By David Frum
It’s a very strange experience to have your friends think you’ve gone crazy. Some will tell you so. Others will indulgently humor you. Still others will avoid you. More than a few will demand that the authorities do something to get you off the streets. During one unpleasant moment after I was fired from the think tank where I’d worked for the previous seven years, I tried to reassure my wife with an old cliché: “The great thing about an experience like this is that you learn who your friends really are.” She answered, “I was happier when I didn’t know.”
It’s possible that my friends are right. I don’t think so—but then, crazy people never do. So let me put the case to you.
I’ve been a Republican all my adult life. I have worked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, at Forbes magazine, at the Manhattan and American Enterprise Institutes, as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration. I believe in free markets, low taxes, reasonable regulation, and limited government. I voted for John *McCain in 2008, and I have strongly criticized the major policy decisions of the Obama administration. But as I contemplate my party and my movement in 2011, I see things I simply cannot support.
America desperately needs a responsible and compassionate alternative to the Obama administration’s path of bigger government at higher cost. And yet: This past summer, the GOP nearly forced America to the verge of default just to score a point in a budget debate. In the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, Republican politicians demand massive budget cuts and shrug off the concerns of the unemployed. In the face of evidence of dwindling upward mobility and long-stagnating middle-class wages, my party’s economic ideas sometimes seem to have shrunk to just one: more tax cuts for the very highest earners. When I entered Republican politics, during an earlier period of malaise, in the late seventies and early eighties, the movement got most of the big questions—crime, inflation, the Cold War—right. This time, the party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong.
It was not so long ago that Texas governor Bush denounced attempts to cut the earned-income tax credit as “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.” By 2011, Republican commentators were noisily complaining that the poorer half of society are “lucky duckies” because the EITC offsets their federal tax obligations—or because the recession had left them with such meager incomes that they had no tax to pay in the first place. In 2000, candidate Bush routinely invoked “churches, synagogues, and mosques.” By 2010, prominent Republicans were denouncing the construction of a mosque in lower Manhattan as an outrageous insult. In 2003, President Bush and a Republican majority in Congress enacted a new *prescription-drug program in Medicare. By 2011, all but four Republicans in the House and five in the Senate were voting to withdraw the Medicare guarantee from everybody under age 55. Today, the Fed’s pushing down interest rates in hopes of igniting economic growth is close to treason, according to Governor Rick Perry, coyly seconded by TheWall Street Journal. In 2000, the same policy qualified Alan Greenspan as the “greatest central banker in the history of the world,” according to Perry’s mentor, Senator Phil Gramm. Today, health reform that combines regulation of private insurance, individual mandates, and subsidies for those who need them is considered unconstitutional and an open invitation to “death panels.” A dozen years ago, a very similar reform was the Senate Republican alternative to Hillarycare. Today, stimulative fiscal policy that includes tax cuts for almost every American is “socialism.” In 2001, stimulative fiscal policy that included tax cuts for rather fewer Americans was an economic*-recovery program.
I can’t shrug off this flight from reality and responsibility as somebody else’s problem. I belonged to this movement; I helped to make the mess. People may very well say: Hey, wait a minute, didn’t you work in the George W. Bush administration that disappointed so many people in so many ways? What qualifies you to dispense advice to anybody else?
Fair question. I am haunted by the Bush experience, although it seems almost presumptuous for someone who played such a minor role to feel so much unease. The people who made the big decisions certainly seem to sleep well enough. Yet there is also the chance for something positive to come out of it all. True, some of my colleagues emerged from those years eager to revenge themselves and escalate political conflict: “They send one of ours to the hospital, we send two of theirs to the morgue.” I came out thinking, I want no more part of this cycle of revenge. For the past half-dozen years, I have been arguing that we conservatives need to follow a different course. And it is this argument that has led so many of my friends to demand, sometimes bemusedly, sometimes angrily, “What the hell happened to you?” I could fire the same question back: “Never mind me—what happened to you?”
So what did happen? The first decade of the 21st century was a crazy bookend to the twentieth, opening with a second Pearl Harbor and ending with a second Great Crash, with a second Vietnam wedged in between. Now we seem caught in the coils of a second Great Depression. These shocks radicalized the political system, damaging hawkish Democrats like Hillary Clinton in the Bush years and then driving Republicans to dust off the economics of Ayn Rand.
Some liberals suspect that the conservative changes of mind since 2008 are opportunistic and cynical. It’s true that cynicism is never entirely absent from politics: I won’t soon forget the lupine smile that played about the lips of the leader of one prominent conservative institution as he told me, “Our donors truly think the apocalypse has arrived.” Yet conscious cynicism is much rarer than you might suppose. Few of us have the self-knowledge and emotional discipline to say one thing while meaning another. If we say something often enough, we come to believe it. We don’t usually delude others until after we have first deluded ourselves. Some of the smartest and most sophisticated people I know—canny investors, erudite authors—sincerely and passionately believe that President Barack Obama has gone far beyond conventional American liberalism and is willfully and relentlessly driving the United States down the road to socialism. No counterevidence will dissuade them from this belief: not record-high corporate profits, not almost 500,000 job losses in the public sector, not the lowest tax rates since the Truman administration. It is not easy to fit this belief alongside the equally strongly held belief that the president is a pitiful, bumbling amateur, dazed and overwhelmed by a job too big for him—and yet that is done too.
Conservatives have been driven to these fevered anxieties as much by their own trauma as by external events. In the aughts, Republicans held more power for longer than at any time since the twenties, yet the result was the weakest and least broadly shared economic expansion since World War II, followed by an economic crash and prolonged slump. Along the way, the GOP suffered two severe election defeats in 2006 and 2008. Imagine yourself a rank-and-file Republican in 2009: If you have not lost your job or your home, your savings have been sliced and your children cannot find work. Your retirement prospects have dimmed. Most of all, your neighbors blame you for all that has gone wrong in the country. There’s one thing you know for sure: None of this is your fault! And when the new president fails to deliver rapid recovery, he can be designated the target for everyone’s accumulated disappointment and rage. In the midst of economic wreckage, what relief to thrust all blame upon Barack Obama as the wrecker-in-chief.
The Bush years cannot be repudiated, but the memory of them can be discarded to make way for a new and more radical ideology, assembled from bits of the old GOP platform that were once sublimated by the party elites but now roam the land freely: ultralibertarianism, crank monetary theories, populist fury, and paranoid visions of a Democratic Party controlled by ACORN and the New Black Panthers. For the past three years, the media have praised the enthusiasm and energy the tea party has brought to the GOP. Yet it’s telling that that movement has failed time and again to produce even a remotely credible candidate for president. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich: The list of tea-party candidates reads like the early history of the U.S. space program, a series of humiliating fizzles and explosions that never achieved liftoff. A political movement that never took governing seriously was exploited by a succession of political entrepreneurs uninterested in governing—but all too interested in merchandising. Much as viewers tune in to American Idol to laugh at the inept, borderline dysfunctional early auditions, these tea-party champions provide a ghoulish type of news entertainment each time they reveal that they know nothing about public affairs and have never attempted to learn. But Cain’s gaffe on Libya or Perry’s brain freeze on the Department of Energy are not only indicators of bad leadership. They are indicators of a crisis of followership. The tea party never demanded knowledge or concern for governance, and so of course it never got them.