I went and listened to the on-air debate between David Frum and Mark Levin at the urging of Massie and Sullivan, and I came away with the surprising conclusion that Levin definitely got the best of Frum (all use of the mute button aside). I think that’s because Frum is not acknowledging a sad fact: the dearth of charismatic political leaders on the right means that Levin’s incessant digs about relevance, as measured in “audience” for their respective work, actually matter. What good is the “idea leadership” espoused by Frum, Douthat/Salam, Brooks, et al. if it has little resonance with the mass of voters who make up the core of the Republican electorate?
The retort that Frum was unsuccessfully trying to make is that demagoguery, which is what Rush Limbaugh, Levin, and their ilk regularly engage in, is a sorry substitute for leadership. And, while that may very well be true, wonkery is an even more sorry substitute for leadership. The people don’t want nuance, substance, or even good ideas. They want something they can easily understand in sound-byte form, something that resonates with their simple, innate notions of justice, something they can repeat around the water cooler and feel good about. That’s something that writerly, intellectual types all too frequently miss. And, I hasten to add, it’s exactly what Barack Obama has been able to provide for the Democrats. (Emaphasis mine.)
I think he has a point. Frum, et al. are good writers, but in the world of politics, there needs to be someone that can take all this wonkery and distill it down to something that can be placed in a soundbite. As Marusic notes, Obama had a good way of taking all the Democratic wonk and distill into a wonderful speech. Bill Clinton could do that. So did Ronald Reagan. The thing is, someone like a Ross Douthat is not something that the average joe is going to get excited about. Which is why so many among the base like Rush: he can take "conservative" notions and make them easy to digest.
What the GOP needs is somewhat that can be "wonky" and accesible at the same time.It might be that someone like a Utah Governor Jon Huntsman could be the guy that takes thoughts from Frum, Douthat, Salam and others make then ready for mass consumption.
In the end, to reach out beyond the base that people like Frum (including myself) want to do, they need to find people who can translate that and make it presentable to the a water cooler conversation. Until that happens, the reform-minded conservatives will be on the losing end of the battle.