David Frum: A Case Study in the Coming Conservative Rupture (No, Not Rapture)

03/26/2010 2:01 PM |

David Frum

Our special-guest political correspondent Allen McDuffee (this awesome dude) takes a look at conservative David Frum’s firing yesterday from a conservative think tank, and sees trouble ahead for the American Right.

If you wanted to know why not a single Republican voted for health care last week, see what happened to David Frum when he wrote his controversial Waterloo piece:

Conservatives and Republicans today suffered their most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s. It’s hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the disaster. Conservatives may cheer themselves that they’ll compensate for today’s expected vote with a big win in the November 2010 elections.

It doesn’t sound so controversial—and Frum is increasingly damning down the piece—but given that Frum is a conservative who played a major role in much of what we publicly saw out of George W. Bush (his stickiest creation being the Axis of Evil), it is.

So much so that the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), showed him the door yesterday.

Just to be clear, Frum wasn’t technically fired. He was asked to take a non-paying position (read: fired). In the world of think tanks, that’s the equivalent in the corporate world of being given a “promotion” that’s actually a lateral move, requiring a move to a crappy suburb in the Midwest for the same pay.

In a world that rarely has repercussions for being wrong or in disagreement with commonsense (think about the Iraq invasion), Frum, who has been at the conservative American Enterprise Institute since 2003 has been made an example.

Shortly after having lunch with AEI President Arthur Brooks yesterday, Frum submitted this resignation letter:

Dear Arthur,

This will memorialize our conversation at lunch today. Effective immediately, my position as a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute is terminated. I appreciate the consideration that delays my emptying of my office until after my return from travel next week. Premises will be vacated no later than April 9.

I have had many fruitful years at the American Enterprise Institute, and I do regret this abrupt and unexpected conclusion of our relationship.

Very truly yours,

David Frum

Forget the niceties with which Frum signs off, it’s clear that AEI fired Frum and they were so anxious to get rid of him that he was immediately scrubbed from the AEI directory of scholars and no press release has been issued.

But then there’s this tidbit from Bruce Bartlett at Capital Gains and Games:

Since, [Frum] is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI “scholars” on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

It’s clear that Frum broke a known AEI rule and wrote on health care reform.

Of course, I’m sure AEI hasn’t been happy with Frum for well over a year. Just days before the November 2008 elections, he called on Republicans to ditch the McCain-Palin ticket as a lost cause and re-focus energy on congressional seats:

In these last days before the vote, Republicans need to face some strategic realities. Our resources are limited, and our message is failing. We cannot fight on all fronts. We are cannibalizing races that we must win and probably can win in order to help a national campaign that is almost certainly lost. In these final 10 days, our goal should be: senators first.

And shortly after that, he announced he would be departing his column at the conservative National Review to go his own way and launch New Majority.


Over the past three years, I have been engaged in some intense rethinking of my own conservatism. My fundamental political principles remain the same as ever: free markets, American leadership in the world, and intense attachment to inherited moral and cultural traditions. Yet I cannot be blind to the evidence that we have seen free markets produce some damaging and dangerous results in recent years. Or that the foreign policy I supported has not yielded the success I would have wished to see. Or that traditions must evolve if they are to endure. There are new principles too that must be included in a majority conservatism: environmental protection as a core value and an unwavering insistence upon competence and integrity in government.

New Majority didn’t work out too well—a branding problem, I guess—and it was re-launched as Frum Forum, which seems it would have had branding problems of another kind.

But it appears that going it alone with New Majority/Frum Forum may have meant going it alone ideologically as well. A reformist conservative movement advocated by Frum is moving in a much different direction than the conservative establishment represented by the powerful AEI and the organizations they affiliate with.

One would have thought that the author of the Axis of Evil and helped justify the invasion of Iraq was far right enough. Sadly, that’s not the case.

Allen McDuffee writes about politics for publications such as The Nation, Mother Jones and The New York Observer. McDuffee blogs at governmentality.com and will launch a new blog about think tanks next month. He lives in Brooklyn.