Things have come to a pretty pass in the Republican party when David Frum is the mushy moderate of the piece. Frum’s a friend, but I think he would concede he has not carved out much of a reputation as an accommodating centrist over the years. Wasn’t he the brash young writer who in the 1990s counselled wavering Republicans to “practise honesty and pay the price,” who debated gay marriage with me on the cover of Saturday Night magazine?
Yet Frum is properly aghast at the direction his party is going in, or rather not going, after the defeats of 2006 and 2008. More to the point, he has had the guts to take on a good section of the party, at considerable risk to his own prospects, not to say a few friendships. It isn’t only Rush Limbaugh, the talk radio king, with whom he has lately tangled. It’s his former colleagues at the National Review, many of whom appear to delight in taking shots at him. And it’s an increasingly vitriolic base, much of which seems to view him as a traitor and backstabber.
This is of course precisely Frum’s point. The Republican party, and by extension the American conservative movement, has become an increasingly exclusive club, whose purpose seems to be to blackball a wider and wider circle of former members. Limbaugh is the embodiment of that spirit: angry, belligerent, divinely certain of its course and intolerant of any deviation from it—this, at a time when, Frum argues, the party is in dire need of a rethink of some of its most cherished nostrums.
As Frum has written, “the ideas and policies developed in the 1970s [need] to change and adapt to the very different world of the 21st century.” In the 1970s, big government was the problem. But “the connection between big government and today’s most pressing problems is not as close or as pressing.” Conservatives, he suggests, have got to come to terms with gay rights (!), an issue on which “the under-30 generation has arrived at a new consensus.” They need to get serious about the environment, to focus on fixing health care rather than cutting taxes, to propose some sort of alternative to Obamanomics that does not amount to merely “holding the line.”
It’s a fascinating debate, inasmuch as it perfectly contrasts with the situation in Canada. Here, conservatives are in power, but adrift, believing in nothing, jettisoning principles at every turn. If Republicans seem oblivious, as Frum has it, to the importance of winning elections, Canada’s Conservatives are obsessed with it, to the exclusion of all else. Take abortion, for example, an issue that divides public opinion in both countries. Republicans, it is fair to say, have been too inflexible in one direction, insisting that both halves of the presidential ticket must always be pro-life. But our Conservatives have gone to the opposite extreme, not merely declining to take a stand as a party on the issue, but forbidding individual members from doing so.
If doctrinaire ideology is one pitfall to be avoided, in other words, so is unprincipled opportunism. Each, moreover, is a kind of dogma: fanatical pragmatism no less than fanatical orthodoxy. As such, each is in the habit of caricaturing its critics—as faithless traitors, in the case of Frum and his fellow GOP heretics (David Brooks, Newt Gingrich, et al.), or as unbending purists, in the case of dissenters from Conservative party line.
How, then, are we to steer between these treacherous shores—too devoted to principle, such as to put power beyond reach, or too quick to compromise, such as to empty power of purpose? All of us in the persuasion game, from practising politicians at one end to academic theorists at the other (journalists are somewhere in between) are obliged to ask ourselves three questions with respect to whatever position we advance:
One, is it right? Is it possible we could be wrong? Or could policies that were once right need adjusting, in light of changing circumstances?
Two, is it relevant? It may be the right answer, but not to a question the public is asking. To be sure, leadership sometimes means putting questions to the public that had not occurred to it until now. But a party that does not address itself to the issues on the public’s mind will soon find no one is listening.
Three, is it a priority? There are always lots of things that need doing. But there is only so much that can be done at one time, and the public’s appetite for change is not infinite.
But: if, on reflection, you have reason to think you’re (still) right, on an issue that is relevant to the public, and in a matter of some urgency, then what is the excuse for inaction? Yes, compromise is a virtue. But it is not the only virtue. Yes, you win elections by capturing the middle ground. But that does not mean, as so many seem to assume, simply moving to the middle: the truly successful politician moves the middle to him.
There is a third alternative, in other words, between the dogmatism of the GOP and the cynicism of the Conservatives. It consists in political entrepreneurship: neither pandering to public opinion, nor ignoring it, but persuading the public to a point of view it did not previously hold. For politics is not, in the end, simply the art of the possible. It is the art of enlarging the possible.