David Frum’s despondent. The GOP stalwart fears for his party, which he believes now occupies a very dark place that offers neither practical solutions nor electoral hope. Republicans have lost the plot, he laments in New York magazine.
On economic policy, Frum argues, Republicans bizarrely cast broad-based tax cuts as tantamount to “socialism,” while the Federal Reserve’s tight control of interest rates, once a gold standard of monetary policy practiced by free-market demigod Alan Greenspan, is now widely derided by conservatives. “My party’s economic ideas sometimes seem to have shrunk to just one,” he writes, “more tax cuts for the very highest earners.”
The right’s ideological dogmatism runs the gamut. Prominent Republicans were once enthusiastically ecumenical, Frum claims somewhat implausibly, but the party’s faithful now embrace xenophobia, whipping up nativist fears over immigration and Muslims. Then there’s healthcare reform. So-called “Obamacare” included many provisions conservatives once championed but now characterize as roads to serfdom.
Frum’s unimpeachable conservative pedigree makes his portrait of a GOP hopelessly gripped by delusion hard to dismiss. His previous affiliations include various distinguished right wing outfits, including the Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine, and the Manhattan and American Enterprise Institutes (AEI). He also served as a speechwriter for George W. Bush. But none of this mattered when he urged Republicans to work with Democrats to fashion a moderate healthcare bill, a pragmatic suggestion since Democrats had the votes in Congress to unilaterally pass any legislation they wanted anyway. The reaction was swift.
The Wall Street Journal promptly denounced Frum, while his employer at that time, AEI, summarily fired him. Having become persona non grata in Republican circles, Frum must now operate in the shadows. He currently advises an unidentified presidential candidate, but to hide the association, which would anger many conservatives, Frum must be surreptitiously spirited into and out of face-to-face meetings with his client. All this prompts Frum to ask in his essay’s title, “When did the GOP lose touch with reality?”
For Frum, the GOP’s unmooring is a recent phenomenon, a sort of “mania” that has afflicted the party during the Obama administration, or well after he helped carry the Republican torch from his perch in the White House. This self-serving narrative may not be unexpected but it’s wrong. Modern conservatism’s psychosis goes back decades.
With respect to fiscal policy, conservatives parted ways with reality over thirty years ago when they accepted as orthodoxy “supply side” economics, or the specious notion that dramatic reductions in top marginal tax rates would be self-financing, because the robust economic growth resulting from the move would generate compensatory government revenues. (Besides, even if such revenues didn’t materialize, it would still be an advantageous policy, as it would induce cuts to the welfare state, i.e., the so-called “starve the beast” scenario).
President Reagan first transformed this notion of fiscal alchemy into a governing philosophy, but even he begrudgingly raised taxes when deficits ballooned as a consequence. Not George W. Bush. Dubya recklessly cut taxes (especially for high-income earners), including during a time of war, a feat not attempted by any other civilization in history. The economic lunacy had predicable results, helping to turn massive surpluses into deficits, thereby adding trillions of dollars to the national debt. Yet despite supply-side’s long record of failure, the GOP will even risk a debt default to preserve high-end tax cuts.
If Republicans could divorce themselves from what Karl Rove allegedly called the “reality-based community” vis-à-vis fiscal policy, they could do so across the board. And they have. Self-identified Republicans tend to reject the science behind global warming and, more generally, a fact-driven policy-making process. It matters little if teaching sex education is the only proven way to reduce teen pregnancy or if evolution is as close to verifiable fact as science can deliver. Many Republicans won’t have either.
It is no surprise, then, that in this climate of nihilism, prominent GOP leaders can repeat with impunity canards about “death panels” and Obama’s alleged foreign birth. While there may be a certain freedom when facts don’t matter (is this the real “Freedom Agenda”) Frum is right to point out that it’s not ultimately a winning strategy, both for the country and for the GOP. Of course, Frum chooses not to dwell on his role in bringing to life the monstrous creation that is the modern GOP, but his critique is largely on target, if tardy by several decades.
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