David Frum Does Not Speak for Me Any More Than Rush Limbaugh Does

I recently risked being labeled one of the “oddballs” at Hot Air when I said that, while I believe Rush Limbaugh is a very talented salesman for conservative values, I think it would be counterproductive to set him up as the head of the conservative movement. As long as I’m carrying around “NOT IN MY NAME” placards, let me add another person who doesn’t speak for me: David Frum.

Frum has a NEWSWEEK piece that expands on his recent comments about Rush Limbaugh. Even as Frum purports to set forth his conservative bonafides, he undermines them:

I supported the Iraq War and (although I feel kind of silly about it in retrospect) the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

I don’t see why a conservative would feel “silly” about having supported the impeachment of a man who committed perjury and obstruction of justice, and abused the power of his office to destroy the reputations of people whom he considered a political danger. Frum makes no argument why Clinton’s impeachment was wrong. Without that argument, his comment seems like an unnecessary concession to the liberal cocktail set — a way to get the “good people” to take his argument seriously.

Frum also repeats an offensive set of comments he made on his blog earlier this week — comments that I bashed as contradictory and unnecessarily insulting:

With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence—exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party.

In other words, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. Well, Mr. Frum, we already have one too many Al Frankens in politics. We don’t need another. Limbaugh’s bulk and private life have bupkis to do with his arguments, and you devalue the debate if you maintain that they are in any way relevant.

Here’s where Frum almost makes a good point, except that he phrases it in a hopelessly naive way:

Notice that Limbaugh did not say: “I hope the administration’s liberal plans fail.” Or (better): “I know the administration’s liberal plans will fail.” Or (best): “I fear that this administration’s liberal plans will fail, as liberal plans usually do.” If it had been phrased that way, nobody could have used Limbaugh’s words to misrepresent conservatives as clueless, indifferent or gleeful in the face of the most painful economic crisis in a generation. But then, if it had been phrased that way, nobody would have quoted his words at all—and as Limbaugh himself said, being “headlined” was the point of the exercise. If it had been phrased that way, Limbaugh’s face would not now be adorning the covers of magazines. He phrased his hope in a way that drew maximum attention to himself, offered maximum benefit to the administration and did maximum harm to the party he claims to support.

It’s crazy to say that “nobody could have used Limbaugh’s words to misrepresent conservatives . . .” Of course they could have, and of course they would have. They always do. That’s standard operating procedure for the media and leftists (but I repeat myself).

What Frum should have said is that phrasing the statement in the ways he suggests would have made it harder to distort Limbaugh’s meaning. Not impossible — just harder.

The problem with saying “I hope he fails” is that it’s open to so many interpretations. Reasonable people hearing “I hope he fails” might think Limbaugh hopes Obama’s policies, once enacted, will fail to save the economy. You think that’s a ridiculous interpretation? You may think you know what Limbaugh meant — but no matter what you think, there are conservatives equally certain that he meant something different.

I ran a poll on my site yesterday in which I said: of course no conservative wants Obama’s policies enacted. Of course Rush wants Obama to “fail” to enact them. But, assuming Obama’s policies are enacted anyway, do you interpret Rush to be saying that he wants the policies to 1) succeed, meaning the economy improves? or 2) fail, meaning socialism fails, allowing conservative principles to re-emerge?

The responses — primarily from conservative readers with no desire to misread Limbaugh’s words — were all over the map:

“It was #1, and no doubt about it.”

“Patterico, I think it is very clear that Mr. Limbaugh means #2”

“#1 obviously.”

Of course Limbaugh meant #2.”

If conservatives are this confused about Limbaugh’s message, then he didn’t express it clearly enough. And given the visibility of his CPAC speech, and the controversial nature of his remarks, he needed to be clear.

Some say: conservatives can’t worry about how they say things. They know their arguments will be distorted anyway, so they shouldn’t worry about being misinterpreted. I completely disagree with this argument. I say: when you know people will distort your meaning, you have to be extra careful to express yourself clearly.

Granted, there’s a tension between making your argument clear, and giving it punch. I understand and respect the view that if you word your statements in too lawyerly a fashion, with clarifications and caveats, you might sacrifice the forcefulness of your argument.

But you can be forceful and clear all at the same time. For example, Rush could have said: “It doesn’t matter what I hope for. I know he’ll fail.” That would have been just as effective and compelling — but possibly less controversial. And while the controversy generated by this uncertainty over Rush’s meaning has been good for his ratings, it’s doubtful that it has been good for conservatives.

What’s more, in his CPAC speech, he went out of his way to describe liberals as “deranged”:

I have learned how to tweak liberals everywhere. I do it instinctively now. Tweak them in the media. And no reason to be afraid of these people. Why in the world would you be afraid of the deranged?

Using the word “deranged” to describe liberals as a whole is just silly. It’s true of some of them. But not all of them. Calling liberals deranged may make you feel good, and it may make you laugh. But many of you consider Limbaugh to be the spokesman of the conservative movement — and if our spokesmen regularly say stuff like that, we’ll alienate voters. And then, we’ll get eight years of Obama and his crazy spending that is killing our children’s future.

When I choose leaders and spokesmen for my party and my political movement, I want clarity, vigor, integrity, perspective, and a lack of pettiness. In my view, David Frum — with his comments about Limbaugh’s bulk and personal life — showed pettiness. With his ambivalence about Clinton’s impeachment — not justified by any argument but made as an aside as if to curry favor with the elite — Frum lacks the integrity of a true conservative.

Rush has many of the above qualities — but when he calls liberals “deranged,” I think he lacks perspective. And when he said “I hope he fails,” I think he sacrificed clarity for controversy.

We can do better. Rush Limbaugh does not speak for me. And neither does David Frum.

UPDATE: At the same time, we can’t allow Democrats to seize the moral high ground on this. Here’s hard proof they didn’t want Bush to succeed.