David Frum Demonstrates How "Moderate" Republicans Empower Their Radical Fringe

July 07, 2011 12:30 pm ET — Jamison Foser

David Frum

Back in January, White House economist Austan Goolsbee accused Republicans of "playing chicken...with the debt ceiling" during an appearance on ABC's This Week. Conservative activist and writer David Frum promptly lashed out, saying Goolsbee was "seriously, seriously out of line" and that the Obama administration was "playing dangerous and ominous political games with the nation's credit." Frum went on to denounce what he claimed was a White House strategy to "depict Republicans as reckless fiscal madmen," accusing Goolsbee of "enflaming the very market fears you might imagine he wanted to allay" in order to "score a cheap and inaccurate political point."

Noting that "Speaker John Boehner has clearly broadcast that the House will not do anything irresponsible," Frum concluded:  

The debt will be honored. Nobody needs to worry. And if the Obama administration has any political plans that would profit from causing people to worry - that would be truly shameful.

Frum was so livid about the White House's criticism of the GOP that he turned to the caps lock key to get his point across: "Here's a suggestion: If you don't want people to play chicken with the debt ceiling, then DON'T PLAY CHICKEN WITH THE DEBT CEILING."

In short, Frum's position was that Republicans said they'd behave responsibly, so the White House should take them at their word and be nice to them, and everything would work out easily enough. It was either seriously deluded or deeply dishonest, as should have been clear to anyone who has even passing familiarity with the Republican Party's behavior over the past few decades, and has been made clear by the GOP's behavior in the ensuing months.

So now David Frum has a new column, in which he argues that because President Obama was too nice to the Republicans — too trusting that they wouldn't "do anything so reckless" as refusing to raise the debt ceiling — he merely "whetted the GOP appetite for still more." Here's Frum:

How in the world did the president arrive at this disastrous predicament?

You can blame his opponents if you want. Yes, the House Republicans have played politics very rough. Not since the era of the Vietnam War has a house of Congress used the threat of national bankruptcy to gain its way on a policy point.

But the roughness of the president's opponents does not excuse the president's own mistakes and weakness. On the contrary: from the point of view of the president's supporters, the roughness of the president's opponents makes all the more inexcusable the president's mishandling of the situation. [...]

Obama never publicly branded the debt ceiling as "if the Republicans force this country into bankruptcy." He issued no public call to constituencies like the financial industry to bring pressure to bear on the issue. [...]

Instead, he appealed again and again to Republicans' spirit of responsibility. Good luck with that.

Now, remember: When the White House's top economist went on national television to warn that Republicans were "playing chicken" with the debt ceiling and taking the chance of America "essentially defaulting on our obligations" which would cause "financial economic crisis," David Frum denounced the White House. He said the White House should be nice to Republicans and trust them to behave responsibly. Now, he denounces the White House for not issuing such statements, and ridicules Obama for appealing to "Republicans' spirit of responsibility."

This is deeply, shamelessly dishonest behavior that should disqualify Frum from being taken seriously as an observer of American politics. But it gets worse:

Some may say: What could a president do faced with such implacable opponents? But the opponents didn't start implacable. Back in January, Speaker John Boehner said the possibility of a government default was "not even on the table."

The president's weakness, however, empowered the most radical Republicans. Would one more hard push extract one more big concession? The answer was always, "yes." So the radicals pushed — and pushed again — and incidentally pushed would-be dealmakers to the side.

Through it all, Obama has played nice, again and again entreating his Republican opponents to emulate his example and play nice too. It's not what Lyndon Johnson would have done. It's not what Franklin Roosevelt would have done. I doubt it's what Hillary Clinton would have done.

Perhaps not — but it's what David Frum told Obama to do. In January, Frum pointed to Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) assurances that default was not on the table as a reason that the White House should play nicely. Now he says that playing nicely was the wrong move, and simply "empowered the most radical Republicans." And Frum never acknowledges his previous position.

The dishonesty of Frum's new column probably won't offend many — conservative columnists and activists are not known for a particularly strong fidelity to the truth. But there's more here than dishonesty. David Frum, intentionally or not, empowers "the most radical Republicans," as do his fellow "moderate" conservatives. Whenever they pretend that those "radical Republicans" will negotiate in good faith and behave responsibly if only Democrats meet them halfway, they empower the radicalism they pretend to denounce. Whenever they build up an obvious fraud like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), as Frum did in March, they empower him to produce a fraudulent budget, like Ryan did — to Frum's purported dismay — just weeks later.

In April, I wrote:

Frum, like many "serious" conservatives, doesn't truly understand the slash-and-burn ideologues who long ago seized control of the movement and the Republican Party. And, as a result, he gives the benefit of the doubt to people who do not deserve it. [...]

Frum and his ilk deserve praise when they accurately call out the the GOP's excesses. But their insistence on giving the benefit of the doubt to people who do not deserve it only makes those excesses more likely. The conservative movement, including prominent elected Republicans, promoted the looney claim that President Clinton murdered his close friend — and now "serious" Republicans act surprised that their party dabbles in birtherism. The GOP lied its way into war against a nation that didn't attack us — and now "serious" Republicans act surprised that their party lies about health care. If the David Frums of the world really want to change that, they first have to truly understand it.

The pattern of behavior from the GOP and the conservative movement over the past several decades is clear. Anyone who fails to recognize it and act upon that recognition is simply empowering it. The David Frums and Sen. Olympia Snowes (R-MN) of the world might like to think of themselves as more reasonable and responsible than their Tea Party-loving colleagues, but they aren't behaving more responsibly. Instead, they're aiding the very recklessness they purport to oppose.