Portrait, Robert Reich, 08/16/09. (photo: Perian Flaherty)
14 October 11
very other Wednesday evening for the past few years I've been offering commentary on a spritely show on public radio called "Marketplace." On alternative Wednesdays David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, has been airing his views.
This past Wednesday, Frum called it quits. He explained to the show's host, Kai Risdal, that he could no longer represent Republican views.
I think that there's a kind of expectation that when you do it that you represent the broad point of view of your half of the political spectrum. And although I consider myself a conservative and a Republican, and I think that the right-hand side of the spectrum has the better answers for the long-term growth of economy - low taxes, restrained government, less regulation - it's pretty clear that facing the immediate crisis - very intense crisis - I'm just not representing the view of most people who call themselves Republicans and conservatives these days…. And it's a service to the radio audience if they want to hear people explaining effectively why one of the two great parties takes the view that it does - it needs to have somebody who agrees with that great party.
I respect David's decision but I disagree with his understanding of his job on "Marketplace." And I find his decision to leave a sad commentary (no pun intended) on what's happening to public discourse in America.
Why exactly was it necessary for David Frum to "represent" the views of conservative Republicans?
I don't feel any obligation to represent liberal Democrats. Over the years I've argued, for example, in favor of getting rid of the corporate income tax, creating school vouchers inversely related to family incomes, and extending free-trade agreements - positions not exactly favored by liberal Democrats.
The American public doesn't want or need to hear "representatives" from the so-called right or left. It wants insight into what's best for America.
Yet over and over again - on the radio, on TV, in print, in the blogosphere, and all over Washington - political ideology is substituting for thought.
Politicians take oaths and sign pledges. Special-interest groups abide by litmus tests and ideological labels. The media is either assertively liberal or conservative. Pundits are either on the left or the right.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has become so extreme that it's more and more difficult for anyone to rationally "represent" its views. As Frum put in in a post on his website, FrumForum, "Under the pressure of the current crisis - intoxicated by anti-Obama feelings and incited by talk radio and Fox - Republicans have staked out an extreme position on the role of government."
What if conservative Republicans believe the sun revolves around the earth? Would someone in David Frum's position who disagrees feel compelled to stop offering "conservative" commentaries about the celestial bodies? And would a major media outlet then be obliged to find a replacement who agrees with conservative dogma? (This isn't such a far-fetched example when you consider what leading Republicans say about evolution or climate change.)
David's particular break with Republicans has come over what to do about the continuing awful economy. Here's what he told Kai Risdal:
This is not a moment for government to be cutting back. … Right now we're watching state governments try to balance all of their budgets at the same time in the middle of this crisis. We've seen half a million public sector jobs disappear. Now, if these were good times, I would applaud that. We need to see a thinner public sector - especially at the state and local level. But we're seeing what happens when you do that as an anti-recession measure and you make the recession worse. And even though we're in a technical recovery, incomes and employment - all of that remains lagging for people - I think that we've rediscovered in this crisis something that I think we all knew. Which is, there's a reason why the people of the 1930s built some kind of minimum guarantee - unemployment insurance, health care coverage and things like that. And it's not because they wanted to be nice. It's because in a crisis when people lose their jobs, if there is no social safety net they loose 100 percent of their purchasing power.
It so happens the vast majority of economists and economic policy experts agree with David on this - even though you wouldn't know it if you watched or listened to broadcast debates between a so-called "liberal" and "conservative" economists.
No wonder Americans are so confused.
David Frum's voice will be sorely missed. Yet I understand his dilemma. At the start of his interview on "Marketplace" explaining his decision to leave the program, he was introduced this way:
David Frum has been a regular commentator for this program for years, offering the voice of the political right against Robert Reich and the views of the political left.
That introduction illustrates the problem.