David Frum Asks, 'When Did The GOP Lose Touch?'

Nov 24, 2011
Originally published on November 24, 2011 9:01 am

Republican David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is seriously upset with the state of his party. He's written an article in the current New York magazine, titled "When Did the GOP Lose Touch with Reality?"

As he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, one of Frum's complaints is the idea that his fellow Republicans insist on having their own set of facts.

"One of the issues that's taken for granted, for example, at alot of these Republican debates, is that one of the reasons that the recovery has been so slow from the crisis of 2008 and 09, is because, of course, the economy is burdened by taxes and regulation," Frum says. "But taxes are not higher than they were in October of 2008; they're lower, as a matter of fact. And the total rate of tax collection from the economy is at 14 percent now — which is a rate last seen during the Truman administration."

But that doesn't mean Frum is a fan of President Obama, whom he voted against once and plans to vote against in 2012.

"In a crisis like this, you need a very strong and forceful president," Frum says. "And I don't see Barack Obama as having been that president."

In a companion piece to Frum's article, New York also published an essay by Jonathan Chait, titled "When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?"

Frum has some ideas about where his party went wrong, when it embraced what he describes in the article as an "ever more fantasy-based ideology."

Part of the conflict, he says, comes from peoples' concerns that they will be hurt economically as the United States tries to find its way out of its financial woes.

"The big winners under the American fiscal system are the rich, who pay some of the lowest taxes anywhere in the world; the old, who are the main beneficiaries of the American social service state; farmers, rural people," Frum says. "These are Republican constituencies. So, the party is trapped. Its ideology calls for reducing the state's take. And yet, its voters are the people who get the state's take, or who are lightly taxed by the state."

When he looks to the future, Frum says that he sees a "period of intensifying ethnic competition." In that scenario, he says, many white Americans are fearful and pessimistic about both their own futures, and their children's prospects.

"And it's symbolized by a president with an exotic name, and with an exotic background," he says.

Another part of the Republican Party's problems, Frum says, is "the new conservative media, that create an environment in which you can have a different set of facts from other people."

As examples, he cites Fox News, talk radio, conservative blogs and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal.

Taken together, all those factors often fall into a dangerous mistake, Frum says: focusing too much attention and blame on the president, instead of on the nation's problems.

"That's a very powerful way to mobilize followers, and to raise money, and I get that," Frum says. "But it also traps you. Because when you mobilize people to that extent, the leaders find themselves unable to lead."

As an example, Frum points to this past summer's debate on the U.S. debt ceiling.

"Suddenly, Republicans who desperately wanted to make a deal, who understood the consequences — they were terrified — and they wanted a deal, and they couldn't," he says. "Because they had a wall of people behind them, that would not allow them to step back."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the presidential race comes at a time of bitter partisan politics. So much political conversation is predictable. You can look at somebody's party label and often know what they will say. But look more closely and you do find debates within the parties. This week, New York magazine published essays by two men who each critique their own party's activists. And we'll hear both this week, starting with David Frum. This former speechwriter for George W. Bush wrote an article headlined, "When Did the GOP Lose Touch with Reality?"

What do you mean when you say your party has lost touch with reality?

DAVID FRUM: I mean, we are in a serious economic downturn, maybe edging into a global depression, threatened by a new wave of financial crisis in Europe. We've got 25 million people who want full time work who don't have it. These are overwhelming concerns.

When you have a party that is unable to see this issue and unable to see it for what it is and that has its own definition of what are the facts of the matter and that insists on regarding the budget deficit, which is not a small problem, but as the overwhelming problem, and the employment problem as secondary, that's a disconnect.

INSKEEP: You said your party insists on having its own facts. What's an example?

FRUM: One of the things is just taken for granted, for example, at a lot of these Republican debates, is that one of the reasons that the recovery has been so slow from the crisis of 2008 and '09 is because, of course, the economy is burdened by taxes and regulation. But taxes are not higher than they were in October of 2008; they're lower, as a matter of fact. And the total rate of tax collection from the economy is at 14 percent now, which is a rate last seen during the Truman administration.

INSKEEP: I want to be clear on where you stand here for people, because you have said you're no fan of President Obama.

FRUM: No.

INSKEEP: You have a conservative record. You served as a speechwriter in the administration of George W. Bush.

FRUM: I voted against President Obama in 2008 and I expect to vote against him in 2012. I think his response to this crisis has been lacking, and that's a subject I write a lot about on my Web site. In a crisis like this, you need a very strong and forceful president, and I don't see Barack Obama as having been that president.

INSKEEP: But with that said, how did so many members of your party get involved with what you describe as an ever more fantasy-based ideology?

FRUM: Well, I suggest a couple of reasons in the article as to the origins of this problem. One is, look, we are moving into a period of austerity politics where we're all going to lose something. So as we're trying to get out of debt, the different groups in the society become more and more agitated with each other.

The big winners under the American fiscal system are the rich who pay some of the lowest taxes anywhere in the world; the old, who are the main beneficiaries of the American social service state; farmers, rural people. These are Republican constituencies. So the party is trapped. Its ideology calls for reducing the state's take and yet its voters are the people who get this state's take, or who are likely taxed by the state. So that's one thing.

The second thing is I think we are moving into a period of intensifying ethnic competition. White America - and we've got all kinds of polling done on this - is the most pessimistic, worried, fearful group, people most likely to say I think my children's future will be worse than mine, and I think the sense that the competition is going to intensify, and it's symbolized by a president with an exotic name and with an exotic background, so I think that plays into it.

And the third thing is the effect of the new conservative media that create an environment in which you can have a different set of facts from other people. And if you are somebody who consumes Fox and consumes talk radio, and gets your news from conservative blogs - and more and more people do that - or reads the Wall Street Journal editorial page, you get a different set of facts to work from than people who don't live in that environment.

INSKEEP: Would you say to conservatives who tell you, and I'm sure they have, look, you're nitpicking here. Were facing an existential threat to the country, this president is destroying America, look at the gigantic debt, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera?

FRUM: Right. Look, we do face a tremendous set of problems, but to concentrate all of the things you fear on the person of this one president, that's maybe the first mistake of all. I think the president is overwhelmed. I think he's not the man for the job. But he's not leading the country on the path to socialist ruin, as a matter of policy intention.

And the danger of thinking so, that's a very powerful way to mobilize followers and to raise money, and I get that. But it also traps you because when you mobilize people to that extent, the leaders find themselves unable to lead. And we saw that happen most dramatically this summer with the crisis over the debt ceiling, where suddenly Republicans who desperately wanted to make a deal, who understood the consequences, they were terrified.

FRUM: And they wanted a deal and they couldn't, because they had a wall of people behind them that would not allow them to step back.

INSKEEP: Conservative commentator David Frum is the author of books and articles, including one in New York magazine, called "When Did the GOP Lose Touch with Reality?"

Thanks very much.

FRUM: Thank, Steve.

INSKEEP: And tomorrow we will hear a critique of liberal activists from New York magazine's Jonathan Chait.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.