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What Frum’s Firing Tells Us About Politics Today


I’ve previously suggested that, in terms of tactics, I see the G.O.P. diverging into two main tendencies. One is Karl Rove’s G.O.P., in which short-term partisan gain trumps all other considerations, electoral politics tops policy, and pumping up the base is the instinctive reaction in every contest. Rove’s approach has created the present G.O.P.: an enraged group of largely white, over-40 males with its heaviest concentration in the states of the old Confederacy and in the Mormon Belt of the Mountain West. The alternative is David Frum’s G.O.P., which operates from a clearly defined set of conservative principles, believes in a longer-term strategy focused on building the party back to something approaching a plurality, and is committed to finding a modus vivendi with Democrats that allows the G.O.P. to accomplish at least some of its objectives when it’s out of power. Frum has presented a very compelling case for his views, and were he to prevail, it would produce a G.O.P. that pursues most of the same objectives as before, but behaves differently as it pursues them.

But yesterday, Frum was fired from his $100,000-a-year consultancy at the American Enterprise Institute. That decision tells us a good deal about AEI and the current dynamics within the Republican camp. In today’s AEI, policy experts aren’t there to do analysis and give advice—they’re there to serve as made-to-order propagandists. Differing views are not wanted. This is reinforced by Bruce Bartlett’s report in a post entitled, appropriately, “The Closing of the Conservative Mind”:

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.

Bartlett reminds us that he was himself fired from a conservative think-tank after publishing a book that criticized the Bush Administration’s lack of budgetary discipline. Paul Krugman notes that Bartlett must be right about this. He flags a 2003 Heritage Foundation health-care report that endorses a position suspiciously similar to the bill that Obama just signed into law. And Heritage is generally reckoned still further to the right than AEI. Conor Friedersdorf, on the other hand, checks the record and finds plenty of evidence of AEI health experts, in fact, weighing in on the matter. (UPDATE: Bruce Bartlett has now posted an “apology and clarification” in which he acknowledges having gone too far. He adds this: “With the benefit of hindsight I should have left the charge of muzzling out of my original post because it distracted people from the larger point I was making about the rigidity of thought at conservative think tanks and adherence to the Republican Party line, which I still believe to be the case. The fact that David was fired and the way he was fired is sufficient proof of that.”)

Frum also told Politico’s Mike Allen:

There’s a lot about the story I don’t really understand,… 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.

And finally, Frum gave ABC’s Nightline some fascinating remarks about the G.O.P.’s relationship with Fox News:

Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.

Frum is being extremely candid about a long-term problem for his party. No doubt some key Republicans are furious with him. But they should welcome sharp and self-critical thinking. This is how a political party reshapes itself after a defeat and emerges once more as a dominant force on the political stage.

These days there is a lot of Schadenfreude among the Democrats over the apparent brain trauma in the G.O.P., its penchant for hotheaded tactics, and its domination by radio and television personalities. That is foolish, because the G.O.P. is a central player in America’s democracy, and its institutional integrity and ability to serve are important to the political health of the nation as a whole. John Stuart Mill made this point compellingly in his essay on the Tory poet Coleridge. “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies,” he wrote. A modern democracy works best with competent, intelligent political parties committed to realizing their own best vision of what the nation should be. Lively interaction is her life’s blood. The vision that Frum offers is not just the healthier option for the G.O.P.; it reflects a better future for the country as a whole.

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