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March 24, 2010

Tunku Varadarajan on David Frum and the "Polite-Company Conservatives"

Taking him out to the woodshed for a whoopin'.

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.”

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.

He goes on to rubbish Frum's entire (non) argument. Frum's central point, to the extent he has one, is that the GOP should have gone into compromise/dealmaking mode in order to... well, secure a compromise and make a deal.

Would this have worked -- even given a very loose standard of what "working" means when you're talking about surrender? Given that this is Frum's big claim, one would like to see a bit of evidence presented it would have worked. Instead, Frum just shrugs off his central assumption as if it's a nit beneath picking.

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.)

I have a somewhat different take on Frum. I notice that Frum is not actually terribly policy-oriented or policy-informed. He is not a wonk. Or, if it is, he seems to hide it well enough on his blog. I don't see a lot of deep policy analysis on his site.

Frum, of course, is constantly castigating conservatives like Limbaugh for supposedly-simplistic thinking, sloganeering, etc. Not doing their homework. Not pouring over the policy details and arriving at a good policy position, but instead preferring easier, gut-level attitudinal posturing.

The thing is -- That's all that Frum does, too. He may criticize Limbaugh for simplifying arguments into easy-to-repeat gut-level impulses and attitudes, rather than going into great detail about policy, but that's all Frum does, too. Except instead of copping one attitude -- "Don't negotiate; stay firm; remain true to principles" -- he cops the opposite attitude -- "Always negotiate; stay flexible; compromise on principles."

But because his attitude is viewed more favorably by the liberal retardentsia whose approval he so craves, he deems that his attitude is the more sophisticated and intellectualized one.

Actually, all he's doing is being the Anti-Limbaugh. If Rush is given to sometimes simplifying affairs into narratives of Pure Conservatives and Corrupt Progressives, Frum's only stock in trade is simplifying affairs into narratives of Corrupt Conservatives and Pure Moderate-Liberals.

Incidentally, I have no problem with simplifying things for political purposes. I'm not knocking Rush. And note I said he "sometimes" does this, not that he always does this. What I'm trying to do is not knock Rush, but note that Frum, who fancies himself an elevated, intellectual policy guru, in fact hasn't the sophistication or patience or learning for actual policy analysis and instead resorts to the exact tropes he is forever shrilling over. Everything with Frum is pure emotional Politics of Resentment stuff -- the stuff he's supposedly so chagrined to see so much of -- it's just that he resents a different power-group.

In Frum's astonishingly stupid -- and talk-radio-level raw-meat bloody -- Waterloo column, Frum prances and minces in his typical self-congratulatory way, telling us all how we should have adopted the attitude of "compromise." But as for actual policy, he has nothing whatsoever to say. He does not tell us which policies we could have gainfully compromised on, and which we could have bent to our own ends; such thinking and analysis is simply beyond him. Instead his entire argument consists of "We should have compromised" -- on what? "Who knows?," as David Frum says about the chances for success in compromising -- and calling Rush Limbaugh stupid and simplistic for the 6000th time.

How is this any different from the caricature of Limbaugh he whines about daily? Replace his caricatured idea of Rush -- someone who, in his telling, only says "Be tougher" and "Shout louder" and "Be more extreme" -- with Frum's formulation of "Be weaker" and "Mumble more soothingly" and "Be more moderate."

How the fuck can someone claim one of those is a more sophisticated argument than the other? Neither is sophisticated at all, and of them -- Frum's -- has the added detriment of being effeminate to boot.

I have less of a problem with self-professed "rodeo clowns" like Glenn Beck than I do with David Frum, who constantly asserts he is possessed of a more thoughtful, more intellectually mature ideology, but whose actual output consists of nothing but fagged-up derivatives of Morning Zoo shock jockery.



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posted by Ace at 05:13 PM

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