Amurph11’s #CBR4 Holiday Gift Guide: Your Wonkish Republican Brother-in Law (Review #43, Why Romney Lost by David Frum)
Everyone has at least one in the family; that Republican in-law who thinks William F. Buckley was the second coming, adores the Wall Street Journal and the National Review, and who during the 2012 election, despite waning polling numbers, continued to claim that Romney would somehow come out on top.
That guy’s having a rough year. The best course might be to buy him a nice bottle of Scotch this holiday season, but you should definitely sneak a copy of David Frum’s Why Romney Lost in there as well.
Despite its title, the e-book Frum released soon after the conclusion of the 2012 election is not simply a treatise on the failure of Romney’s candidacy. Instead, it’s a treatise on the failure of the party itself, and an outline for its future. The short book is split into three alliterative sections: Defeat, Delusion and Deliverance. In parsing Romney’s defeat, he lays little blame on Romney himself, and places the whole of it on the Republican party as a whole. Most of the positions Romney took that proved ultimately unacceptable to the American people, he claims, were those demanded of him by the current Republican party. Frum gives Romney more credit for moderation than I do, but he’s not wrong when he points out that Romney was a more credible candidate before he started listening to his party. Moderate Mitt showed up only late in the game, when his team hastily constructed a front of more moderate-sounding policies to trot out during the first debate. This worked only momentarily; proving the edict that debates don’t change votes, Romney had already gone way too far down the Republican rabbit hole for the majority of voters.
So how did this happen? As Frum explains in the second part of the book, the Republican party has been stuck in a morass of delusion since the 2008 economic crash. His explanation is convincing; Republicans, he argues, hit just as hard by the recession as their Democratic friends and colleagues, were not able to tolerate admitting that some of the economic policies closest to their heart may have contributed to the crash, never mind that the leader of their party and Commander in Chief had presided over it. Desperate to apportion blame, they searched for an aspect of Bush’s presidency to differentiate themselves from, and they came up with the deficit. In an altogether stunning move, the Republican party managed to shift the conversation from the recession to the deficit in what seemed like a matter of minutes, steering every economic conversation back, as ships born ceaselessly into the past, to the deficit. Never mind that drastic spending cuts are a universally terrible idea during a recession. Never mind that the similar British push for austerity was having terrible results. For the past two years, the GOP have had two talking points: cutting spending, and refusing higher tax rates.
The cognitive dissonance associated with this view––that the deficit is the most important priority, but that we have to pay it down without bringing in higher tax revenues––has been fascinating to watch. When the Bowles-Simpson act was brought forward, a plan for reducing the deficit involving a moderate combination of reduced spending and higher revenues, many moderates (myself included) were shocked at the GOP’s refusal to consider it. Congressman and future VP candidate Paul Ryan voted against it in favor of his own budget, a plan whose extreme tax cuts would have prevented the deficit from coming under 1% of the GDP for forty years, as opposed to the decade it would take Bowles-Simpson. Frum points to this move as the pinnacle of GOP delusion, an all-cards-on-the-table act of intellectual suicide. How to explain citing the deficit as the #1 priority only to vote against a bill that would reduce the deficit in a decade in favor of one that would take four to do the same? How to justify calling for massive, across-the-board spending cuts without touching defense or Medicare, two of our biggest costs? And how does one move forward from such feats of delusion?
To hear Frum tell it, the first step is a harsh dose of self-awareness. The party has put itself in an intractable position, as he points out. They have gambled all their credibility on one base: that of white, mostly old, people. Economically, they’ve bet it all on two issues that can’t live in tandem: massive tax cuts, and paying down the deficit without touching the entitlement most dear to their constituents. This is not a position that allows for progress, so Frum advocates an abrupt turn of pace, in the form of four priorities: economic inclusion, environmental responsibility, cultural modernity, and intellectual credibility.
For the GOP to survive, he argues, it must become more flexible on the issue of the economy, accepting thoughtful compromise in the form of sensible spending cuts with moderate revenue increase. They must accept the problem of the environment, and choose to pursue a solution in line with Republican ideals (it is on this issue that Frum is the weakest; his recommendations on environmental are ambiguous at best, advocating solutions that involve increased environmental responsibility that does not infringe on free enterprise, without ever stipulating what those solutions might be). They must stop trying to turn back the cultural clock, and accept that women are equal, physically and reproductively autonomous members of the workforce, that gays are able to live openly with their families, and that non-whites are, to put it simply, here to stay. Lastly, they must stop trying to form their own alternate realities, wherein climate change does not exist, the deficit caused the recession, tax cuts are all that is necessary to promote job growth, and pregnancy from rape is an impossibility not worth discussing. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying and as Frum repeats here, “you are entitled to your own beliefs, but not your own facts.” Instead of living in our own realities, we must use facts as the foundation for our ideas. Instead of living in an idealogical bubble, we must try to convince others of the merit of those ideas.
It’s a good road map for the party’s future, one we should all root for, even the Democrats among us (it is never good for one party to hold a monopoly over public opinion; tension between two opposing views is good for democracy). If only Republicans would listen. After a few half-hearted excuses mostly having to do with Hurricane Sandy, the GOP punditry turned its back on Romney with mind-blowing speed, and went back to doing what they do best: blaming the GOP’s failures on anyone and anything but themselves. Those guys need to read this book, and so do the people who are listening to them; namely, your Republican brother-in-law. Buy him this book, and after he finishes it (it’s a delightfully quick read), have a reasonable, respectful discussion about it over that bottle of Scotch.