We have had campaign-finance reform, and reform of the seniority system in Congress, and endless rounds of anticorruption measures in the federal government. Calls for “transparency” and “accountability” have meant more administrative and judicial supervision. In turn, power flows to impersonal institutions (agency review boards, courts, and so on) and away from elected leaders who can get things done—and who can be punished at the ballot box for delay and disappointment.
Frum's argument is related to the line of political thought I've called Neo-Lincolnism, which values leadership in forms ranging from deal-making to arm-twisting over an idealized notion of deliberative persuasion in which leaders make things happen by making speeches. Lyndon Johnson is as much an exemplar of the leadership advocated by neo-Lincolnism as Lincoln himself. While Neo-Lincolnism has focused on presidential leadership, often as a critique by Democrats of Barack Obama's alleged over-emphasis on speechmaking, Frum expands the argument to criticize a loss of congressional leadership over the last forty years. An unintended consequence of liberal Democrats' efforts to break the power of their elderly, reactionary southern compatriots over congressional committees is that "Committees and subcommittees multiplied to the point where no single chair has the power to guarantee anything. This breakdown of the committee system empowered the rank-and-file member—and provided the lobbying industry with more targets to influence. Committees now open their proceedings to the public. Many are televised. All of this allows lobbyists to keep a close eye on events—and to confirm that the politicians to whom they have contributed deliver value."
Frum finds it bitterly ironic that reforms enacted "to eliminate backroom wheeling and dealing" having only given lobbyists more influence over government. Well-meaning reformers are only "eliminating governance itself." Whether you agree or not, the charge begs the question of what Frum means by "governance." In simplest terms, of course, we can say "getting things done." As Frum, a moderate conservative, well knows, many Americans believe that the point of our system of government is to prevent things getting done when getting things done seems to threaten either vested interests or enshrined individual rights. Frum realizes that activist "conservative" judges have contributed to the current problem by subjecting politics to excessive judicial supervision. But the original impetus to which he traces our current torpor came from liberals who resented "wheeling and dealing" and were determined to root out corruption wherever they perceived it. Liberals of a certain stripe resent most deal-making because they wish that politics could be settled through principled deliberation. While LBJ and Lincoln are, in their respective fashions, icons of liberalism, the insinuation of neo-Lincolnism, as echoed in Frum's article, is anti-liberal (though not conservative) in one particular sense. A great liberal hope, inscribed in the Constitution itself, is that procedures should suffice to get things done while compensating for the foibles of individual leaders. James Madison hoped that checks, balances and so on would channel the ambitions and other impulses that make men less than angels toward constructive, mutually beneficial ends. By the 21st century, it seemed as if ambitions checked ambitions too well, too thoroughly, so that none seemed to prevail and nothing seemed to get done. Neo-Lincolnism hints that real, effective leadership can't be contained entirely by the strictures of proceduralism -- that at least in the sort of society we've lived in all along, wheeling and dealing, horse trading, arm twisting, are all inescapably necessary even if they betray or belie the liberal ideals of principled deliberation. What redeems Neo-Lincolnism as a democratic idea is the insistence of both original neo-Lincolniam Sean Wilentz and a possible sympathizer like David Frum that leaders remain accountable to the people for whatever they do in a way that unelected actors, from judges to lobbyists, are not. This political philosophy allows ends to justify means more than pure liberalism does, but as long as we agree that the people, not the leaders, are the ultimate judges of ends and means alike, Neo-Lincolnian arguments may contribute to getting things done in the long run.