David Frum and the Failure of Conservatism

Summary

David Frum reversed his position on gay marriage. Conservatives would have you believe that the case for or against it requires a review of evidence.

In framing his reversal this way, he’s misrepresenting his previous position, and glossing over the deeper question: is conservatism capable of producing coherent policies in a nation whose foundational values include equality, justice, and union?

Conservatism has been wrong on the most fundamental questions of human rights. The questions of slavery, women’s right to vote and interracial marriage were not decided by weighing evidence, and neither is the question of gay marriage.


David Frum, a conservative columnist, recently admitted “I Was Wrong About Same-Sex Marriage.”

In linking to his article on my facebook page, I stated:

“Oops! David Frum tries to backpedal his previous opposition to gay marriage. What he doesn’t understand is that this is an indictment not just of his previous position, but of conservatism generally.”

A friend asked about my strategy of chastising a person who has come to agree with me on one of my core issues. “Why not just pat him on the back and welcome him into the tent?”

David Frum didn’t invent his opposition to gay marriage ex nihilo; his core principle, conservatism, predictably led him to make this fundamental mistake.

In his reversal, Mr. Frum states:

“…the case against same-sex marriage has been tested against reality. The case has not passed its test.”

Frum’s conservatism seems to suggest an evidence-based requirement of change, and yet his position is not now nor ever was informed by evidence.

In his former arguments, Mr. Frum wasn’t asking that gay marriage be tested; quite the opposite. He and most other conservatives have viciously fought any attempt to grant rights to homosexuals.

To claim now that gay marriage has been tested and found innocuous is to subtly, but importantly, misrepresent the prior position. What is more important, it’s an attempt to ignore the core problem, which is the philosophy of conservatism.

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Progress is Winning

Conservatism is the anchor on the ship of progress.

A President In Denial

In his weekly radio address, President Bush, today, stated the following:

“Like our own nation’s founders over two centuries ago, the Iraqis are grappling with difficult issues, such as the role of the federal government,” he said. “What is important is that Iraqis are now addressing these issues through debate and discussion — not at the barrel of a gun.”

What?

Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha

I guess the last 2.5 years of bloody conflict throughout Iraq, the ongoing insurgency, and the almost 150,000 American troops on the ground, most of whom carry guns, don’t count as “at the barrel of a gun.”

This President is ridiculous, and those who support him are in just as much denial as he is.

To America

I am your son. I have been raised to value and cherish your ideals. I have been raised to fight whenever those ideals are challenged. And this morning, I must draw a line in the sand and give a warning to any who would seek to deny those ideals to me, my family, or my friends.

My brother is gay. He is an American. I will fight to make sure that he is recognized as a full citizen of this country. Any “ideal” that seeks to marginalize his full and unapologetic participation in this country will be met with as much resistance as I can marshal. This is not negotiable.

We will not find common ground so long as your goal is to deny him. If your vision of America does not include my brother, you have set yourself up as an enemy to the ideals of America that I cherish; ideals I learned at your breast.

Looking forward

Four years ago tomorrow, the morning after Al Gore lost, I had a knot in my stomach. Certainly, I was upset by the scenarios surrounding the election. But, to leave my anger there would have been defeatist and would have left me feeling powerless to affect change. I made a commitment, that morning, to engage myself in the political process.

What I forced myself to recognize was not so much that others had “stolen” that election from us, but that WE had failed to adequately sell our vision for America. We had to do better, and therefore, I had to do better.

I went online, found where my democratic legislative district met, and attended the next meeting. The first few were extremely frustrating. The party organization is chaotic. I attended state party meetings. I met whomever I could meet, spoke to any and all who I thought could teach and guide me, and continued to progress in my knowledge of party, state, and federal politics.

Today marks the end of the 3rd official campaign that I’ve worked on in the past 4 years. I worked for early gubernatorial candidate Phil Talmadge as his Communications Director. Then, in December of 2003, I learned that Mark Sidran was running for Attorney General and felt this was a good fit for him and for the State. I asked to manage his campaign and was given the job.

Mark’s campaign was a fierce, long battle. From my position there, I was able to see into the inner-workings of nearly every major political race in our State. I got to know the players, I saw the candidates in all their strength and weakness. I was able to witness the push and pull of the most powerful special interests in our State.

Mark’s narrow loss in the September primary was difficult. We had worked hard to narrow the huge gap between Mark and his opponent, Deborah Senn. In the end, however, and for reasons that in many ways were out of our control, we weren’t able to close the last 1.3% gap, and Mark lost. It was a bitter defeat.

Following that loss, I was immediately offered the job of managing a city-wide initiative to recall the building of a monorail. This campaign, with only 5 weeks to plan and execute prior to today, was a whirlwind campaign and an uphill battle.

This has been the most difficult and most thrilling period of my life. Personally, I’ve had many blessings and challenges that have kept me on an emotional roller coaster. Professionally, I’ve gained valuable experience and moved dramatically forward in my effort to engage myself in the process of building a more perfect union.

So, four years later, where are we now? In many ways, we’ve barely moved. Our country is still essentially split in much the same way as it was during the 2000 election. As I write this, I don’t yet know who has won the presidency; but, either way, the work is only, as always, just beginning.

It is time to commit again, for the next four years. Will you join me?

What are you industrious about?

Following a poor August, the Republican Convention in NYC, and some less-than-promising polling numbers this week, I’ve heard emerging despair from many of my democratic friends. It appears, however unthinkable, that George Bush has a real shot at retaining his presidency. It’s now clear that John Kerry is actually going to have to run a campaign to defeat George Bush, who refuses to be shamed into just leaving office with his tail between his legs.

We’ve got anger in abundance. We’ve had protests. We’ve held marches, vigils, and sit-ins. We’ve worn clever t-shirts, affixed cute bumper stickers, and dutifully supported political documentaries. We’ve felt good about ourselves, and self-righteous in our indignation. And yet, George Bush remains a viable candidate in the upcoming election. How can this be, after all that we’ve done?

Here’s an idea: perhaps what we have done, what we are doing, is ineffective? One of my favorite quotes comes from Thoreau: “it is not enough to be industrious, so are the ants; what are you industrious about?”

On the morning following the inauguration of George W. Bush into the office of presidency, I made a promise to myself that I would not just let my anger take over, but that I’d actually do something about it. I’d involve myself in the system, and learn how to affect change. I concluded one all-important lesson from the election of 2000: we had done a poor job organizing our support and communicating our message. In short, we got our ass kicked by a better team.

The Presidential election is still 2 months out; we may yet obtain victory. But, in the ensuing 2 months, let us re-evaluate our efforts. Are we just patting ourselves on the back, turning inward to our insular communities of self-support and singing to the choir? Or, are we broadening our message, and learning to communicate with Bush supporters and non-voters and giving them a reason to support John Kerry?

Even if we win, and especially if we lose, there is much work to be done. We need to rebuild the democratic party and message, and learn how to speak to those who see the world through different eyes. We need to focus our energies where they do the most to further our ideals.

It is not enough to be angry; we must be effective. It is not enough to be industrious, we must have purpose.

A Swift Kick to Free Speech

President Bush is now requesting that all 527s cease their activity, rather than specifically requesting that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth cease their ads. This request misses the mark by a wide margin; he’s now attacking a foundational principal rather than attacking specific instances of indecency.

In the end, I support the concept of 527s because to do otherwise would be to ignore the foundational principal of free speech. We are free to make a determination as to when speech crosses a line, and then condemn or cease to participate in specific instances of speech.

By choosing to not condemn the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s ads, and instead focusing on killing all 527 activity, Pres. Bush is asking for a cessation of all speech, rather than specifically condemning those instances of speech that cross a line of decency.

Seemingly unable to navigate the nuances of a difficult issue, the Bush administration would rather take blunt, bright line positions. This, however, is difficult to do in a free society; I expect the leader of the free world to be able to distinguish the difference.

A Swift Veer Off Message

With the emergence of 527 groups, which were born out of the attempts to better regulate campaign contributions, I’m not sure we’ve really taken a step forward in making our elections more fair or voters better informed. These groups will likely become the bogeymen of political consultant’s worst nightmares.

Often, a campaign’s biggest problems are not its opposition, but overzealous and politically naive supporters. This was certainly true when I ran the two medical marijuana initiatives in the late 1990’s in Washington State; single-issue activists on any given issue rarely understand the nuances of running a campaign.

That’s why I’m relatively confident that the Bush campaign didn’t coordinate the Swift boat Veteran’s For Truth campaign that is taking shots at Kerry’s military record. For the past week, this has been THE hot news story, and I think will ultimately prove to be a losing issue for the right and for Bush’s reelection. The Bush team is riding it out now, getting any benefit they think they can get; but the moment that polling tells them that this issue is backfiring (and it will), they will take distinct steps to distance themselves from it. They will need to regain control of the “message” of the campaign.

And, that is the problem with 527s. Their advocacy will frequently not be tempered by big-picture judgement; they exist to forward a single-issue agenda, but don’t have an overall view of the broad issues that need to be managed in a political campaign. And, with their ability to raise and spend unlimited funds, they can easily overshadow the “official” messaging of a given political campaign. As I say, it’s going to be a nightmare for political consultants.

Now…regarding the actual content of the Swift boat Veteran’s For Truth ads; I find this tactic distasteful and unjustifiable. The defense of this “inquiry” by some on the right is that John Kerry invited this scrutiny by making his military service central to his campaign. Sure; but that doesn’t mean that any question or any inquiry is in good taste. The analogy that comes to mind would be like probing the sexual history of Laura Bush, and then claiming “well, Pres. Bush made this an open issue because he included her in his political campaign.” This crosses the line of decency, and simply hiding behind the “527” is not good enough.

But, I am confident that independent voters will see this for what it is, and ultimately, this will become a net-positive for John Kerry.

Check Box Voting…Contextual Voting

How should we decide where to spend our votes?

My work in political consulting has given me an inside view of electoral politics. On behalf of my current client, I’ve spent the year making pitches to various special-interest groups, often with radically differing views of what they want government to do. These groups tend to make long lists of specific requirements for candidates to meet in order to gain their support.

At a recent democratic legislative district meeting, a woman suggested a “no endorsement” for the district’s very democratic incumbent State Representative. “He’s never supported our platform 100%,” she argued.

Elected politicians operate independently of the local organized party and platforms. Should this State Representative align his legislative positions on the platform of his legislative, county, or state party?

Party platforms, like the platforms of most special-interest groups, are created in a vacuum. They are elaborate sketches of a ship that will never float. These groups spend hours drawing their plans with one key factor missing: opposition.

Drafting a platform without an understanding of opposition is like designing a ship without considering the properties of water. If you never have to test your theories, then the specifics of your design are meaningless.

Elected officials operate in the real world of politics. They have to present legislation and ideas that can “float” in the face of radically opposite ideologies.

Many of us follow the pattern of special-interest groups; we create check boxes of our issues, and support politicians who align with them as closely as possible.

Is this the most productive way to spend our vote? To see the results of this thinking, we can hold up the candidacy of Ralph Nader in the 2000 election; many who voted for Nader did so out of a sense of duty to their own convictions. And yet, the direct result of their actions was to move the country further away from their ideals.

The ship of state is a large vessel, and turning that ship takes coordinated and patient effort. The Naderites expected the ship to make an immediate 90 degree turn to the left; in their zeal, they failed to realize that ships and politics don’t work that way.

If the ship of state is pointed even 1 degree in the wrong direction, over a period of time, the results can be dramatic, taking us miles off course. Rather than seeking to radically alter the course of the ship, we should first work to ensure that it is pointed at least 1 degree in the right direction. Over time, that 1 degree will take us towards our desired destination. Steer the ship 1 degree in the wrong direction, and we will soon be miles away from our goal.

In place of check box voting, I use something I call contextual voting. I weigh the pulse of the country, the strength of the opposition, and then I look to see which of my ideals has opportunity to move forward at this time. I give my vote to candidates who can effectively keep the ship of state headed in the right direction, even if only in small degrees. My ideology has to be tempered by the context in which my vote is being cast; to ignore that context is to waste valuable time and effort.

I have strongly held beliefs and ideals. I wish that many things in our society operated differently. But, I also realize that steering the ship of state is a coordinated effort, with many hands at the wheel. This requires me to emphasize some of my ideals while being patient on others.

Contextual voting gives me hope by forcing me to take a long-term view; when I get caught in check box voting, I am left with despair because my specific platform hasn’t gained attention or support.