David Frum wrote speeches for the President, edited the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, and has been named one of America’s 50 most influential conservatives. Yet these days he’s focusing most of his time on his blog Frum Forum. The Georgia Political Review talked recently with him about journalism, youth in America, and the best way to use writing to influence the national discourse and direct the course of our politics.
Why did you choose to go to law school rather than go straight into politics and journalism? It doesn’t really seem like you’re using your Harvard Law degree.
Like a lot of people of my generation I went to law school because I felt I needed to know more than I knew at the end of my undergraduate career. And I looked to the law as a kind of secondary general education. And I would say that’s probably not the best possible reason to go to law school, but it was very common in my age cohort, and I was part of that trend.
With the age cohort going through school now, do you think that trend might not be present?
I think now there is increasing skepticism about using law school as a kind of graduate school. Part of it is that law school has become so very expensive and the demand on time is so great for three years, and I think a lot of people feel that the legal profession is changing. A lot of jobs are not going to be as abundant or available as they used to be.
What would inspire young people to get into politics more?
I think over the past two years we’ve seen how much of politics is driven by the clash of generational differences. And what we’ve seen over the past two years is the interests of those over 65 are very strongly protected by the American welfare system. The interests of people under 40 and specifically under 30, are very poorly protected by the political system. And young people who stay out of politics are just absolutely victimized.
In your book, The Right Man, about your time as a speechwriter for President Bush, you quote an English political scientist as saying the mind of a successful politician “is more akin to the imagination of a creative artist than to any faculty intellectuals possess.” Why exactly does creativity triumph over intellect in politics, and how can we harness the imagination to produce positive change?
The point of that quote is that to see new patterns of possibility in politics are not always best seen through the analytic faculty. That the possibility that you could hold groups of people together in a new way and put to put people together in new ways who didn’t use to be together as groups, that is imaginative and intuitive and emotional. A lot of times a lot of the things that exist in politics don’t make a lot of sense. The classic example is Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, where he had the segregated white side and black America held together in one political machine. Now, you would think that wouldn’t make sense but it existed. And Roosevelt had this ability to intuit that that was possible. He held together a coalition that included the most anti-Catholic people in America and the most Catholic. He intuited that that was possible. And all of those things require a kind of vision that is different than the analytic.
On the same note, a few pages later in The Right Man, you quote British Prime Minister Lord Salibsbury as saying, “the commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies.” You recently were a co-founder of the group No Labels, which has the goal of moving politics “not left, not right, but forward.” How do you think groups like that help us move past the carcasses of dead policies and into new frontiers of politics?
I think a lot of politics as we know it now is people continuing to fight fights that were very much alive in the 1970s and 80s. And we’re still fighting battles on these issues, for example, I’ll give you just one very dramatic example: it’s very hard for people of a certain age not to believe in the huge imminent reality of inflation, that we must…that the experience of coping with inflation is one of the defining experiences of our generation if you came of age in the 1970s and 80s, and it’s very hard to accept that it doesn’t remain just as big a problem in 2010, even in the face of all the evidence. We’ve got a whole section of economic policymaking that is all based on avoiding the danger of an inflation that doesn’t exist.
You wrote recently that the Republican Party should move beyond campaigning on the excesses of the welfare state because this didn’t appeal to young voters. Rather, you argued, the G.O.P. would be better to talk about excessive healthcare expenditures, as these were more a threat to wrecking the U.S. economy.
We’ve seen the problem very, very intensely with the so-called Tea Party movement. The Tea Party movement had two big ideas in that we must have a radical reduction in government and we need lower taxes, and at the same time there can be no changes in Medicare. It’s very hard to see how you hold those two beliefs simultaneously, because healthcare is the driver of federal spending. You want to know why federal government is costing more and more, and why it’s likely to continue costing more and more, healthcare spending is the reason. If you want to be a limited government party, you need to have good healthcare policy.
If you could have done anything from your career as a college student, what would you go back and change?
I think there’s a lot to be said about the experience of living in a sustained way in a foreign country. I don’t mean as a traveler, or as a year abroad, but actually living and working in someplace different. I think it’s hugely valuable: making friends in other places and acquiring the linguistic skills that go with that experience. Living in a different kind of place is one of the most useful things you can do.
As a former Bush speechwriter, what do you think about Obama’s speeches and speechwriting? And specifically, what about the job that his speechwriter, Jon Favreau, is doing?
I don’t want to comment on personalities. I don’t know how much any one person is responsible for anything. But I am surprised that Obama’s speeches have a fault that is showing up more and more often in them which is a tendency to spend a lot of time explaining facts. The president seems to have this idea that he adds to his own stature by being explainer-in-chief. I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of the power of his communications is actually diminished, that he spends too much time explaining facts we already know, and not on summoning people to common national goals.
What do you think about the job Obama has done so far? What could he do better and what has he done well so far?
I concur with the remark of someone who was in my Twitter feed, which is Obama would be the greatest president of Harvard ever. I think there is something about him that is…He sees his great gift, that is to say that if you were to ask him what he thinks he’s good at, he thinks he’s good at “reconciling differences,” at getting people who had been uncomfortable with each other to get along. The president in the end is unable to judge his own ability. They are people with their own point of view, and if they [the administration] don’t have an agenda, if they don’t have a clear idea of what they’re trying to accomplish, and oftentimes it seems they don’t, then the thing that you don’t have a clear idea of how you going to accomplish it is the thing that you’re not going to get accomplished.