Would the last intellectual conservative to leave Washington please turn out the lights?

The fall of AEI senior Fellow David Frum is not only a loss for intellectual conservatism, but a warning to conservative apostates everywhere that tolerance for opposing viewpoints on the right in the Age of Obama will not be a paying proposition. The previous firing of Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan senior policy analyst from the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing an anti-Bush book should have been seen at the time as a shot across the bow by the moneybags who largely fund the conservative movement and who are apparently so insecure in their own beliefs that they are terrified of the independent mind, of thoughts and ideas that don’t match up with their own.

Most of the internet right is joyful today at the humbling of Frum who has stood four square against the emotionalism and excessive partisanship demonstrated by those who consider themselves true conservatives. He has lambasted the cotton candy conservatism of Beck, Limbaugh, and other pop righties whose exaggerated, over the top rhetoric may bring in ratings but ultimately damages the cause they purport to espouse.

Does this mean Frum was always right? Nobody is always right, which is one of the main points of intellectual conservatism. A healthy conservatism would have intelligently debated Frum’s frequent critiques of the right and the GOP. Rather than questioning his motives, his ambition, or his commitment to the right, a dynamic colloquy could have ensued that would have benefited all.

Alas, such was not – could not – be the case. Instead, Frum’s numerous critics accused him of naked ambition, trying to curry favor with the left and the press in order to further his career. He was dismissed as a non-conservative or a RINO because he didn’t believe government was the enemy. He was charged with practicing punditry under false pretenses, of not really believing what he was talking and writing about.

I can tell you from experience that it is that last criticism that hurts the most and is the quickest to bring anger to the forefront of one’s emotions. Frum knew that his critiques would diminish him in the eyes of the very people who were paying his salary. Perhaps some of his critics should try doing that in their own job someday. The squeaky wheel often does not get the grease, but rather, is replaced – and quite easily as is the case with Frum.

Indeed, Frum speculates to Politco’s Mike Allen that it was his Waterloo article that proved the last straw for some of AEI’s biggest contributors:

David Frum told us last night that he believes his axing from his $100,000-a-year “resident scholar” gig at the conservative American Enterprise Institute was related to DONOR PRESSURE following his viral blog post arguing Republicans had suffered a devastating, generational “Waterloo” in their loss to President Obama on health reform. “There’s a lot about the story I don’t really understand,” Frum said from his iPhone. “But the core of the story is the kind of economic pressure that intellectual conservatives are under. AEI represents the best of the conservative world. [AEI President] Arthur Brooks is a brilliant man, and his books are fantastic. But the elite isn’t leading anymore. It’s trapped. Partly because of the desperate economic situation in the country, what were once the leading institutions of conservatism are constrained. I think Arthur took no pleasure in this. I think he was embarrassed. I think he would have avoided it if he possibly could, but he couldn’t.”

That “economic pressure” was in the form of a donor revolt, made even more remarkable, Bruce Bartlett writes, because of the cone of silence that dropped over AEI health policy wonks who were instructed not to talk to the press because they agreed with some of the things Obama was trying to do:

Since, he 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 saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn’t already.

Sadly, there is no place for David and me to go. The donor community is only interested in financing organizations that parrot the party line, such as the one recently established by McCain economic adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin.

I can see the gloat on the faces of Frum’s critics as they read that “the elite isn’t leading anymore.” This has been the biggest bone of contention between the few conservative critics on the right who rail against the mindless, ideologically driven opposition of many movement conservatives to anything they don’t agree with vs. the reasoned and logical, more pragmatic opposition that is more open minded, more accepting of the notion that compromise is necessary for government to work.

In fact, this was the thesis of Frum’s Waterloo article; that by choosing not to engage the Democrats in crafting Obamacare, the GOP shot itself in the foot by not only appearing weak, but eventually being unable to block the monstrosity of Obamacare. In achieving this dubious honor, the governing elites were driven like a herd of cattle, being prodded on by talk radio and Fox News buffoons who lead the movement and where any deviation from accepted wisdom was met with a withering blast of mockery and threats of excommunication.

Why has conservatism turned into such an echo chamber? Why do most on the right only read and digest that with which they agree and not open their minds, test their basic assumptions against opposing views? What is it that frightens them so that they see those who criticize the rank emotionalism of a Beck or Limbaugh as “the enemy” rather than the normal give and take among people who disagree?

I searched for an answer to these and other questions in my 5 part series “Intellectual Conservatism Isn’t Dead.” And while I never came right out and said it, I think what I was driving at was that the rejection of intellectuals or “the elites” is symptomatic of a lack of confidence in what conservatives should stand for. Issues aren’t the problem. There is broad agreement on which issues are important and what position conservatives should hold.

Rather, it is a lack of confidence in what conservatism as a philosophy should be all about. Witness the health care debate and the eagerness with which many conservatives are embracing the rush to federal court to have Obamacare declared unconstitutional. Does anyone see the titanic irony in, on the one hand, declaring fierce opposition to “activist judges” while on the other hand scurrying off to court in order to plead with a judge to take an activist stance against legislation with which the right disagrees?

This is the kind of emotional partisanship that is killing conservatism, driving the right off a cliff. And it comes from closing one’s mind to alternative viewpoints; to understand where the other side is coming from (both the left, and opponents on the right) while being terrified that one might be harboring views that are not in lock step with the majority. It is fear that is driving this kind of excessively partisan, morbidly ideological behavior on the right – fear that being cast outside of the groupthink that has become modern conservatism will leave the apostate without a political ship on which to sail.

Reading and listening to Hannity, Limbaugh, Coulter, and other pop conservatives without investigating alternative viewpoints, without challenging your own beliefs from time to time, marks one as a philistine. It is the antithesis of conservatism to close one’s mind and reject alternative viewpoints based not on their relevancy or reason but rather on the source of the criticism.

It is easy to dismiss conservatives like Frum by chalking up their opposition to the groupthink by wittily offering that they say those things so that they can get invited to liberal cocktail parties, or advance their careers in the leftist MSM. This kind of personal criticism is easier than having to respond directly to the charges that modern movement conservatism has lost touch with reality, and has become irresponsible, loutish, anti-science, and anti-intellectual. Greedy, selfish, cynical, and most of all, intellectually rigid, what is being identified as modern conservatism has no coherence, no basis in logic, and proudly represents itself as the party of little or no government at all.

And people like Frum, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, Bruce Bartlett, and others like them who are in bad odor on the right for being “traitors” will go on being ignored and marginalized because actually dealing with their criticisms by debating them on the merits or demerits of their opinions opens a chasm beneath the feet of most movement conservatives. Even the tiniest of hints that not all they believe may be true is enough to throw the fear of God – or Rush – into them and send them scurrying back into the safety and warmth of blissful ignorance found on talk radio and conservative internet salons.

The apostates are not always right. On health care, it is naive to believe the Democrats were prepared to work with the GOP on anything that would have stopped short of the kind of comprehensive remaking of our health care that eventually passed. This, the GOP could not countenance under any circumstances and remain a viable political party. In that respect, the main thesis of Frum’s Waterloo article is hopelessly wrong. But should that be cause to force him out?

Not if conservatism was a healthy, dynamic, politically relevant entity. If that were the case, the conservative moneybags would have gotten their money’s worth because conservatism would have been better for the subsequent debate. Instead, lockstep lunacy reins and Frum – and the rest of intellectual conservatism – finds itself on the outs.

RICK MORAN, Guest Voice Columnist
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Copyright 2010 The Moderate Voice
  • $1597245

    I don’t blame Frum because of the characters surrounding the kill the bill crowd, especially the tea party. The tea party is nothing but an arm of the republican party, they are almost a black ops squad which has “no affiliation” with the party. The tea party allows republicans to hit by proxy, awaking its fringe in order to carry out orders, at least that is what this article says, it give good points check it out


  • Great post Rick. While a may disagree with Frum, Bartlett and yes even you, I miss the days when it was them and people like them I was debating with. The Republican party has been hijacked by FOX and the talk radio industry and their base is not at all conservative. While the Tea Party mobs talk small government they don’t what to cut anything, except to non whites, they just don’t want to pay for them. As Frum said FOX and Limbaugh are not interested in conservative ideology they are interested in making money and the best way to do that is to rile up their mob base. I think we need an intelligent dialogue with both the conservative and progressive sides. There is nothing conservative about today’s conservative movement.

  • chipsilicon

    Bruce Bartlett (MA, Georgetown), student of diplomatic history and peddler of “voodoo economics” back when it could earn him a few bucks, considers himself and David Frum (Harvard Law) [who’s been basically a $100K/year shill until his johns stopped paying] intellectuals, but paints Douglas Holtz-Eakin (Ph.D., Princeton)–a professional economist–as a mere political hack. That’s rich.

    My rule of thumb is simple: There are no intellectuals in Washington, on either political team. There are play-for-pay writers with a copy of (not Bruce) Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations at the ready and the ability to craft a nifty speech or op-ed piece using the ideas of others, but there are no original thinkers inside the beltway. It’s a salon at best, and an abbatoir for independent thought at worst, but it is not an academy. That’s not Washington’s role in our society, and I think we would all do well to keep that in mind.

  • DLS

    As I wrote elsewhere — Frum (who wants the GOP to be more generously “compassaionate,” such as with entitlements) can join Andy Sullivan at the Atlantic, or Fred Barnes, and make a new current career place for himself looking down at the peasantry outside the Beltway, out in the provinces, Flyover Country, or the Great Unkown (which is actually befitting, since they’re out of touch so often). I suppose many of the little clique centered on DC (like fleas on a dog) will make a big deal now about “angry” populist America (using the “populist” term synonymously with “vulgar”). The Left, with its pretense to elitism, will thrive on this. It’s all predictable.

    • TheMagicalSkyFather

      “Compassionate Conservatism” needs to die a horrible and memorable death, I did not catch Frum’s connection to that but thanks for the heads up. Where as I believe in making deals and deal makers I do not like nor appreciate “third way” systems or ideas since they further distort our politics, economy and frustrate confuse and incite the electorate. Maybe…just maybe it is ok that different or at least another party wins some elections. One party states work badly and destroy any hope for Democracy.

      • DLS

        “‘Compassionate Conservatism’ needs to die a horrible and memorable death[.]”


        The name, the phrase, itself is an insult to intelligence.

  • DLS

    “There are no intellectuals in Washington”

    So true. Paid hacks and hangers-on — not one of them daring to note that the reason they’re there and what has normal people upset with Washington are all related — these all are consequences of the vast overgrowth of the federal government (with the support of many, including the parasitic “symbotic” contingent, like Frum — acting like court jesters or entertainers to the blated, ego-centric royalty).

  • steadystate

    The biggest problem with conservativism right now is their bed-fellows in the Christian Right. The tendency for group thought and the inability to challenge ideas comes from the religious base, regardless of how ironic it is that they essentially put a dollar value to human life (unless it’s in the womb). That has been both the life-blood and the death of the conservative movement.

    This is not to say that all religious people are prone to group thought or unwilling to challenge ideas (I don’t go so far as to espouse Maher-isms), but most who I know that are both religious and open-minded tend to moderates or Democrats. There is something to the groups of people who clamor about how the Earth is only 5,000 years old (b/c they either believe the Bible says so; or their pastor has said so) – despite the evidence mounted against such a claim – that also leads them to be skeptical of what they are told to be skeptical about: a) climate change, b) diversity, c) government, d) the UN, e) the “Mainstream” Media (that ironically seems to give an awful lot of airtime to Palin and her lot), etc.

  • aanjrg

    Rick, this is the first time that I have read a poorly researched essay of yours. While the Frum resignation fits your thesis of the closing of the conservative mind, it just does not pass muster here. Check out Conor Fierderdorf”s comment at true/slant.com for a more thoroughly researched article concerning Frum and AEI”s health reform involvement. A simple computer search by yourself could easily see extensive comment and articles by AEI on healthcare. By the way, as Conor and others point out, Norm Ornstein is still at AEI and he certainly doesn’t follow the GOP cheerleaders.

    • archangel

      aanjrg, your link is broken

      deputy managing editor, TMV

    • RickMoran

      I wrote the piece before Conor’s article was published, and before any real react from AEI was disseminated except the Politico blurb.

      Would I have made a different point? Probably about the manner of Frum’s exit, yes, although no examination of the incident would be complete without including Frum’s follow up explanation:


      The larger thesis of my article was what Frum and others have been saying for years; anger, emotionalism, hysteria, exaggerated rhetoric, conspiracy theories and the rest of what makes up pop conservatism damages everyone on the right. It cheapens critiques of Obama and the left because it gives people an excuse not to listen. To ignore, or dismiss, or deny that this is largely the face of modern conservatism just isn’t possible.

      I note in a comment thread over at Next Right where I also posted this piece one critic of mine who is challenged to name a conservative intellectual that he doesn’t think is “pointy headed.” He tried Goldberg, which is a debatable choice, and Mark Steyn which is pretty laughable. The point being, to dismiss the viewpoints of someone because they are a “pointy headed intellectual” is, on its face, anti-intellectual and bespeaks a clouded, and closed mind.

      I don’t agree with much Frum has to say about tactics. Because of that, many of his critics ignore his philosophical criticism and attack him because he attacks Republicans. But his underlying critique I agree with – conservatives are lost at the moment; fearful, angry, and unable to come to grips with the world as it is., Substituting screaming hyperbole, and hysterically exaggerated claims about Obama and the Democrats for rational, reasoned criticism of what they are trying to accomplish causes most of the American people to tune conservatives out.

      That’s Frum’s basic thesis and I believe it is has been proved by events.

  • aanjrg

    Sorry—-it is trueslant.com—aanjrg

  • CStanley

    This is clearly a he said/he said situation and everyone will make of it what they will, but I dunno…I think Frum’s ex-boss’s story that they had to tell Frum they couldn’t keep paying him 100K a year for writing 3 blog posts seems rather plausible.

    Sounds like it was a good gig while it lasted though. I’ll volunteer to do it for half the pay!

  • bsjones

    I said I would stop visiting Rightwingnuthouse, but I lied. I wanted to come back one more time… Just to say you all were right. Now that ObamaCare has passed, I’m eager to bring my parents down to the government run health clinic to get their shots of Solyent Green as soon as I get my One World Government Health Care Card from the recently socialized postal service.And.. Once they get the hotlines set up and the 800 numbers have been widely disseminated, I’ll be bringing my Islamist brother-in-law to the FEMA Camps located in the United Nations Reserve up in the Cascade Mountains. Operators standing by….Sorry, gotta go. Victoria Jackson, a bag of “Democracy Bricks” and I have a date with a few windows at DNC headquarters, Bart Stupack’s cousin’s house, and an eliminate the cancer that is “European Progressivism” march through Skokie, but keep on fighting the good fight Mr. Moran. Maybe you’ll see me at the march with the rest of my CPAC brethren. As a bonus some conservative, intellectual, heavy hitters are expected to be there including Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent. Don’t forget your birth certificate. You need it to march.Death to the Commies!!http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=376769796902