It wasn't a fight I went looking for. On March 3, the popular radio host Mark Levin opened his show with an outburst (he always opens his show with an outburst): "There are people who have somehow claimed the conservative mantle … You don't even know who they are … They're so irrelevant … It's time to name names …! The Canadian David Frum: where did this a-hole come from? … In the foxhole with other conservatives, you know what this jerk does? He keeps shooting us in the back … Hey, Frum: you're a putz."
Now, of course, Mark Levin knows perfectly well where I come from. We've known each other for years, had dinner together. I'm a conservative Republican, have been all my adult life. I volunteered for the Reagan campaign in 1980. I've attended every Republican convention since 1988. I was president of the Federalist Society chapter at my law school, worked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and wrote speeches for President Bush—not the "Read My Lips" Bush, the "Axis of Evil" Bush. I served on the Giuliani campaign in 2008 and voted for John McCain in November. I supported the Iraq War and (although I feel kind of silly about it in retrospect) the impeachment of Bill Clinton. I could go on, but you get the idea.
I mention all this not because I expect you to be fascinated with my life story, but to establish some bona fides. In the conservative world, we have a tendency to dismiss unwelcome realities. When one of us looks up and murmurs, "Hey, guys, there seems to be an avalanche heading our way," the others tend to shrug and say, he's a "squish" or a RINO—Republican in Name Only.
Levin had been provoked by a blog entry I'd posted the day before on my site, NewMajority.com. Here's what I wrote: President Obama and Rush Limbaugh do not agree on much, but they share at least one thing: Both wish to see Rush anointed as the leader of the Republican party.
Here's Rahm Emanuel on Face the Nation yesterday: "the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican party." What a great endorsement for Rush! … But what about the rest of the party? Here's the duel that Obama and Limbaugh are jointly arranging:
On the one side, the president of the United States: soft-spoken and conciliatory, never angry, always invoking the recession and its victims. This president invokes the language of "responsibility," and in his own life seems to epitomize that ideal: He is physically honed and disciplined, his worst vice an occasional cigarette. He is at the same time an apparently devoted husband and father. Unsurprisingly, women voters trust and admire him.
And for the leader of the Republicans? A man who is aggressive and bombastic, cutting and sarcastic, who dismisses the concerned citizens in network news focus groups as "losers." With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence—exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party. And we're cooperating! Those images of crowds of CPACers cheering Rush's every rancorous word—we'll be seeing them rebroadcast for a long time.
Rush knows what he is doing. The worse conservatives do, the more important Rush becomes as leader of the ardent remnant. The better conservatives succeed, the more we become a broad national governing coalition, the more Rush will be sidelined.
But do the rest of us understand what we are doing to ourselves by accepting this leadership? Rush is to the Republicanism of the 2000s what Jesse Jackson was to the Democratic party in the 1980s. He plays an important role in our coalition, and of course he and his supporters have to be treated with respect. But he cannot be allowed to be the public face of the enterprise—and we have to find ways of assuring the public that he is just one Republican voice among many, and very far from the most important.
All of this began even before Obama took office. In his broadcast on Jan. 16, Limbaugh told listeners he had been asked by a major publication for a 400-word statement about his hopes for the new administration:
I'm thinking of replying to the guy, "OK, I'll send you a response, but I don't need 400 words. I need four: I hope he fails." … See, here's the point: everybody thinks it's outrageous to say. Look, even my staff: "Oh, you can't do that." Why not? Why is it any different, what's new, what is unfair about my saying I hope liberalism fails? Liberalism is our problem. Liberalism is what's gotten us dangerously close to the precipice here … I would be honored if the Drive-By Media headlined me all day long: "Limbaugh: I Hope Obama Fails." Somebody's gotta say it.
Notice that Limbaugh did not say: "I hope the administration's liberal plans fail." Or (better): "I know the administration's liberal plans will fail." Or (best): "I fear that this administration's liberal plans will fail, as liberal plans usually do." If it had been phrased that way, nobody could have used Limbaugh's words to misrepresent conservatives as clueless, indifferent or gleeful in the face of the most painful economic crisis in a generation. But then, if it had been phrased that way, nobody would have quoted his words at all—and as Limbaugh himself said, being "headlined" was the point of the exercise. If it had been phrased that way, Limbaugh's face would not now be adorning the covers of magazines. He phrased his hope in a way that drew maximum attention to himself, offered maximum benefit to the administration and did maximum harm to the party he claims to support.
Then, exacerbating the wound, Limbaugh added this in an interview on Sean Hannity's Jan. 21 show on Fox News: "We are being told that we have to hope he succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president." Limbaugh would repeat some variant of this remark at least four more times in the next month and a half. Really, President Obama could not have asked for more: Limbaugh gets an audience, Obama gets a target and Republicans get the blame.
Rush Limbaugh is a seriously unpopular figure among the voters that conservatives and Republicans need to reach. Forty-one percent of independents have an unfavorable opinion of him, according to the new NEWSWEEK Poll. Limbaugh is especially off-putting to women: his audience is 72 percent male, according to Pew Research. Limbaugh himself acknowledges his unpopularity among women. On his Feb. 24 broadcast, he said with a chuckle: "Thirty-one-point gender gaps don't come along all that often … Given this massive gender gap in my personal approval numbers … it seems reasonable for me to convene a summit."
Limbaugh was kidding about the summit. But his quip acknowledged something that eludes many of those who would make him the arbiter of Republican authenticity: from a political point of view, Limbaugh is kryptonite, weakening the GOP nationally. No Republican official will say that; Limbaugh demands absolute deference from the conservative world, and he generally gets it. When offended, he can extract apologies from Republican members of Congress, even the chairman of the Republican National Committee. And Rush is very easily offended.
Through 2008 Rush was offended by the tendency among conservative writers to suggest that the ideas and policies developed in the 1970s needed to change and adapt to the very different world of the 21st century. Here's what he had to say about this subject in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 28:
Sometimes I get livid and angry … We've got factions now within our own movement seeking power to dominate it, and, worst of all, to redefine it. Well, the Constitution doesn't need to be redefined. Conservative intellectuals, the Declaration of Independence does not need to be redefined, and neither does conservatism. Conservatism is what it is, and it is forever. It's not something you can bend and shape and flake and form … I cringed—it might have been 2007, late 2007 or sometime during 2008, but a couple of prominent, conservative, Beltway, establishment media types began to write on the concept that the era of Reagan is over. And that we needed to adapt our appeal, because, after all, what's important in politics is winning elections. And so we have to understand that the American people, they want big government. We just have to find a way to tell them we're no longer opposed to that. We will come up with our own version of it that is wiser and smarter, but we've got to go get the Wal-Mart voter, and we've got to get the Hispanic voter, and we've got to get the recalcitrant independent women. And I'm listening to this and I am just apoplectic: the era of Reagan is over? … We have got to stamp this out …
Here is an example of the writing Limbaugh was complaining about: The conservatism we know evolved in the 1970s to meet a very specific set of dangers and challenges: inflation, slow growth, energy shortages, unemployment, rising welfare dependency. In every one of those problems, big government was the direct and immediate culprit. Roll back government, and you solved the problem.
Government is implicated in many of today's top domestic concerns as well … But the connection between big government and today's most pressing problems is not as close or as pressing as it was 27 years ago. So, unsurprisingly, the anti-big-government message does not mobilize the public the way it once did.
Of course, we can keep repeating our old lines all the same, just the way Tip O'Neill kept exhorting the American middle class to show more gratitude to the New Deal. But politicians who talk that way soon sound old, tired, and cranky. I wish somebody at the … GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Library had said: "Ronald Reagan was a great leader and a great president because he addressed the problems of his time. But we have very different problems—and we need very different answers. Here are mine."
I wrote that in spring 2007. But you can hear similar words from bright young conservative writers like Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, and from veteran Republican politicians like Newt Gingrich. Gingrich told George Stephanopoulos on Jan. 13, 2008: "We are at the end of the Reagan era. We're at a point in time when we're about to start redefining … the nature of the Republican Party, in response to what the country needs."
Even before the November 2008 defeat—even before the financial crisis and the congressional elections of November 2006—it was already apparent that the Republican Party and the conservative movement were in deep trouble. And not just because of Iraq, either (although Iraq obviously did not help).
At the peak of the Bush boom in 2007, the typical American worker was earning barely more after inflation than the typical American worker had earned in 2000. Out of those flat earnings, that worker was paying more for food, energy and out-of-pocket costs of health care. Political parties that do not deliver economic improvement for the typical person do not get reelected. We Republicans and conservatives were not delivering. The reasons for our failure are complex and controversial, but the consequences are not.
We lost the presidency in 2008. In 2006 and 2008, together, we lost 51 seats in the House and 14 in the Senate. Even in 2004, President Bush won reelection by the narrowest margin of any reelected president in American history.
The trends below those vote totals were even more alarming. Republicans have never done well among the poor and the nonwhite—and as the country's Hispanic population grows, so, too, do those groups. More ominously, Republicans are losing their appeal to voters with whom they've historically done well.
In 1988 George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis among college graduates by 25 points. Nothing unusual there: Republicans have owned the college-graduate vote. But in 1992 Ross Perot led an exodus of the college-educated out of the GOP, and they never fully returned. In 2008 Obama beat John McCain among college graduates by 8 points, the first Democratic win among B.A. holders since exit polling began.
Political strategists used to talk about a GOP "lock" on the presidency because of the Republican hold on the big Sun Belt states: California, Texas, Florida. Republicans won California in every presidential election from 1952 through 1988 (except the Goldwater disaster of 1964). Democrats have won California in the five consecutive presidential elections since 1988.
In 1984 Reagan won young voters by 20 points; the elder Bush won voters under 30 again in 1988. Since that year, the Democrats have won the under-30 vote in five consecutive presidential elections. Voters who turned 20 between 2000 and 2005 are the most lopsidedly Democratic age cohort in the electorate. If they eat right, exercise and wear seat belts, they will be voting against George W. Bush well into the 2060s.
Between 2004 and 2008, Democrats more than doubled their party-identification advantage in Pennsylvania. A survey of party switchers in the state found that a majority of the reaffiliating voters had belonged to the GOP for 20 years or more. They were educated and affluent. More than half of those who left stated that the GOP had become too extreme.
Look at America's public-policy problems, look at voting trends, and it's inescapably obvious that the Republican Party needs to evolve. We need to put free-market health-care reform, not tax cuts, at the core of our economic message. It's health-care costs that are crushing middle-class incomes. Between 2000 and 2006, the amount that employers paid for labor rose substantially. Employees got none of that money; all of it was absorbed by rising health-care costs. Meanwhile, the income-tax cuts offered by Republicans interest fewer and fewer people: before the recession, two thirds of American workers paid more in payroll taxes than in income taxes.
We need to modulate our social conservatism (not jettison—modulate). The GOP will remain a predominantly conservative party and a predominantly pro-life party. But especially on gay-rights issues, the under-30 generation has arrived at a new consensus. Our party seems to be running to govern a country that no longer exists. The rule that both our presidential and vice presidential candidates must always be pro-life has become counterproductive: McCain's only hope of winning the presidency in 2008 was to carry Pennsylvania, and yet Pennsylvania's most successful Republican vote winner, former governor Tom Ridge, was barred from the ticket because he's pro-choice.
We need an environmental message. You don't have to accept Al Gore's predictions of imminent gloom to accept that it cannot be healthy to pump gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We are rightly mistrustful of liberal environmentalist disrespect for property rights. But property owners also care about property values, about conservation, and as a party of property owners we should be taking those values more seriously.
Above all, we need to take governing seriously again. Voters have long associated Democrats with corrupt urban machines, Republicans with personal integrity and fiscal responsibility. Even ultraliberal states like Massachusetts would elect Republican governors like Frank Sargent, Leverett Saltonstall, William Weld and Mitt Romney precisely to keep an austere eye on the depredations of Democratic legislators. After Iraq, Katrina and Harriet Miers, Democrats surged to a five-to-three advantage on the competence and ethics questions. And that was before we put Sarah Palin on our national ticket.
Every day, Rush Limbaugh reassures millions of core Republican voters that no change is needed: if people don't appreciate what we are saying, then say it louder. Isn't that what happened in 1994? Certainly this is a good approach for Rush himself. He claims 20 million listeners per week, and that suffices to make him a very wealthy man. And if another 100 million people cannot stand him, what does he care? What can they do to him other than … not listen? It's not as if they can vote against him.
But they can vote against Republican candidates for Congress. They can vote against Republican nominees for president. And if we allow ourselves to be overidentified with somebody who earns his fortune by giving offense, they will vote against us. Two months into 2009, President Obama and the Democratic Congress have already enacted into law the most ambitious liberal program since the mid-1960s. More, much more is to come. Through this burst of activism, the Republican Party has been flat on its back.
Decisions that will haunt American taxpayers for generations have been made with hardly a debate. The federal government will pay more of the cost for Medicaid, it will expand the SCHIP program for young children, it will borrow trillions of dollars to expand the national debt to levels unseen since WWII. To stem this onrush of disastrous improvisations, conservatives need every resource of mind and heart, every good argument, every creative alternative and every bit of compassionate sympathy for the distress that is pushing Americans in the wrong direction. Instead we are accepting the leadership of a man with an ego-driven agenda of his own, who looms largest when his causes fare worst.
In the days since I stumbled into this controversy, I've received a great deal of e-mail. (Most of it on days when Levin or Hannity or Hugh Hewitt or Limbaugh himself has had something especially disobliging to say about me.) Most of these e-mails say some version of the same thing: if you don't agree with Rush, quit calling yourself a conservative and get out of the Republican Party. There's the perfect culmination of the outlook Rush Limbaugh has taught his fans and followers: we want to transform the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan into a party of unanimous dittoheads—and we don't care how much the party has to shrink to do it. That's not the language of politics. It's the language of a cult.
I'm a pretty conservative guy. On most issues, I doubt Limbaugh and I even disagree very much. But the issues on which we do disagree are maybe the most important to the future of the conservative movement and the Republican Party: Should conservatives be trying to provoke or persuade? To narrow our coalition or enlarge it? To enflame or govern? And finally (and above all): to profit—or to serve?
Frum, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of NewMajority.com.