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David Frum vs. the Right’s Company Men

Posted on March 28 2010 8:55 am
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David Frum’s forced exit from the American Enterprise Institute has precipitated rhetorical fire from the company men of the conservative movement.

How disappointing is the Right’s reaction to David Frum’s dismissal from the American Enterprise Institute? Well, let’s review.

To the National Review’s Mark Steyn, the entire brouhaha is little more than a personality squabble involving David, Bruce Bartlett and Conor Friedersdorf. As such, Steyn argues, this incident is unworthy of anyone’s time or attention.

Steyn even belittles David for arguing with other conservatives, including the late great Robert Novak, Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Malkin. “At this rate, he’ll [David] be picking fights with Barbara Bush by late spring,” Steyn jokes.

Steyn has a sharp wit, but he’s wrong. Conservatives have a long and distinguished history of arguing with and amongst each other — a tradition once championed by Bill Buckley’s National Review.

But it is perhaps sadly telling, I suppose, that one of NR’s most prominent contributors now belittles another prominent conservative for partaking in this noble tradition.

In truth, David ought to be commended for his willingness to substantively engage other conservatives in robust and spirited public dialogue and debate.

Yet, for reasons that I can only attribute to the closing of the conservative mind, many conservatives seem to resent David for challenging them on first principles and for calling them out when they lack public manners and decorum.

Jonah Goldberg, of course, agrees with his National Review colleague, Steyn.

First, let me say at the outset that I think this [incident] has gotten way more attention than it deserves…

[T]he fact that he’s leaving a think tank, even one as fantastic as AEI (where I am now a visiting fellow), does not strike me as earth-shattering news.

Indeed, the reason it’s news at all is that it feeds a liberal media storyline, one that David is regrettably feeding.

But as Jonah well knows, the news is not that David is “leaving a think tank.” The news is the political circumstances and context which are forcing David to leave one of America’s most prominent and influential conservative think tanks.

Jonah disingenuously suggests that this entire brouhaha simply involves David leaving one job for another — which, of course, happens all the time in America. So what’s the big deal!

The big deal is this: David was forced out of AEI right after he had written (on Sunday, Mar. 21) a widely publicized piece (“Waterloo”), much condemned on the Right, in which he blamed conservatives for Obamacare. And leading the charge against David was the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which, even in this new and multifaceted media age, is regarded still as something of a holy writ by many prominent and influential conservatives.

The Journal charged David (on Monday, Mar. 22) with selling out his political principles in order to curry favor with the liberal media elite. “Mr Frum now makes his living as the media’s go-to-basher of fellow Republicans, which is a stock Beltway role,” the Journal charged.

This is an unfair, unfounded and absurd charge. David, as everyone now knows, made his living as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is a well known — and financially well established — conservative journalist, author and pundit. Thus, he hardly needs to attack the Right in order to boost his career prospects or income.

In any case, on Monday afternoon, after David had written his “Waterloo” piece, and after the divine oracles at the Wall Street Journal had excommunicated him from the conservative movement, David was summoned to lunch by the American Enterprise Institute. David lunched with AEI president Arthur Brooks on Thursday and apparently was given two options: either work at AEI for free or leave AEI altogether.

Yet, in light of this chronology of events, we’re supposed to believe that the timing of David’s forced resignation from AEI had nothing to do with the criticism he’s levied against conservatives and the conservative movement? Please. I may be naive, but I’m not that naive!

Nonetheless, Charles Murray says, with a straight face, and with absolutely no hint of irony or humor, that David’s dismissal was due to a lack of productivity:

If I had to guess — and that’s what I’m doing, guessing — David’s departure arose from something as simple as this:

Management thinks that an employee is not as productive a member of the organization as management thinks he should be. The employee disagrees. They part company. I think that’s what happened.

Murray may be a good company man, but in this instance at least he’s an embarrassingly poor analyst who is unwilling to make obvious causal connections and yet engages in absurd speculation.

In truth, David’s productivity as an AEI scholar quite literally speaks for itself: three books, more than 1,000 newspaper and magazine articles, development and production of a new website, hundreds of TV appearances, innumerable national and international lectures, leader of the opposition to Bush Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, et al.

Not many think tank scholars can begin to rival these accomplishments.

Part of the reason for Murray’s bad and deceptive analysis is that Bruce Bartlett repeated (and got wrong) something that he (Bartlett) thought he had once heard David say. Bartlett thought David had told him that AEI healthcare analysts were being muzzled due to pressure from donors.

This is an absurd charge, which I wish Barlett had never made, because it’s given David’s conservative critics an easy target, at which they’ve eagerly fired away.

Of course AEI doesn’t muzzle or regulate what its analysts write and say, but then David never made any such allegation. (Bartlett, to his credit, has since retracted and apologized for his erroneous statement, and especially for putting false words into David’s mouth.)

What David has said is that think tanks, like every other American business, are affected by financial pressures and bottom-line constraints — and David is absolutely right about this.

Indeed, who think tanks hire — and fire — absolutely is affected by donor pressure, and sometimes decisively so. Yet, for making this rather pedestrian and unremarkable observation, David has been viciously attacked as a “despicable” liar by people like Murray and Goldberg, and mocked by the likes of Steyn.

Enough. Enough of this dangerous political cannibalism. David Frum is an important conservative thinker, analyst and journalist, and he’s one of us: a bona fide member in good standing of the vast right-wing conspiracy.

Sure, David’s an unconventional and heterodox conservative who’s changed his mind, it seems, on some important (and mostly social) issues like so-called gay marriage and open homosexuality in the military.

I disagree with David about these issues, which, regrettably, get little or no play at FrumForum. However, regardless of his stance on particular issues, David’s clear and explicit goal is not to subvert the conservative movement, but to strengthen and modernize it.

His efforts are designed to build a bona fide center-right coalition which includes not just full-spectrum conservatives like myself, but moderates and inconsistent conservatives as well. These people may not agree with the organized Right on each and every issue; but they still are a necessary and important part of any viable conservative political strategy.

In, short the Right needs unconventional and heterodox thinkers like David Frum.

We need men and women of his caliber who will push the intellectual envelope. We need people who will challenge us to think through, and rethink through, our assumptions, our ideas, and our approach to politics and public policy.

And we need these people — people like David Frum — now more than ever. Because, my fellow conservatives, if you haven’t noticed we’re out of power, in the minority, and losing badly. Enough.

John R. Guardiano is a writer and analyst in Arlington, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter:@Guardian0

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