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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.

Pruning the Bartletts and Frums

Mr. Bartlett,

You may not have anywhere to go in the conservative world, but your voice is extremely important.

As a Democrat, I believe that we need the voices of Republicans debating honestly about their views and issues in order to govern more effectively.

It is very difficult to find people who will express a view other than the lockstep ideology of the conservative right. We desperately need people like you and Mr. Frum to help us build better laws and a better government for us all.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have an absolute lock on the truth. We need you both, not to agree with us, but to voice honestly your disagreements and bring forth your concerns for a more complete perspective on the road ahead.

Conservatives may not want to listen to you, but I look forward to reading more regarding your views and opinions. Please keep it coming.


There is no place for support of ObamaCare in the conservative movement. Being conservative is all about supporting freedom, not supporting big government. If you support big government policies - whether ObamaCare or Medicare Part D or TARP - you may be a Republican, but you're sure not a conservative.

Supporting freedom you say...

Does this mean that a true conservative supports the "freedom" of choice or does it mean they support "freedom" as they define it. Sorry pal, that ain't freedom.

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

We need a new political party in the U.S.! A party that understands and wants to nurture free enterprise, courteous civil discourse, and respect for faith in natural law.

I agree with the reference to the current Republicans' "tiny tent party." As a soon-to-be registered independent, I'm getting rained on.

R o l a i d s

Thank you for a readers' comment section without the sad and incensed feelings produced by sites such as CNN. This must be the wheat in an inevitable trend away from all that chaff - I hope.

A conservative awakening on the horizon?

Although I often disagreed with William F. Buckley who appeared on a sorely missed "Firing Line," I made sure that I watched it each week. Ok, I'll admit it. I waited for it each week. Mr. Buckley was the type of conservative who could send a liberal to the library to do some research and was better for it. If "Firing Line" existed today viewers would be running to the internet.

Mr. Buckley was an independent thinker with a conservative back bone who stated his positions clearly and he could back them up. What happened to that type of republican. Modern republicans leave no wiggle room for ideas. Talking points are passed down from on high and are expected to be adhered to while ignoring the gray areas where debate takes place.

Shutting off debate does not grow a political party; it shrinks the discourse and the party. Neither can be good for spreading the word. When a political party's only followers are reactionary anti-intellectuals its arguments fall on deaf ears and converts are lost. A foolish notion is that its possible to dumb down the debate without weakening the culture where the ideas incubate.

Mr. Bartlett, Sorry to see

Mr. Bartlett,

Sorry to see you siding with the neocons now, particularly this poor sap Frum.

I see you as somebody pretending to be what this guy was:

And you've never done a very good job of playing Warren Brookes, sir.

It's easy to blast the Bushes and their big spending ways... but however sensible that activity is, it's not enough. The harder work is to show how that big spending is damaging the country, and you don't do much of that that I can see.


Warren was a very dear friend of mine. We spoke almost daily for 15 years, he quoted me quite often and the Detroit News gave me his column when he died.

Bruce Bartlett

Both Frum and Bartlett are disgruntled ex-conservatives. They sneer at conservatives that don't see the brilliance of their warm embrace of liberal orthodoxy (even support for tax hikes!) as being close minded. No, you bitter losers, you are just liberals now, and we recognize a reality that you want to deny for whatever reason. :)

Democratic vs. Republican support

Just a month or so ago, many commentators felt that the Republicans had hit upon a brilliant strategy by opposing virtually everything substantive that Obama proposed. Many of Obama's more left wing adherents were and still are angry that Obama has been so civil to the Republicans and has for the most part refrained from using the aggressive scorched earth tactics of his opponents. Obama's perceived weakness in those respects has cost him support both from the middle to lower middle class "independents" and from the left-wing "core". Such losses are probably real but they may have been exaggerated.

Even when Obama seemed to be doing very badly a few months ago, I felt---and I continue to believe---that his civil, moderate approach, attempting to reach out to the other side, will enlarge his and the Democrats' own true "core" of reasonable, pragmatic supporters who are mainly centrists to slightly left of center individuals. This could be a far more stable group than the current rabid "cores" that Karl Rove has taught us to cultivate. Such a moderate Democratic group used to be the heart and soul of the Democratic party during the times of the great Democratic Congressional majorities. Looking back, it is hard to deny that those were very good times for this nation, times in which decisions were made that kept us on a stable course of economic growth and societal improvements for decades. That group has withered, but if Obama can even enlarge it by 10% the result will be a much more stable and reasonable body politic. It will be worth the trade-off of short term Congressional losses which probably are inevitable in the next election.

There are big-tent conservative groups out there ...

... including some quite scholarly institutions (not just Hoover but also Cato, Reason, the Independent Institute, and Hillsdale College) and you seem to be ignoring/dismissing them without a good reason.

Perhaps you should be challenging the assumption that words like "conservative" are defined by institutions such as the ones that fired you, or perhaps you should be re-branding yourself as independent, libertarian, or even "tea-partier" instead. But don't make the mistake of assuming that your old group's donors are representative of the conservative movement. I say Glenn Beck is much more representative (but could use some decent scholarly grounding).

You might also want to name the names of those donors, so the large number of people like me who don't like seeing "conservative" efforts redirected to help big government can avoid buying their products, and write and tell them so.


I simply don't understand all the ranting about "socialism" going on on the Right. This is a bill that is largely patterned after what was done in Massachusetts under (Republican) Governor Mitt Romney.

This is hardly a "government takeover." People are still purchasing coverage from private insurance companies (whose conglomerates will be the biggest beneficiaries of the legislation---if anything, it is socialism for Big Capitalism). There is NO public option. There are benefits (measly ones) to the working poor which will kick in around 2013 or so. If a tepid package of "reform" like this can be called "socialism," then by the same token I can shout "fascism!" every time I am forced to stop my car at a red light. And for those who have shrieked that the bill is somehow "pro-abortion"---it has INCREASED the tax credit for adoptions and made it easier to claim.

The shrieking from the right is getting more and more bizarre and out of touch with reality, and it is to the great discredit of the "mainstream" GOP, both registered voters and representatives, that they have done nothing to still the howling since they assume they will benefit from it. I am 53 years old and honestly don't remember a more venal and cynical time in American politics. "They're taking away Medicare!" "They're doing away with the mortgage interest deduction!" "They're killing Grandma!"

After a while, the majority said "enough."

I am hoping (but am not optimistic) that the GOP will learn a lesson from this debacle and will learn to rein in their more extremist elements. They are quickly on their way to becoming a fringe party, otherwise.

We need conservatives who really put country first

I was disappointed to hear of Mr. Frum's firing, although unfortunately not at all astonished.
There are extremely serious issues our country is facing and we so much need input and participation from informed and thoughtful people of differing political leanings. I find it sickening and unpatriotic that AEF put a gag order on their fellows' making public comments on health care reform because they agreed with too much of Obama's plan. It's no surprise that they might find much room for agreement there, since it is similar to earlier Republican proposals - - but you'd never know that to hear the hysterical screaming about "communism" and "death panels". I have been appalled at the Republicans' dishonesty on this subject, and it is disgusting that they are punishing intelligent conservatives who DO put their concern for the country over toeing the propaganda line.

We need conservatives like you and Mr Frum, not just a bunch of slogan-spouters terrified to criticize Limbaugh et al. It seems like the powers that be in the Republican Party have decided to just bank on stirring up and manipulating an uneducated, unthoughtful, paranoid base who blindly believe every propaganda point by the entertainers on FNC.
If the economy does not improve and they benefit from public anger at the incumbents, they'll think this strategy works well, and God only knows where that will lead us. Ever further down the path of anti-intellectualism, anti-complexity, hate of dissent, and accusations that anyone left of the radical right is a 'liberal'.

'Camp Goodman' and the 'illusion' of free speech"

Thank you for the blog post and the timely contextual tie to the 'muzzling' of David Frum (my words). I rarely found myself agreeing with Mr. Frum's ideological slant, but none the less respected his intellectual veracity and willingness to call the balls vs. strikes regardless of the transparent nature of group think loyalty.

I lived in Plano for many years, and passed the aforementioned pseudo think tank to which you refer. The notion of 'policy analysis' was/is a bit of a stretch, though as it seems to be more of the victimization and whining variety. I suppose your termination was in retrospect a blessing in disguise though.

All we have is our truth (with a lower case 't'). Unless we're showing up in and living from that truth, what good are we anyway? I have and continue to follow that road less traveled, i.e., speaking my mind, and have also paid the price. As a single dad raising two boys in corporate cultures, this was not an easy road.

David Frum and the Closing of the Conservative Mind

What I find disturbing about Frum, is that he seemed to be perfectly happy to parrot some of the most insidious themes of the Bush administration - particularly regarding the "war on terror" - while that group was in power. He made his living serving the right wing scream machine and lost his job. Big deal.

Whenever one is involved with an extremist movement, one must toe the line perfectly or risk the consequences. Is it to Frum's credit that he dissented? Or does this consummate opportunist see the political winds changing? Or, possibly, is there more to the firing than simple dissent on health care but this offers a nice theme? We don't know yet but lionizing him for losing his flack job is a bit premature.

Lastly, with all due respect, the conservative mind has been closed for a long time. Mr. Frum's firing is just the latest example.


There are lots of things I disagree with David about, not the least of which is his insistence on remaining a Republican. Personally, I left the party and now consider myself an independent. But this is precisely why I find his treatment by AEI so disturbing. If even loyal Republicans like David are no longer welcome inside the Republican tent when they only disagree on tactics, then AEI and the GOP have even deeper problems than I thought.

Whatever Works

Thank you, one and all, for providing a bit of fresh air. After reading scores of 'discussion' posts in recent weeks, I had begun to despair of ever seeing anything other than the shrill, fearful, ideologically driven, knee-jerk response of the left and right alike.
Having experienced (as both witness and participant) wars, earthquakes, floods, fires, epidemics and more, has taught me that things in the real ongoing world almost never go by the book and that rigidly clinging to any form of dogma, is the shortest path to mortality. So I consider myself to be neither left, right, nor libertarian in any strict sense and to label oneself as independent seems an abnegation of responsibility to the community as a whole (i.e. you are either part of the problem, part of the solution, or just rubber-necking).
I prefer the label 'Practical'. If it works, it hardly matters whose idea it was.
Some things the private sector does better at than the public sector:
Airlines, telecommunication systems, energy, automotive, manufacturing, transportation of goods (I'd be willing to bet that they could improve on the U.S. Mail) , the entertainment industry and regional transportation networks (to name but a few).
Some things the public sector does better than the private sector:
The military and all other first responders (police and fire departments), education (by and large), FDA, FEMA, CDC, EPA (like it or not, a rebulican president championed it), OSHA, park management, public utilities (there's too much Enron-style evidence to back me on this, and frankly the name says it all), and the prison system (the privatization of the prison system in California has been an extremely expensive failure in that it's created a publicly traded industry that demands growth from shareholders at the expense of education budgets) which now houses 1/250 of Americans, balanced news coverage and the dissemination of content-rich information that doesn't fit the standard commercial model (wildlife and children's shows) through the PBS. (to name but a few).
Other issues are still up for debate. I've lived in countries with single payer systems and it's not the end all panacea that the left imagines. The waiting list are real but not as bad as some would have you think. Nor is it 'the end of the world as we know it' trumpeted by the right. However it does provide basic care for all without bankrupting anyone in the process.
If we are to fix the hemorrhage of rising health care costs (which we can no longer ignore) in a creative, prototypically American way that goes beyond any current system, then it will require just the sort of cross-aisle talk that I'm hearing here. Thanks again for raising the tone of debate from dogmatic to practical.

I applaud your honesty and

I applaud your honesty and bluntness...where do you go? perhaps a real job....doing really productive, honest labor like therest of us plebs....

The death of the Republican Party

"Thinking Republican" has become an oxymoron. The Republican Party leadership is beating the sense and independence out of it's members. The Party is becoming a political "Idiocracy".
All the good minds are being thrown away and squandered. Look what happened recently when Freshman Senator Corker from Tennessee stood up and said that he thought that it was a mistake not to participate in committee for Bank Reform. Even though he was correct, he was squashed like a bug, and does not talk about it anymore. Agreeing with the Democrats on anything has become political suicide. My God, how Republicans think they can govern ever again without an iron-clad majority in both houses and the White House is beyond me.

Goose. Gander. Sauce.

I perceive that "Speaking truth to power" is not allowed if it is the Republicans who have power. For shame, hypocrites!

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