StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between

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.


Over the years David has moved closer to my position on Bush as it relates to domestic policy. He still supports Bush unequivocally on foreign policy. As you know, I think Bush was totally wrong about that too.

Frum posted his resignation

Frum posted his resignation letter on his website. If it accurately represents the situation, it seems clear that this wasn't exactly voluntary on his part; this was one of those "resign or be fired" resignations. I haven't found anything on the AEI website that tells their side of the story.

Sane conservatives need to

Sane conservatives need to rebrand. I suspect that there is at least a small pot of money that they could access if they positioned themselves as (for example) the anti-Palins.

Look at the left. The center left gets funding (Brookings), the more-to-the-left gets funding (EPI) and politically irrelevant lefties (SANE/FREEZE/Peace Action, the PIRGs) can stay afloat as well.

Ah, maybe you guys should just keep it simple and retreat to the Hoover Institute.

You're not the only ones

The list of Bush alums who have been shunned includes:

John Dilulio - who coined Mayberry Machiavellis

Paul O'Neil -- for disagreeing with Bush tax cuts.


He tried to take it all back so he doesn't exactly fall into the same camp. To defend itself, Esquire magazine posted his memo to Ron Suskind in which he made the Mayberry Machiavelli comment. It can still be found on its web site. Anyway, it's a lot easier to tell th truth when you have tenure at a major university as John did or be extremely wealthy like Paul. It's a lot tougher when you work for a living like me and David.

It's a lot tougher for you??

Honest to Christ, do you ever think what it's like for millions of other Americans who over the last 8 years have lost their homes and jobs and retirements and even their sons and daughters as a result of decades of conservative policies and the lockstep GOP backing of the same?

You and especially guys like Frum helped *push* a walking nightmare on the rest of the country. You and Frum both helped to create this monster.

Conservatism and the GOP have adopted that monster and made it their own.

Now I see Frum decides he doesn't like that this creature is not behaving so well -- not so much that this is in fact an evil destructive monster, just that it's not going to help True Conservatism in the long run.

To see the monster Frum helped animate turn on him is only fitting.

And Bruce? Stop complaining about how tough you have it. Why, just pull yourself up by your bootstraps, son. That's what conservatives always say.

And don't even mention Bush Sr. and his friends

They are completely extinct. There is simply no room left for the Republicans from Eisenhower to Reagan.

As I think has been pointed out by some moderate conservatives, even Reagan wouldn't make the cut now because he approved some tax increases to try and balance the budget.

So strange

"So you must be rendered into nonpeople...."

Fortunately, the ranks of the nonpeople contain some very honorable folks.

It's strange. I have long considered myself to be a fairly standard conservative: I am skeptical of large government programs, suspicious of government power, and leery of foreign entanglements. In accordance with these principles (or so I thought), I was against the creation of DHS, against the indefinite detention of American citizens, and against the war in Iraq. Now, at least by the standards of AEI or National Review, I'm not a conservative anymore; I'm some sort of filthy hippie liberal, and I'd be purged from the movement without a second thought.

So now I'm not a conservative...but I'm certainly not a liberal either, at least not by the usual definition of the term. I'm a nothing. If I may revise Reagan, I didn't leave the conservative movement; the conservative movement left me.

Hey wait a sec

It's strange. I have long considered myself to be a fairly standard conservative: I am skeptical of large government programs, suspicious of government power, and leery of foreign entanglements. In accordance with these principles (or so I thought), I was against the creation of DHS, against the indefinite detention of American citizens, and against the war in Iraq. Now, at least by the standards of AEI or National Review, I'm not a conservative anymore; I'm some sort of filthy hippie liberal, and I'd be purged from the movement without a second thought.

I have long considered myself a moderately standard liberal and those are pretty much my opinions as well. Get your own!! :D.

Mr. Bartlett like many others have voiced I may disagree with you and others on a number of points but I'm also perfectly willing to be convinced I'm wrong by sound reasoning regardless of any political ideology. I also see the value in the encouragement of multiple, opposing reasonable viewpoints in our political system. Nobody can legitimately accuse you of being a blind ideologue and here's to hoping sufficient others will come to realize this and provide a welcome home for you, Frum, and other like-minded statesmen.

The Truth, The Truth, "Can You Handle the Truth"?

It's a pity that "monkey can't see its own tail". If something is the truth, it should be embraced, whether one is a Democrat, Republican, Liberal or Conservative. It's a shame it's group think or else.

As someone on the left, I

As someone on the left, I believe it's essential that thoughtful thinkers of all political stripes be part of our national discussion and debate. While we may not always agree, I certainly have respect for you and Mr. Frum. This is a sad day indeed.

Frum and You

You and Frum should go where all enlightened elitists go: The Democrat Party.


I'm not ready to become a Democrat. But I have made it clear repeatedly that I am no longer a Republican. I am quite happy being an independent. David is still a Republican, which makes his treatment all the more remarkable.

Ex-Republican here...join the

Ex-Republican here...join the club! While I often agree with Democrats on many issues, I have no desire to be a "party animal."

We need more intelligent, independent thinkers. Here's hoping you remain independent.

Ummmm.. that would be the

Ummmm.. that would be the "DemocratIC" party. Thank you...


Don't worry. Essential heads know the transaction. This move is like republican deadstock gold. Please, for the good of all America, stay focused, daily. I know that sometimes it feels like politics has ruined our lives, and now all we have is each other.

You have a home: the United States of America

We'll always need sensible careful analysis, and indeed, dissent, and no more so than from rational conservatives & old-fashioned liberals.

keep the faith

It's funny, but when I read Frum's "Waterloo" post I actually said to myself, gee, AEI must have more integrity than I realized if Frum works for them. They wasted no time proving me wrong!!

The maverick (if I may use that abused word) conservatives are among the most interesting and honest people writing about policy and politics today. I really admire you guys even if my home is the center left. It's sad, sometimes shocking, to see the abuse you get from the people you're trying to serve.

Like a lot of people with my politics, I can remember a time when I felt myself drifting toward the Republican party. The best ideas, the most acute analysis seemed to be on that side, while the Democrats seemed sclerotic and shallow. Then came Monicagate and the right went collectively mad. Making that switch is unthinkable today.


Cry me a river. How about starting your own think tank.


The problem is that the rigid conformity that led NCPA to fire me and AEI to fire David is very much driven by the donor community, which threatens to cut off contributions to conservative groups that criticize the Republican Party line. There is no money or support for dissenting views. If there was, I'm pretty sure I would have found it by now.

Sorry, I forgot that

Sorry, I forgot that brilliant minds such as yourself can only think if they are payed to do so. Volunteering, community organizing and the like are for suckers.

Hint: the First Amendment does not have a financing clause.

Donor Community

Making a living off of a lot of small donations is much tougher than drawing a stipend from one of a handful of very rich conservatives. (Does AEI publish their list of largest donors? Does NCPA? I imagine that Scaife- and Koch- funded foundations are near the top.)

But it can be done. Look at Daily KOS. Heck, look at the Obama campaign. And it gives independence in return.

Why don't you and Stan start right here and now with this blog, and try to make it into a venture that actually puts bread on your table?


It's easier for me to make a living as a free lance writer. In 2009 I didn't make enough to owe any federal income taxes. But that's okay. I get by and I really hate asking people for money or being responsible for budgets and all the other crap that people have to do to run an organization. David is different. I suspect that he may be able to find the means to start one. However, to date I think he finances the FrumForum out of his own pocket. 


Put a donation page on your site and I would imagine a bunch of Daily Kos readers like myself would make one. We need a strong opposing party with fresh ideas. You and David Frum would be surprised to find out that liberals would support constructive conservative ideas and people willing to speak their minds. Andrew Sullivan has the best blog on the web and he is always links to your page. This is my first visit but not my last.

Politics as usual

Call me a snob, but well-thought-out ideas will always be in conflict with popular sentiment. Unfortunately, political organizations are much more heavily invested in the latter than the former. I wouldn't chalk up recent developments to any "closing of the conservative mind." Rigid ideologues and knee-jerk pundits (across the political spectrum) are no less closed-minded than they've ever been, and people who actually *think* (again, across the political spectrum) will always be one comment away from being burnt at the stake as a heretic by the rank-and-file of their respective ideological camps.

David Frum is just the latest unfortunate victim of "politics as usual."

GroupThink Across the Board

Absolutely spot-on. I'm a former Democrat - very much former. Why? Because there's as much rigidity of thought there as in any Republican meme. In fact, let me go so far as to suggest that, because if its more hidden nature, the underlying power plays of those who pull the strings in the Democratic Party are as harmful to our nation's health as any carefully placed Rovian operative.
All one has to do is look at what happened to Howard Dean, for example. Brilliant fifty state strategy that transformed the party. Absolutely tranformed it. Yet he was enough of a "counter" voice to the CW of Democratic Party "leaders" that he got pushed out once the party reaped the rewards of his effort. On top of that, when he dared speak out against the so-called health care reform bill, he got lambasted by the Dem power elite - ridicule was non-stop. Unfortunately, instead of telling them all to go take a hike and start his own movement, he caved. As did so many others along the way.
Bottom line: I've seen enough to know there's truly little difference between the parties. Both are about power, about control, about money, about public adoration and perception. Sans any hint of genuine service to country.
Best wishes to you, Mr. Barlett. Your integrity is greatly appreciated. And it's the only thing that's going to save our country from continuing its obvious decline into Abyss Zone Unlimited.

to Barbyra

Thank you for your succint comments! I couldn't have said it better myself. Though what can be done about the greed and power-mongering on boths sides is a question for which an answer is difficult to find. To be sure, integrity is the first and most important quality to preserve.

"Rigid ideologues and

"Rigid ideologues and knee-jerk pundits (across the political spectrum) are no less closed-minded than they've ever been"

I might agree with you, if not for the fact that a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress just passed a landmark health care reform bill that in its essentials looks like a Heritage Foundation plan from the early '90s.

Liberalism has already had its mind-closing experience -- and paid the political and policy price for it. Now I guess its conservatism's turn.

Not surprising, really

It has been a long time happening, but we're living in the endtimes of conservative intellectualism. It may not be correct to say Joe McCarthy began the process, but he at least revived it with his red-scare tactics. Nixon may have sealed its fate with the "Southern Strategy" of pandering to disaffected Dixiecrats, the most proudly anti-intellectual bunch of the 20th century. Since then, most conservative front men have been the "guys you'd rather have a beer with" types — Reagan, Quayle, Bush II — people who don't exactly come across as valuing deep thought or much thought at all.

It's sad, really. As a Left-leaning independent, I'd love to be able to support candidates from either party that can break with their leadership on important topics. I've been burned by every Republican I've voted for in the last 10 years though, so until I see a sea change at the top I can't in good conscience vote for another one.


As a progressive who grew up in the South (the part of the South that thought that zoning laws equalled Communism), I totally agree with you. I was always embarrassed by the anti-intellectualism that was rampant amongst some of my neighbors and relatives. You're absolutely right.


In my observation, the intellectual rigidity that we see dates from the mid-1990s. The Republican takeover of Congress had a lot to do with it, so does Fox News, talk radio, the Internet and various other things that I have yet to fully understand. I'd like to do a book on the subject someday.

It would be interesting to

It would be interesting to see a discussion between you and John Cole on this subject on his blog.


Mr. Bartlett, go for it. I'd love to read that book.

I'd also love to see a much publicized counter movement to both extremes. There are a great many voters who feel left out by both parties. As Friedman wrote in the NYTimes, the Radical Middle. We need a voice.

We're just as worried about the economy (and absurdly inadequate financial regulation reforms), the mind-boggling deficits and national debt (and rising debt related interest rates), our failing infrastructure (which harms our competitiveness), eminent bankruptcy of medicare and social security (at a time when it's really need by older people who've been shoved out of the job market), and let's not forget globalization and jobs.

We moderates see the problems, even know some of the answers, but we don't see the leaders willing to honestly and realistically address the problems in ways that make our country and our society better.

All we get is partisan rhetoric, spin, and half truths while back room deals are being made that increase the deficit and sell out the people. It happens on both sides of the aisle...and I'm tired of it.

Thanks for letting me rant.

David Frum just a RINO at best a weak conservative

always wondered why Frum claimed to be conservative, Tea Party creds? ZERO, McCain creds? Maxed out, Palin bashing? Maxed out, Romney? Maxed out. Health Care? Liberal, illegal aliens? immigration reform aka amnesty, make a list of Frum's positions and Frum is more like David Brooks than a DeMint conservative.

Let's say you're right

I don't know enough about either Frum or the definition of "Conservative" to judge, but let's say you're right: Frum is a squishy moderate conservative, not at all pure like DeMint. Really think it's a good idea to have a party that casts out everyone who agrees with its goals but not its means, or with its directions but not their distances?

Also, I refer you back to the original post - it isn't just Frum. At least if you believe what he said before he was fired, a significant portion of the AEI's resident scholars found themselves unable to come up with solid, reasoned criticism of the basic ideas underlying the Democrat's plan - perhaps because it was very much a compromise plan, modeled on Mitt Romney's Massachusetts effort more than anything else. That is to say, the AEI is apparently happily home to a whole bunch of equally squishy conservatives. But the AEI, and if I may take a liberty the Republican party, has no place for their brains or their ideas, demanding instead only their obedience and their silence - so long as they do not think for themselves or at least do not speak out, they are apparently permitted to retain their sinecures. That the AEI's position was indefensible is apparently irrelevent.

Ummm... The point here is

Ummm... The point here is that modern, faux-populist DeMint "conservatism" has nothing to do with the historical - one could argue authentic - conservative tradition. Bartlett and Frum are ostracized because they are of the latter persuasion. Given the pathetic wreck that is the Republican party, any conservative with a sense of principle or dignity should feel honored to be labeled a "RINO."

On a related note, it is sad, but perhaps not surprising, that the great majority of the commenters who have expressed their support in this thread are self-professed liberals. The left has its share of grenade tossers, but at least it retains a core of civility.

"Frum is more like David

"Frum is more like David Brooks than a DeMint conservative."

I think that's the point: You guys have decided that anyone who doesn't have "Tea Party cred" or disagrees with Jim DeMint on any significant issue isn't a conservative.

That's mind-closing on an epic scale. You're kinda proving Bartlett's point here.

Frum Rhino?

Thank Heavens he's not from the radical camp!


Unlike me, he believes very strongly in the War on Terror and everything that goes with it. I think that, more than anything else, has kept him on the Republican reservation while I left.

AEI asked Frum to STAY

Let's get the facts right.

The AEI _praised_ Frum for his outspoken attacks on the GOP in the health care debate.

The AEI asked Frum to stay at the AEI.

What the AEI did was they asked to change his status from a paid fellow to an unpaid fellow.

All of these are the facts as _Frum_ reports them:

That won't do

The claim is that Frum was asked to shift from paid to unpaid status because of "hard times." Times are tough, to be sure, but that explanation just begs the question: Why choose to cut Frum loose instead of someone else?

Sometimes it's obvious why someone is fired. For example, when Kathryn Jean Lopez was dismissed as editor of National Review Online (and replaced by existing staff, namely Rich Lowry), it was pretty easy to figure out why: Her writing was well below the level attained by most other NRO writers, she wasn't really much of an editor, and NRO doesn't need much of an editor anyway. In Frum's case, you have to wonder. I doubt he was the highest-paid person at AEI, and I doubt he was the least competent or influential. Therefore, he was targeted because...why, exactly? If it wasn't for his heresy, what was it?

Greg is not being an ass

That is snark.

Snark at it's best :-).

...asked him to stay for free.

Yeah that sounds just great. I would have jumped at the chance.

The death of rational discourse

Bruce, I feel for you and David and hope that someday soon a revitalized conservative movement that is interested in subtantive policy discussion on the issues facing the nation will welcome you both back. FYI I am a proud progressive who has great respect for the conservative tradition of Buckley. I might not always agree with your views (okay I will rarely agree with your views) but I'm not so arrogant to think that I (or the progressive movement) have all the answers. I am glad that HCR passed but, as Frum wrote, feel that it could have been a much better bill and now law had there been a conservative movement interested in having a real policy debate, offering intelligent solutions, and yes been willing to compromise to improve the lives of millions of Americans. Instead what passes for conservatism today is more interested in screaming down any voice that deviates even slightly from their world view.

Keep writing and speaking out. I won't always agree but I will consider your perspective with interest.

God bless.

Frum -- constantly de-legitimating rival conservatives

I'm a supporter of big tent conservatism / libertarianism.

The irony, of course, is that Frum isn't -- he's constantly attacking non-Frum conservatives / libertarians, and he's constantly attempting to undermine their legitimacy at the table.

I have no sympathy for Frum as a chronic offender against rival currents in the conservative stream -- often very close to dishonest in his attacks.

Posner stated that "Republican Intellectual is an oxymoron"

When I was growing up there were Repubs that I respected and could & did vote for. By the time of the appointed bush Admin, I could no longer find any. I was glad years ago to hear you speak out about the lies surrounding bush's insanely expensive old voter pandering (Medicare D). I hope you (as an independent)and the 2 or 3 remaining reasonable Repubs find a soapbox. I am not an Obama fan, but compared to the dangerously insane, juvenile, & ignorant choice the Repubs gave us in 2008, I did have to vote for Obama. If you are successful, maybe ideas and data will become important again.

The truth is the truth!

The reality is anyone with a brain may not totally fall into a the established liberal-conservative category on most issues. Messers Frum, Sullivan and Barlett have always been writers that I learn from even when I don't agree with them, because they have reasoned and challenging positions. I knew it is a matter of time before Frum got in trouble with the group that wants you to do your thinking with the medulla.

third party

Though it's probably a pipedream, I've often said that we are in dire need of a third party for some time. I had some hope for the Reform Party but Pat Buchannan hijacked and decimated that movement. With over 50% of Americans self-identifying as fiscally conservative, socially liberal (i.e., libertarian centrists), it's no wonder the number of independents rise each year with neither party providing a place to go or representing their interests.


Norm Ornstein is still (as far as i know) with AEI. He has written articles supporting most of Obamacare. Why would he get a pass?

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