Kinder, Gentler David Frum

Whatever happened to his crusade against “soft” conservatism?

In 1994, David Frum established himself as the angry young man of conservatism by publishing Dead Right. The book’s thesis was that conservatives had abandoned the fundamental conservative goal of shrinking the size of government. Although the book took some shots at the Reagan administration, it was mainly a takedown of the first Bush administration’s “kinder, gentler” conservatism. Frum scorned Republicans for their willingness to run up the deficit, defend protectionism, and promote government activism on social issues. (An example of the latter was the diversion of public money to private schools via school vouchers, which Frum argued would give government too much control over private education.) Even Republican rhetoric, Frum felt, had been corrupted. Frum was annoyed by the title of William Bennett’s book The De-Valuing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children because it suggested “that one’s obligations to all the other children in the country are similar in nature to one’s obligations to one’s own.”

Frum urged a return to the bedrock conservative principle that the only way to make government better was to make it smaller and less powerful. Conservatives, he concluded,

should learn to care a little less about the electoral prospects of the Republican Party, indulge less in policy cleverness and ethnic demagoguery, and do what intellectuals of all descriptions are obliged to do: practice honesty, and pay the price.

Reading Dead Right today, Chatterbox wonders where that David Frum has gone. OK, he knows where that Frum went: the White House, where in 2001 Frum took a job writing speeches for Bush fils. In a new memoir of that experience Frum praises President George W. Bush as “the right man” for our times—he writes that even though Dubya has no particular interest in shrinking the size of government; has replaced his father’s “kinder, gentler” slogan with the near-identical “compassionate conservatism“; favors vouchers and has expanded government oversight of public education and involvement in religious charity work; and has referred to U.S. schoolchildren as “our children” (most famously, when he asked, “Is our children learning?”).

The David Frum of Dead Right hasn’t disappeared entirely. A less-strident Frum expresses skepticism, and sometimes outright disaffection, throughout the first half of The Right Man about Dubya’s domestic agenda. He couldn’t stand the subsidies for wind and solar power in the failed energy plan. He thought Teddy Kennedy had too much influence in drafting the education bill. He thought Bush let the faith-based charity initiative become overly secularized. Even the 2001 tax cut, which Frum sees as Bush’s only significant domestic accomplishment, gave Frum heartburn when Bush delivered a speech promoting it on the basis of Keynesian economics. Frum is entertainingly snarky about the low intellectual wattage he found in the Cabinet and among White House staffers, which he thinks was an overreaction against the opportunism of the very bright Richard Darman, budget director during the first Bush administration. By August 2001, Frum was preparing to give one month’s notice.

Then Sept. 11 hit. Frum stayed on, coined the phrase “axis of hatred” (which became “axis of evil”), and was increasingly impressed by Bush’s abilities as a wartime president. The second half of The Right Man sings Bush’s praises as he whups the Taliban, runs out of patience with Yasser Arafat, and prepares to go to war against Iraq:

Bush’s record has been dauntless, far-seeing, and consistent. He announced his war aims at the very beginning, and he has adhered to them steadfastly. He said the United States would fight terrorist groups of international reach with all its power—and it has. He said that any state complicit with terrorism would be regarded as a hostile regime—and so it has been. Afghanistan was first. The others will follow each in its turn.

We can argue about the efficacy of Bush’s plan to unseat Saddam Hussein. But we can’t deny one overriding truth about Bush’s post-9/11 leadership: It caused David Frum to forget he ever wrote Dead Right. This was abundantly clear on Jan. 5 when the New York Times published a Frum op-ed (“It’s His Party“) about Bush’s dominance of the GOP:

[W]ith every passing election, Reagan-Gingrich conservatism seemed to be appealing less and less to the American people. The old conservative rhetoric was getting stale. Voters wanted something new.

Bush, Frum writes, gave these voters a Republican Party that is “less economically libertarian than the Republican Party of the 1980’s and 1990’s.” Frum notes that Bush’s 2001 tax cut was smaller than Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut; that there’s little talk now about deregulation; that Bush is “presiding over the expansion of Medicaid into something that is coming to look more and more like a universal health insurance program”; and that Bush has let drop his plan to privatize Social Security. “Just as Bill Clinton declared an end to the era of big government,” Frum argues, “so George W. Bush has put an end to the era of antigovernment.”

We can argue about whether Bush’s domestic agenda really represents a more moderate brand of conservatism. (Looking at the same facts, Bill Keller of the New York Times has concluded the opposite—that Bush is in many respects is more hard-right than Reagan was. Joshua Green makes a related point in the January/February Washington Monthly.) But to whatever extent Frum thinks Bush has steered Republicans away from shrinking government’s role, you would expect Frum to damn him for it. Instead, Frum sounds like he’s praising him for it.

Frum anticipates this criticism with an aside that he personally finds Bush’s “softer Republicanism … difficult to adjust to.” But by failing to articulate why this is so, Frum implies that this is Frum’s problem, not the country’s. At the very least, Frum has concluded that his Dead Right critique, and the traces of it found in the first half of The Right Man, are of little consequence. At most, Frum has concluded that he was wrong. Either way, Frum is repudiating Dead Right. Shouldn’t he acknowledge that?