power." They can, do and will have some real impact on the legislation that affects Americans and it is, therefore, their duty to do what they can to make that legislation the best it can be for America. There are political reasons for prudence, to be sure, but there are also constitutional ones. And these reasons, happily, assure that while Republicans cannot ignore Democrats--neither can the Dems ignore the GOP.

But Frum is even more explicit. He argues that Shrum’s advice to Republicans amounts to suggesting that Republicans "play dead" and he wonders whether Obama is likely be the guy to deliver Shrum and liberals like him into the vast and sunny promised land of their dreams. In the end, Frum rates Obama’s political prudence higher than Shrum does and concludes that this is unlikely. But, if Shrum is right and the Obama Administration is as recklessly ambitious as Shrum would have it, then Frum is concludes that Republicans had better "risk being rolled over rather than play[ing] dead."

Discussions - 13 Comments

So far the Republicans seem fairly wimpy in opposition. They have Mrs. Clinton under oath. Ask her about the missing Rose law firm billing records (myseriously found in the White House). Ask her about Whitewater. Ask about the cattle futures trades. Etc.

But why? With what serious objective in mind? So Obama can appoint someone worse?

Because it is the job of the opposition to oppose. Giving Mrs. C. a hard time would raise the flag of the Party. In the short term, it would anger lots of people who would blame the Republicans for failing to change the tone in Washington. But who represents that culture better thanthe Clintons. Hence it would limit Obama's claim to represent change. Longer term, it would allow people to see that there is an opposition. When things go wrong, and they inevitably will in the course of human events, the opinion will change.

Perhaps I'm less sure than you about how Mrs. C will act as Secretary of State. Her record is very short, after all. Her only real public office has been 8 years in the Senate. And she is known for changing her public face regularly.

Opposition yes.

Mindless opposition, opposition just for the sake of opposition, unreflective opposition devoid of purpose, opposition merely for the pure pleasure of thwarting and foiling, ....................... no.

HOWEVER, Rich has a perfect point when he suggests that engaging in the political fray is a sound way of rallying a dispirited party.

The party needs to FOCUS.

The party needs to identify the commanding heights on this particular battlefield, and focus on them.

But this assumes that the party knows its own mind, which I don't think it does. Frum, Brooks, Podhoretz, {John, not Norman} they're convinced that the party needs to embrace the lifestyle approach of New York City, and effectively give nothing more than lip service to those in the base. In short, it means they're ready to make their peace with Stephen Douglas.

Guys like me aren't.

I am mostly with Dan and Julie on this one. The Republicans could not get traction on the Rose Law Firm thing ten years ago and spending her confirmation hearing on it would just make the Republicans look sily and out of touch. I know it isn't fair but..

Dan is right that Republicans should carefully pick their fights and then fight like hell - while offering an attractive alternative set of policies. Whether they are up to that is open to question.

To the extent that Dan's reference to Frum, Brooks ect. is meant to argue that the Republicans should not move Left on abortion, I agree. An incrementalist pro-life strategy is probably the best politics. But Dan does use one tic that is very common on the Right (Sarah Palin did it in her own way)that does conservatives no favors. Conservatives should consider getting out of the habit of stigmatizing their opponents by reference to locales -whether cities, urban areas generally, states, or regions of the country. This approach alienates people in those places that might be inclined to support a conservative politician or position. Now I doubt that Palin or Dan mean to turn off a generally nonpolitical but open to persuasion voter, but disparaging references to that voter's state, city, whatever makes a bad impression and in statewide or nationwide races, a few more votes even in liberal leaning areas can make a big difference. Conservatives need to understand that there are at least some converts to be made in "blue" states and "blue" counties. One step in doing better is not seem to believe that these places are inferior.

This is a place in which conservatives can learn from Obama. Dumb liberals disparage conservative leaning areas as flyover country. You never catch Obama doing that. What do alot of people think when the hear conservatives talk about the "heartland" and know that conservatives mean "Not where I and my family live and work." Try winning people over when they think that you think they live in America's spleenland.

Pete, I think there is a lot of sense in what you say above. On the other hand, I am deeply sympathetic to those conservatives who are indignant about the elitist attitudes that rain down on them from the dumb liberals you discuss above. We should not, as you say, return the favor by being dumb conservatives.

But it's also not true that Obama doesn't do (or, rather, hasn't done) this. Don't you remember his remark in San Francisco about what he considered a kind of racism lurking beneath the surface of those folks in Pennsylvania and other parts who "cling" to God and guns? I don't think he'll make that mistake (consciously) again. But that doesn't mean he's changed his mind and now sees those people as worthy Americans like himself. I think it's too bad that he won't be honest about this just as I think it's too bad that Sarah Palin is unlikely ever to talk about the "real America" again--at least not with those words. I think both of them are going to try and clean up their argument to make it more palatable to a broader audience--as you suggest--but I also think both of them are going to be much less honest with us as a result. Obama thinks a good number of people in middle America are rubes in need of his tutoring and wisdom and Palin thinks a good number of people on the coasts are snobs who need to be put in their place by a small town girl like her. The whole truth of the matter, as you say, is nothing so simple as either of those two positions. But we won't get any closer to it with mealy-mouthed, toned-down arguments moderated less by a consideration about being fair than a concern for one's political well-being. Sometimes I wonder if it isn't better just to let them throw food at one another, relax and enjoy the show . . . the truth will out. But then, I wonder if this contradicts what I said above. No. I don't think so. I think there's room both for being fair and for food fights--but the trick is knowing which is appropriate to any given political situation. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between a desire to be fair and precise and a mealy-mouthed attempt to curry favor. And it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between an honest and heated gritty debate and a silly attempt at a cheap smack-down. But there is a difference in both cases and it's discernible--even when your hands are sore from clinging or your neck hurts from the strain of tilting up your nose.

Julie, I mostly agree, but I worry that conservatives are leaving some votes on the table by seeming contemptous of people who live in cities or inner suburbs. Those places have lots of good people and some of those people could be won over if conservatives did not seem to regard them as aliens based on their address. I am not worried about Palin hurting the feelings of upper class liberal snobs. I am worried that she is alienating potential supporters in the course of trying to rally rural and exurban voters to her side. There must be way of crafting a conservative populism that can appeal to the working class of the rural areas without seeming to insult the working classes (and middle classes and...) of cities.

This points to a larger problem for American conservatism. Over the last fifteen years, American conservatism has seemed to have become more and more based on region and population distribution. It is tough to remember, but Reagan won Massachusetts twice and that the midnineties tide of conservative reformism touched places like New York City. Since then conservatives have tried to grind out victories by depending on their strength in the South, Plains states and Mountain West and hoping that the rural and exurban turnouts in Ohio will overcome the margins from Ohio's cities and older suburbs. In this enviorment it is easy to think of the places that you depend on as the real America, but that doesn't make it right or smart. There are alot of potential conservatives (or anyway potential supporters of particular conservative politicians or policies)that conservatives, if they are to have a future, are going to have to do a better job of courting and many of them are in blue America.

Pete, you raise good and thoughtful points. I'd add that aggravating regional/sectional differences in American politics has a long (and not usually happy) history. So what would you recommend conservatives do? I have some thoughts, but since you brought it up and because I'm curious to see what you think, I'll let you go first.

My first suggestion would be to stop even seeming to define conservative politics in regional and residential terms. It has a long history,but it is costing conservative votes. The irony is that regardless of what conservatives do, the will likely continue to do better in exurban Georgia than Atlanta. But margins matter and picking up some votes in places that are more liberal can help. My first suggestion is that conservatives pick their words better so as not to alienate urban voters (and inner suburb voters who think of themselves as urban). Stop talking is such a way that gives the impression that rural voters are inherently more virtueous than urban voters or that the heartland is somewhere else. Conservatives would be smart to give up the tropes of geographical identity politics (as a general rule, but if a liberal policy is hurting a particular area, making some localist arguments might make sense in that limited context) and argue based on principle and policy to voters. I don't see where that costs them any votes in Red America and might gain them a few votes in Blue America.

Wasn't pointing to "Heartland Values" just a shortcut to defining those values? It really is an unsustainable image. Honestly, living in the "heartland" I do not see those values consistently in evidence, and yes, find them in cities and suburbia as much as in Walmartland.

"Rallying", "attacking", "standing firmly in opposition" are all very well and I would love to see those done, but only if they can be done effectively. I don't think Republicans, or even conservatives, are sure of their ground yet, for rallying, attacking, or even standing firm. I think we know our principles, mostly. Policy is something else. I do not like the idea of a flailing opposition. So my question is, are Republicans playing dead or are they prone because they are in the process of recovery? Even when you see a train wreck coming and brace yourself, recovery from the disaster is a process. Which means, I suppose, that this sort of discussion is a means of bringing matters into focus.

Please, keep it up.

Good post, again, Pete. Another way to look at it is to ask why Obama has been successful. What is all the "excitement" about? Forget the substance and the truth of the thing and suspend your disbelief and skepticism for just a minute. Obama appeals because he seems to speak to something that unites us all as Americans. Every successful politician in America has to do this. The GOP will have to present an alternative uniting theme--an understanding of America--that appeals to the pride we all have in our identity as Americans and in our capacity to live in liberty. This capacity is not limited to people living in red states and apart from the large urban centers but a good number of those people have reason to believe that their independence from the trappings of city life makes them more capable of appreciating it. Whether or not that is the case--and despite their hurt feelings at being sneered at by 'sophisticates'--you're right that they ought to be able to make progress if they focus more on the substance of their appreciation for liberty and less on the things they consider as accounting for its origins.

Obama won because he has no links to the previous regine. Obama won because he rarely said anything in his speeches. His generalities are a lot like how John Edward talks to dead loved ones. People project their desires upon his vaugeness and define him based upon their own hopes and dreams. A poorly delivered speech about earmarks, climate change, and lists of experience do not offer the listener such freedom. It would do well for conservatives to not write off metropolitan areas, but divide and conquer works so well for the ruling elite that I doubt we see that adopted. Is Limbaugh going to appoligize to the "9th circus court?"

Just define conservatism without using words like prudence or compromise. Then calmly present a plan to move forward. It will be hard to this, however, because so much of what conservatism was(limited government) was abandoned recently. You are also going to have to find a way to bring together the social conservative who would like prayer in school and the prohibition of vice with the social libertarian who wants none of this and would do away with all laws pertaining to victimless crimes.

I think democrats have to battle the same things, although a larger percentage of them are going to be more social libertarian and the opposite group in that part may be more a supporter of state intervention everywhere. What they have is a core belief that they have been unyeilding on and I think that is based on the false science of climate change and a pro science anti christianity sort of movement. You can make the argument that anti terror security at all costs is the conservative answer to mother earth is dying from humanity/darwinism proves religion is nothing but fuedal superstition idea. However, anti terror is very flawed. How do you define a terrorist? Are acts of reprisal terrorist? Was dumping the tea on the harbor terrorism? How about tar and feathering was that terrorism? I guess the patriot act says any violators of American law can be terrorism so jay-walking is terrorism. Trying to make hostel people a different group just because they don't have the outward support of a government is week. It raises a ton of questions that I don't know how you can get around. P.S. a government training seminar actually defined the founding fathers as terrorists while leading the people in the seminar to believe that it was an us vs. them(American people) situtation. Could have been a bad teacher I guess.

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