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David Frum and the Closing of the Conservative Mind

25 Mar 2010
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

As some readers of this blog may know, I was fired by a right wing think tank called the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing a book critical of George W. Bush's policies, especially his support for Medicare Part D. In the years since, I have lost a great many friends and been shunned by conservative society in Washington, DC.

Now the same thing has happened to David Frum, who has been fired by the American Enterprise Institute. I don't know all the details, but I presume that his Waterloo post on Sunday condemning Republicans for failing to work with Democrats on healthcare reform was the final straw.

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 will have more to say on this topic later. But I wanted to say that this is a black day for what passes for a conservative movement, scholarship, and the once-respected AEI.

Note: Further comments and clarification here and here.

Sorry to hear that

Mr. Barlett, I'm sorry to hear about Mr. Frum and likewise, about what happened to you in 2005. While I assume becoming a member of the Democratic Party is out of the question, there will always be a place for you to go. You go with your own views and keep writing and I'll continue to read you.

I don't agree with some of what you say, but it's refreshing to see someone that is able to argue,debate and speak in a congenial manner and doesn't stoop to the name calling that so many Republicans seem to do now.

So while you think there is nowhere for you to go, I say their is no need to go anywhere. Good writing, good intellectual content and fresh ideas will always have a home. At least, I hope they will.

Good Day

I agree

As a liberal, I agree with Strawmanmunny... we don't have all the answers, and we need thoughtful people form both sides in the debate. I hope you and Frum continue.

I agree with the comments of

I agree with the comments of many people. I am not a Republican or a Democrat, but I have tended to vote more for Democrats because I do not suscribe to the policies and ideas of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbauh and Sarah Palin. I find them divisive and really bad for our country. I believe that either extreme is bad and I love to hear sensible conservative ideas. I don't always agree with either side, but lately I can not even listen to the Republicans because its all ideology and pipe dreams with no substance. I enjoy hearing David Frum because he is always sensible and intelligent and he actually has changed my opinion in many subjects.

We need more people like you on the other side. I just hope the Republican party wakes up and stops this nasty and divisive way of doing things.

This is the true color of

This is the true color of republicans/conservatives. If you are balanced, rational and have an IQ above room temperature, you have no place in so called conservative movement. You have to be like Palin, Linbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Bush, Cehenyes to stay in the conservative party.

I'm not sorry at all. There's

I'm not sorry at all. There's no room for people who support socialist medicine in the GOP. If Frum like ObamaCare, maybe he should go see if the Specter for Senate campaign needs a policy advisor.

It can hardly be said to be extreme to oppose this policy when it turned out to be too left-wing for Susan Collins & Olympia Snowe to support. Basically Frum is saying that he - and perhaps others at AEI - are more liberal than Susan & Olympia.

If you ever have a problem with opposing the expansion of government, that's a good hint that you're not a conservative. I think Bartlett was right about Medicare Part D, but Frum was sacked for the opposite reason: he *supported* big government, not that he opposed it.

Tellingly, this commentator

Tellingly, this commentator got it all wrong. The issue is not whether Frum's analysis of Republicans' strategy and conservative principles on the health-care debate were right or wrong, but whether open debate and different views are acceptable within that party and movement. This commentator's response suggests not.


Since when were the Republicans for small government? I know they talk about it but have you watched what they do when they are in power. Spend, spend, spend... The biggest expansion in the history of the government was under George W. Bush. The right needs to stop spewing "conservative" platitudes and begin some thoughtful action.

Conservatives that get kicked to the curb

This movement is devouring its own children.

Frum's comment about the AEI gag order on health care is really quite... surprising. Could it be possible that Obama knew about this realm of conservative thought, and thus that influenced his approach, so that he perceived an easy con-census? (Assuming this took place WAAY before the town hall nonsense occured with respect to health care reform.)

It just points to more evidence that despite good ideas, the conservative side constantly worked to bat away any attempts to work rationally on this issue with the Democrats.

Anyways - Bruce is it possible to donate to your site at all? I have never seen anything listed on the site here that comes close to a "support us" or "donate to our cause" logo.


 As far as I know you are the first person who has ever offered to donate. Stan Collender runs the site. Send him an e-mail though the contact form.

watch the climate deniers

Next to go will be climate scientists who previously provided support to the denial movement. Roy Spencer's UAH data is starting to set new records. I wonder how long it will be before he becomes some sort of traitor.

While I fully accept that different political positions are important for the health of democracy, the current mood of personal attack, censorship and flat out irrationality on the right side of politics is a worrying trend. That's in part why I set up a petition to support the right of climate scientists to work without harassment.

What an excellent idea. I

What an excellent idea. I would be happy to donate as well.

I'm not remotely as bright as

I'm not remotely as bright as you and Frum are, but I've got to say that I agree wholeheartedly. The anti-intellectualism and "check your brain at the door" kneejerk policy positions of the GOP seem much more interested in preserving and maximizing profits for the wealthy donors to their orgs than in promoting American economic excellence.

I'm seeing similar (lack of) quality stuff from Heritage.


Heritage cut off contact with me when I was fired from NCPA even though I was a senior fellow at Heritage in the 1980s. I view it as the research arm of the Republican National Committee.


A lot of us non-conservative non-Republican observers noticed the lack of coherence and in many cases lack of honesty among the conservative intelligentsia, a long long time ago. The big money and the crucial political decisions are controlled by people who want power and don't care much about how they get it.

Hammering Obama on the

Hammering Obama on the possibility of cost controls on Medicare was one of the most ridiculous things the party has every done. They could have just let him do it (given that it was something conservatives have legitimately wanted for years) and, if they really felt it was politically advantageous (if not particularly ideologically sensible), THEN hammered him and other Dems on the cuts. Instead, it seemed as if they simply felt like they needed to ditto the message of "death panel" Palin.

AMEN, it was crazy. Glad I'm

AMEN, it was crazy. Glad I'm not the only one who thought that.

No place for disent

It's an uncomfortable place to be. But if winning the political battle is the first issue, then truth becomes a first victim. I would assume that AEI has gone more political than interested in hammering out best policy. A shame. But all Washington is similar. Any wonder we proles don't have much respect?

Sadly, there is no place for David and me to go.

You couldn't leave the Dark Side?

Well, it's certainly rational

Well, it's certainly rational and defensible to be a conservative, but not to be a Republican.

There are plenty of wacky partisans on the left, and the Democrats have no monopoly on integrity. tea party is pretty bogus.

It would be great to see more mellow, or at least rational, problem solvers from both sides get together to solve the serious and pressing problems we face. Not holding my breath, though.

Good luck. I expect you and

Good luck.

I expect you and Mr. Frum will have more company soon. It looks to me like the purge is just getting started. The two of you could provide a nucleus around which other thinking conservatives could gather.

a personal loss, too

You wrote, "In the years since, I have lost a great many friends and been shunned by conservative society in Washington, DC."

I am very familiar with the story of your excommunication, but I somehow had no idea that that was the case. What a sad experience for you to have to go through.

I wonder if the prospect of damaged personal relationships years and decades in the making is the most powerful explanation for why we don't see more "defections" from the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. (Hmm, well, just entertaining that idea sounds suspiciously like anti-market-triumphalism).

There are no ideas, no policies left; just partisanship and cultural resentment. The policy arguments that you made, and the political arguments that Frum has been making, are unanswerable. So you must be rendered into nonpeople. What a sad, bitter implosion for a once-vigorous movement.


I was discussing this a while back with a friend who went through a bitter divorce and we agreed that our experiences were comparable: you lose a lot of friends, it costs you vastly more than you imagined, and you'd think about it a lot harder if you knew the consequences. But in the end you would still do the same thing if you want to live with yourself.

the long goodbye

Thanks for your reply. It really had never occurred to me just how personally difficult that time must have been for you, so I'm very glad to hear that you are comfortable with your decision.

I'm wondering about your experience writing your follow-up book to "Impostor," "Wrong on Race." It seemed to me to be an attempt to get back into the good graces of the right wing. Is that a fair thing to say? Is it a book you'd want to write now? Was the promotion/publication/tour drastically different than you'd expected for a book that you might have expected to get support from the GOP and GOP-friendly media?

It seems to me that there might be an interesting story there, about book tours, how talking points are generated, falling reluctantly away from a movement and social group. I realize this might seem like an insulting, or at the least demanding question; I will certainly take no offense if you decline to answer it, or approve its posting.

Race book

The reason I wrote the race book was to encourage Republicans to compete for the black vote. Unfortunately, I hadn't banked on Obama being the Democratic nominee. But if Hillary had pulled it out my strategy might have worked. 

derails are bad, especially when there's basketball to watch

Thanks for your reply. I'd be pleased to debate that thesis, but it would be a derail at this point. Thanks for being willing to engage with commenters, and for being willing to talk about your experience with this being cast out.

I really am surprised to hear how comprehensive and personal it all was.


The entire premise of your book, that Democrats take blacks for granted, and thus should consider the GOP was proved to be complete bogus as the Democrats nominated Obama. In doing so, they risked what should have been a slam dunk election, and they showed the guts to nominate a black guy with a funny name. If the party took blacks for granted, Obama would have never been nominated.

It is difficult for me to take the argument that Dems take blacks for granted as anything but bullshit wingnut propaganda, and completely false. And the fact that you assumed that Obama wouldn't be nominated is evidence that you swallowed that bullshit whole.

Bogus reply

As President Obama says, "It's okay to disagree without being disgreeable." While I may agree with your thesis, the tone of your words are off-putting.

Please don't become a tea partier from the other side of the aisle. (I'm angling to get them all to migrate to TX and then let TX secede.[grin])

Bogus Reply

I agree that we need to be more civil in our disagreeances. I've been reading all the comments up until this point and I've been encouraged to see this with this one exception so far. To often nowadays a difference of opinion automatically makes someone an enemy.

I'm probably as liberal as they come but I don't think Liberals or any party have all the answers and so I try to look for other points of view to see if my opinions\ideas\feelings can stand up to them. When they don't, I learn from it and thus grow as a person. When someone can't do that any longer (we all do it as children, we just forget how), they embody stagnation and it permeates them and those around them.

I thank my "enemies" here for showing their humanity and allowing them to be governed by that and not an ideology. There's not a party in America that can't use a remedial lesson on how to do so.

Pleeeaaase! No more tea-types

Pleeeaaase! No more tea-types to Tx - we're drowning in tea already. As a native Texan, I'm embarassed by their self-contradictory claims to be freedom loving and by their ignorance of Texas history and the US constitution. Don't blame Texas, and don't send more.

re: Right-Wing shunning

I am quite taken aback at the amount of comments here about "nasty" right-wingers and how the "Republicans" haven't been playing at all nice with the assumedly innocent Democrats. This is really surprising to me since I have been rather disgusted with how nasty the Left side of the isle has been in this whole Health Care debate, among other things. May I offer this: watch a few clips of Paul Ryan - I found his arguments to be logical and rational, and his personal manner to be firm, but polite. Also, for some insight into the shunning that goes on on the other side of the aisle, I refer any interested parties to the book "Bias" by Bernard Goldberg.
Though I could never allign myself with the Republican party as it is now, my impression is that if the Democrats don't get everything they want, exactly how they want it, they are quick to jump up and point fingers at Republicans for being "difficult", for not cooperating, for not jumping on board unquestioningly, etc., etc.
Personally, I have "tried" both sides of the aisle, and can say that the reason I am more conservative (or rather, Constitutional) is because of principles, not policy or partisanship. I do, however, tend to keep my mouth shut or remain anonymous in my workplace, because of the fear of suddenly being ostrasized and, sadly, the risk of losing jobs because of my opinions) with my colleagues and friends, who tend to be more liberal as a rule.

Democrats don't get everything they want

You must be joking! As a Democrat I wanted single-payer. Didn't get it. I wanted a strong public option. Didn't get it. I wanted a weak public option. Didn't get it.

Regarding financial reform, I want strong regulations for hedge funds. Won't get it. Same with derivatives. Won't get it. I want a strong consumer protection plan outside the Fed. Won't get it.

And yes, Yet Another Libertarian, I have principles as well.

They just don't agree with yours.

Please do not suggest that Democrats do not have principles--or it's off to the Principal's office with you!

The left has been muted for Dems.

As a progressive I can tell you that the left probably feels as "left out" of the Democratic party right now as moderate and old fashioned conservatives do the Republican party.

I and many progressives wanted single payer--heck, I would have settled for a public option. There is much more influence of the far right on Republicans now than of the left on the Democrats.

And gay rights? Where is this? Gay people in the Democratic party as well as straight people in the party expected strong action from Obama. It hasn't been there.

And the wars? The acceleration of the Afghanistan war.

By the way is this a "conservative" website? I can't tell. The discourse is so rational, thoughtful, and non violent that it doesn't seem possible.

I suppose it would make more

I suppose it would make more sense to you to helicopter everyone out of Afghanistan by next week? That is the wisest course of action-leave the people of Afghanistan to the wolves after slaughtering a cow (as it were), for a third time? Last one of Saigon, turn out the lights, because every war is exactly the same as Vietnam.

While we're on the topic of bucking the party line, I dislike it when being a "liberal" means you have to leave rationality at the door when it comes to the wars Obama inherited. Don't call it a liberal or progressive thing. Call it an anti-war thing: this much Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich have in common.

This is what I would like to see more of: being able to discuss policies substantively on their merits instead of labeling a something as part of the liberal suite (boo! hiss! communist fascists!) or the conservative suite. Thomas Friedman had a good column on this recently: diminish party-based primaries and institute runoff elections, to empower a radical center, radical only in that they stand up for rationality, empiricism and inconvenient truth against people who think via ideology.

(Sorry if I put words in your mouth re: the wars, I just needed someone to illustrate my point.)

I am interested in some

I am interested in some examples here. Do you really believe that the Democrats were less collegial and polite than the Republicans? Could you be more concrete? And from what sources do you get this news and these impressions? I don't watch Fox News and will admit to getting most of my new and information from the mainstream media, but based on that source the right has seemed extremely nasty and angry. And that is just from watching them speak, in person and in their own words. Obamaa the Fascist, Obama the Communist, Death Panels, a constant impugning of motives and intent. I just don't see anything like this from Congressional Democrats -- and certainly not from Obama himself who has been consitently respectful of his political opponents. Alan Grayson, who has resorted to sme pretty strong hyperbole, has not sought to incite hatred the way that the Congressional right has done. I don't know if I have been in a MSM cocoon and am just not seeing what might be there, so I would appreciate an answer on these points.

I of course see that there are people on the outside of Congress left that can use very nasty rhetoric, but by and large the "liberal media" has given teh GOP the benefit of the doubt most of the time and never calls their motives into quesitons the way that the Republicans do. The partisan left radio and TV shows have nowhere near the influence of say a Limbaugh or Beck. I jsut don't think that most liberals enjoy that level of partisanship. Most of my liberal friends dislike Olbermann as being too shrill and one sided.

I am a Democrat by the way, even though there is a lot abotu the party that I don't like. Consider myself a Burkean conservative and I like Obama. Am a Big Bartlett fan; Frum always interesting, but I disagree with all things neocon, preferring libertarians and peleocons. We need an intellectually honest right to balance out the inevitable excesses that Democratic governance will inevitably bring. Bartlett and Frum have that in spades.

There have been some nasty

There have been some nasty comments by a few Democrats. I don't remember his name, but there was that one rep that said that Republicans health care policy was to die quickly or quietly (or something like that--it was nasty).

But if you believe it has been even remotely equal then you simply haven't been paying attention. Look at clips of pro and anti health care demonstrators. Read their signs. I think you'll see the difference in about...oh...15 seconds.

"But now I see that I was

"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."

How did this happen, Mr. Bartlett? Is this an inevitable evolution of political movements in general, do you think? An inevitable evolution of specifically conservative political theory? I ask seriously.

'How did the closing of the Conservative Mind happen..."

I'm a Dem and, while I find similar "rigid conformity with no dissent allowed" to exist within extreme Progressives, in my observation they don't suffer from a concomitant religious self-righteousness which curdles the Conservative movement from time to time, such as now.

If I were to paint in broad strokes, I would characterize Liberals generally as being on the eclectic/pluralist end of the spectrum, and Conservatives generally as being toward the conformist/intolerant pole. [Again: 'broad strokes' here, Folks]

Many Christian Faiths practice 'shunning' as a tool to enforce conformity to tenets. I believe in this way, viewing disagreement as carrying a moral undertone becomes habituated into the Conservative mind-set, in that those who disagree with 'your side' are not only 'wrong', they are also 'bad'.

Unfortunately, what Republicans learned from '08 was that, at this time in the world, in a battle of Ideas, Democrats win and Republicans lose. Therefore, those Republicans driven to return to power above all else are now waging a battle of Feelings and Emotions. Witness the terror the Republicans are sowing: Obama is the Anti-Christ who is bringing Armageddon.

In my opinion those who are exquisitely susceptible to this inflammation are those whom I will term "superstitious Christians", in that they respond to imagery and keywords. Their contemplative counterparts I would term "spiritual Christians", who concern themselves with living pious lives and must discern where the footsteps of Christ lay.

Spiritual Christians view themselves as right, but nonetheless recoil from hating their fellow Man; superstitious Christians define themselves as right, and those in disagreement are not only wrong, but bad, and, as such, as deserving all the worst they can visit upon them (e.g., why they are such enthusiastic supporters of torture).

Rove, Gingrich, et al. have convinced Republican Party members that demonizing their political opponents is the way to regain power, which is what this is all about. The line must be clear between ‘those who are right’, and ‘those who are wrong and bad’, and therefore demands adherence to strict definitions of what is right.


Stay tuned. I anticipate having much more to say about this at CG&G.

your piece

All I can say is that I, as a good center-left guy, have learned much from your public policy writings. I can't read the typical conservative, but you are of the mold of Jim Baker in foreign affairs--tough minded, I don't always agree, but it is generally worth considering.

also sad

I'm also saddened. While I am on the left, I'd much rather engage in rational disagreement. Somehow on the right there is 'no there' there anymore.

I agree

I am also on the left and find your work intellectually honest, thought-provoking, and extremely valuable. I agree with the people who would donate to support your efforts, as well as those of David Frum.

There are a lot of rational

There are a lot of rational centrist organizations and publications where I'd think you guys would be welcome.

Or start your own. I think the HCR debate and the ugly aftermath will have a lot of thinking conservatives pondering exactly how we've reached this vile, debased point. Getting funding might be easier than you think.

Hell, I'll donate. As a liberal, I recognize the need for there to be at least two sane parties in our polity and would have no problem helping you and David attempt to bring reason back to the right.

Right on here. Liberal, but

Right on here. Liberal, but seeing the Dems run everything without sensible debate is as poisonous to democracy as having the GOP silence all their dissenters. We need you, man.

David Frum and the Closing of the Conservative Mind

More evidence that whoever has the gold makes the rules. I agree with your comments of the closing of the conservative mind will do the conservatives nor the country any good in either the short-run or the long-run.

I am a conservative Democrat who believes neither party has all the answers.

Just to bad that so called think tanks don't allow their employees to express different views.

I thought the conservatives believes in empowerment of the people and employees. Guest it was just words.

You speak the truth

While you are no liberal and neither is Frum (I am an old fashioned one), you are spot on. When the heirs of Burke become ranters about how terrible it is that medicare should be turned into a government run program we know there is trouble in the land. When politicians egg on the crowd with apocalyptic language and then shrug innocently when violence is threatened we are in trouble. Conservatives are supposed to respect the essential elements of government and rule of law. When they don't they cease to become conservatives and edge toward outright totalitarianism. We have seen the results of that movie before.

It is refreshing to read the views of conservatives who actually think (even when you are wrong). Public policy suffers terribly when one side absents itself from actual thoughtful consideration and engagement. The embrace of totalitarian group think by the right is as frightening as when the left goes there. History has shown that either can cause tremendous damage when it over reaches. Don't give up. Continue speaking and reasoning. We all need it. Badly.


This current anti-intellectual, xenophobic, extremist incarnation of the GOP is headed for quick and rather dramatic demise in the next few years. I imagine if folks like Frum and yourself wait it out, the Republican party will come to you all looking for the desperately needed brains they've abandoned.

where were you guys at all this time

I find fact based debate with people of opposing views essential to the health of our republic. I wished that people like you were more forceful in getting you voices heard. Our country needs you.

Blame the Victim Much?

Um, IIRC, "people like" Mr Bartlett were apparently a tad TOO "forceful in getting [their] voices heard." They got fired for it, remember?
The blameworthy would be American Enterprise Institute (in the case of Mr Frum) and National Center for Policy Analysis (in the case of Mr Bartlett).
May I also suggest that we stop using the term, "think tank," in referring to such firms; it's been obvious all along that they were/are no more "think tanks" than FoxNews is a news channel. Now that they've made this utterly undeniable, can we stop the charade?

Frum fired

Sad -- yet it's all of a piece. Those in control of American conservativism these days are allergic to anyone who doesn't toe their line. That's no way to run a successful political party or to present a statesmanlike opposition to those with whom they disagree. All citizens lose when some can tolerate no truth but their own.

Who's lying about Frum

The AEI says that Frum initiated this -- i.e. Frum resigned and it was his choice.

If Frum wasn't fired, and he quit, who is behind the viral lie that Frum was fired?

And Bruce -- you wrote a whole book against Frum-supported, Bush conservatism. Your position now as a supporter of Bush/Frum conservatism makes no sense.

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