The conservative civil war
Beltway conservatives are turning against Rush Limbaugh. The most recent assassin is David Frum. The former Bush speechwriter and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute wrote an article, “Why Rush is wrong,” in the March 16 edition of Newsweek, attacking the popular talk radio host.
Mr. Frum argues that Mr. Limbaugh should not be the “public face” of the conservative movement. Mr. Frum says Mr. Limbaugh is caught in a time warp, championing small government and tax cuts when economic realities have changed. Mr. Frum criticizes Mr. Limbaugh‘s Feb. 28 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Mr. Frum also excoriates Mr. Limbaugh for saying he hopes President Obama fails. This supposedly puts conservatives on the defensive, making us look mean, petty and unsympathetic to the suffering of Americans during the financial crisis.
Moreover, Mr. Frum maintains that Mr. Limbaugh’s macho, cigarchomping, bombastic personality, combined with his angry libertarian populism is driving key segments of the electorate — women, Hispanics, independents and college graduates — away from the Republican Party. In his view, Mr. Frum wants to “enlarge” the Republican coalition while Mr. Limbaugh seeks to “narrow” it in the name of doctrinal purity.
Mr. Frum is part of a growing number of elitist conservatives seeking to revamp and redefine the political right. Others include David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru and Newt Gingrich.
These conservatives are amateur Machiavellians posing as sophisticated political strategists. They offer policy prescriptions that will supposedly transform the GOP into a national governing majority once again. However, they are effete policy wonks who lack firm principles. During the 1990s, Mr. Frum argued that the problem with Republicans is they lacked the will to fight the liberal ruling class. They had abandoned their anti-statist, tax-cutting, socially conservative roots.
Now, he argues the very opposite: It’s time for the GOP to accommodate prevailing social liberal forces. Mr. Frum recommends that the GOP jettison income tax cuts and embrace freemarket health-care reform. He suggests Republicans adopt proenvironment policies and gay rights. He also wants the party to be more receptive to pro-choice vice presidential candidates such as Tom Ridge who, if chosen as John McCain’s running mate, would have made Pennsylvania more competitive in the November election.
In other words, Mr. Frum now wants to create a progressive con- servatism characterized by expanding health-care coverage, environmentalism and hostility — or at least indifference — to traditional values. This is not adapting conservative principles to current realities, but diluting them to the point that they morph into liberalism. He is not saving conservatism; he is destroying it.
Mr. Frum is consistently wrong. For example, he has led the charge in defense of uncontrolled immigration, claiming it is good for business and America. When conservatives point out that no nation can absorb such a massive influx of immigrants — both legal and illegal — without profound social and economic dislocations, Mr. Frum dismisses them as “nativists.” The very Hispanics voting for the Democrats by large majorities are the direct result of the open-borders policies advocated by the likes of Mr. Frum.
Mr. Frum has taken credit for coining the phrase “Axis of Evil.” He predicted the war in Iraq would be quick, decisive and easy. Instead, it has degenerated into a protracted, bloody experiment in nation-building.
Elitist conservatives, like Mr. Frum, are consumed by power. They are not genuine, independent public intellectuals. Rather, they serve as the communications arm of the GOP. Ideas are simply pieces on a chessboard in which to checkmate the Democratic opposition. Principles, truth, morality — they are all expendable in the grand game of politics. They are deracinated narcissists who live in a policy bubble and are detached from the values and interests of Middle America.
What Mr. Frum and his ilk don’t understand is that most voters don’t care about free-market health-care reform — or other boutique policy issues, such as hybrid cars, health savings accounts or partially privatizing Social Security. Voters do care about the state of the country. What they have seen under Republican rule during the Bush years has been colossal incompetence: rampant corruption, runaway spending, soaring deficits, failing schools, broken borders, corporate plutocracy and quagmire in the Middle East.
The GOP has lost the electorate’s trust as a responsible party capable of governing. Posing as progressive Republicans will not solve the problem. In fact, it will only reinforce the electorate’s cynicism about the GOP’s lack of principles and honesty.
The Republican Party is supposed to be not only the conservative party, but the nationalist party. It has stood for great transcendental causes — abolishing slavery, preserving the constitutional republic of limited government and federalism, defeating totalitarian communism. If it abandons the seminal issues of our time — the defense of the fam- ily and the unborn — then it has lost its historical purpose. Social conservatives and pro-lifers will leave in droves. The GOP will become morally and ideologically rudderless; its various factions will fracture, reducing a oncedominant party into a rump.
Many elitist conservatives — including Mr. Frum — backed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to be the 2008 Republican standard-bearer, even though it threatened to rupture the GOP. He was their dream candidate: pro-choice, pro-gay rights, proenvironment, pro-immigration, pro-education reform — the ideal nominee for women, independents and educated professionals. Mr. Giuliani’s candidacy, however, crashed and burned. His failure should have served as a warning.
First, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was disparaged by the elitist right. Now, Mr. Limbaugh is the target. Mrs. Palin energized activists across the country, and Mr. Limbaugh and talk radio mobilize and get the message out to tens of millions of listeners.
By contrast, elitist conservatives sit in their ivory towers building castles in the sky as their country burns.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute, a Washington policy institute.