My friend Jonathan Rauch provokes me by praising David Frum. I have hesitated to comment on the AEI scandal because there are conflicting accounts of what happened (see, for instance, Charles Murray; Frum’s response). I find it hard to believe the defamatory account which Frum is allowing to circulate. (He never directly affirms it: “draw your own conclusion” is his mode of complaint.) The institute does not strike me as a thought-police kind of place. It has many unruly scholars, toeing nobody’s line but their own. Even if the reasons for Frum’s ejection were defensible, however, its timing, coming shortly after he attacked the Republican party over its healthcare defeat, drawing hostile comment in the WSJ and elsewhere, was lamentable: it has created an impression of censorship and was a disaster for the institute.
As for the merits of Frum’s line, I agree with him of course that the Republican party needs more thinkers and more moderates. I also agree it needs a positive agenda, and one that computes, fiscally speaking. So far the nearest thing it has is Paul Ryan’s blueprint–which the party leadership has not embraced, which voters would likely reject out of hand if they understood it, and which does not, as it stands, solve the fiscal problem.
Having said this, I find Frum’s position on healthcare difficult to understand.
He calls passage of the act the Republicans’ Waterloo. Does he think this was an avoidable defeat? The Democrats started 2009 with the White House, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a big majority in the House. As they rightly say, elections have consequences. Had they failed to win this battle–and they almost did–that would have been remarkable. As it is, the Republicans won the battle for public opinion, and the Democrats pressed on regardless, which they may come to regret. What more, tactically speaking, could the Republicans have done?
Tactics aside, I have argued that, on the merits of the issue, moderate Republicans ought to have acknowledged the virtues in the Democrats’ legislation and voted for it. But that would not have diminished Obama’s victory. Actually, it would have added to it, and in the meantime would probably have worsened the Republicans’ prospects in November. The party would have had to pay a short-term price for accommodating brave moderates. Sometimes it seems that this is what Frum advocates. But the oddest thing is that Frum–despite his criticism of Mitt Romney for turning his back on a plan so like the one he sponsored in Massachusetts–is not one of those missing moderates. He was against “Obama’s vast new social welfare program“. He said he would have voted against it.
I suppose Frum would say that by the end it was all too late. He thinks that by offering conditional support at the outset, moderate Republicans could have moved the bill further in a pro-market, fiscally sound direction. I find that very hard to believe. Even if he is right about that, however, I cannot make sense, by his own lights, of the no vote he says he would have cast in March.
He is simply inconsistent. On the one hand, Obamacare is a “vast new social welfare program”. On the other, “the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big… It builds on ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.” So was this a terrible plan that needed to be stopped? If so, the Republicans gave it all they had. Or was it a basically good plan that could stand some further improvement? If Frum thinks that–as I do–why would he have voted in the end to kill the reform?