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July 17, 2019

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Political Memo:

This principled conservative is at odds with ‘the movement’

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David Frum’s conservative credentials are unimpeachable. He wrote for the conservative journal National Review for 25 years, was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, and even wrote a book with Richard Perle, a man known in liberal quarters as the “Prince of Darkness.”

At a UNLV Black Mountain Institute forum last week on the future of conservatism, Frum laid out why he’s a conservative: He believes in a strong national defense because the world’s nations are competitive, not collaborative. He said society should rely more often than not on the free market to organize our enterprises. And, he said, government should lag behind social change, not engineer it with programs, legislation or judicial decisions.

A succinct and precise definition of conservatism, if ever there were one.

Somehow, though, that’s no longer enough.

To be a conservative these days, you have to believe President Barack Obama is a socialist. And, that the government interventions, begun in fall 2008 to save the international financial system and spur on the economy during the worst recession since the Great Depression, aren’t just bad policy, but a pernicious attempt to push socialism on an unsuspecting public.

Frum expressed dismay at what has become of “the movement,” as its adherents lovingly call it.

He said of the Bush years, sheepishly, “They were less than a complete success.”

The response he hears to this assertion, he said, is, “We weren’t there. That wasn’t us. (Bush) wasn’t a true conservative.”

That, Frum said, is a cop-out. “Conservatives would do well to say, ‘There are some things we got right, some things we got wrong. What can we learn?’ ”

And then he added: “I see a great commitment to nonlearning among conservatives.”

There’s always been a considerable gap between the leaders of the conservative movement and its voters. William F. Buckley, the godfather of the movement that sneered at “Eastern elites,” was nevertheless a harpsichord player, accomplished sailor and man of Yale. Indeed, two of the three speakers at the UNLV event, including Frum and Richard Brookhiser, are Yale graduates. The third, Sam Tanenhaus, went to lowly Grinnell College.

But these days the chasm between Frum’s thinking and that of the rank-and-file must seem almost unbridgeable for Frum.

At the forum, he was dismissive, almost contemptuous, of the Republican Party’s most fervent and vibrant wing, the Tea Party activists.

He said the issues that animate him, and that he hopes will draw the attention of conservative thinkers and the voting public, are the unsustainable growth of health care costs; the rise of undemocratic nations, such as China, into economic powerhouses; stagnant incomes; immigration and the lack of upward mobility among America’s poorest; and the bioethical quandaries presented by scientific advances that will grant unfathomable genetic advantages to the children of the well-off.

During the forum’s question period, one interlocutor asked Frum, in a vaguely accusatory way, if this didn’t sound like an issue list for liberals.

It’s easy to see why Frum is bothered by the Tea Party crowd.

For Frum, the Bush years, the prosecution of the Iraq war and the Great Recession all have been cause for introspection, which he finds lacking in the movement today.

He said he held a gathering at his home for young activists and thinkers who are contributing to his Web project, FrumForum.

He described them: “Like a lot of young conservatives, they have good grounding in American history and in fundamental conservative texts, but not such a good grounding in economics or public policy.” They opposed the government’s rescue of the banking system from implosion in fall 2008 and into last year.

Frum said he tried to convince them that September and October 2008, when the financial crisis hit, “was almost the end of the world. That’s what we were faced with, and that’s what didn’t happen,” thanks to the emergency response by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury.

He described their response: “Our principles require us to allow the banking system to go over Niagara Falls. I guess it’s a good thing we weren’t the ones governing.”

Despite his avowed loyalty to the GOP, Frum may wind up a man without a party.

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