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In AEI vs. Frum, Follow the Money (or Lack Thereof)

Posted on March 30 2010 11:53 am
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David Frum’s inattention to his employer’s financial concerns, and his increasing notoriety amongst conservative donors, likely resulted in his forced resignation from the American Enterprise Institute.

David (Swindle), you accept and continue to propagate an alternative narrative to explain David Frum’s dismissal from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

That alternative narrative has been articulated by Charles Murray at The Corner and Tunku Varadarajan at the Daily Beast. The argument is that David could have stayed at AEI had he simply been more of a team player who contributed more to the institute and to his colleagues’ efforts.

But the glaring problem with your analysis is that it ignores completely the political context and circumstances that surround David’s dismissal.

I’ve discussed this context and those circumstances at length in two separate posts here at NewsReal Blog. Suffice it to say that David Frum is not just another nameless, faceless think tank analyst toiling away in political obscurity.

That is to say, he’s no Norm Ornstein, whom most conservatives don’t know, much less care about. Ornstein, of course, is a AEI’s extremely knowledgeable but utterly conventional establishment-type political analyst.

David, by contrast, is an utterly unconventional and well known political journalist, author and pundit. And he’s become a lightning rod for some conservative political activists who think that he epitomizes all that is wrong with the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

I think these activists misunderstand David; however, I understand and appreciate their concerns. More to the point, I recognize that these activists drive the conservative movement, politically and financially.

David, I think, got caught up in their crosshairs and has paid the ultimate professional price for his perceived sins.

But as to your specific points:

The idea that David didn’t do enough for AEI (as opposed to himself) is, I think, seriously mistaken. In truth, a think tank analyst’s most important job is to be analytically productive; everything else is secondary.

By being analytically productive and excelling, the analyst enhances the influence of the think tank for which he works. David absolutely excelled analytically and was quite productive. Indeed, he spread AEI’s influence far and wide, much more so, I think, than most of his colleagues.

As to other collateral duties, well, I know for certain that David took it upon himself to mentor junior AEI staff. Some of these cardiocons have since moved on to other professional endeavors. Nonetheless, they continue to work with David on his website, FrumForum. They obviously found David’s mentoring helpful.

In any case, the idea that a think tank analyst would be fired because he didn’t take on sufficient collateral duties is silly. That’s simply not a firing offense; and anyone who’s ever worked at one of Washington’s big policy shops knows this.

Murray, however, does raise a collateral duty that has become increasingly important at think tanks, especially in this period of economic decline and contraction; and that is fundraising. And what matters here is that certain think tank scholars are able to command financial support from donors because of their brand name or cachet.

Conversely, I suppose, certain think tank scholars may be able to turn off donors because of their brand name and notoriety. It is entirely possible that David fell into this latter category. And perhaps that is what Murray meant when he said David wasn’t sufficiently “productive.” In that sense, David (Swindle), you, too, may be absolutely right.

AEI may well have made a shrewd financial decision to jettison David because he wasn’t doing enough for its bottom line. They may well have decided to replace David with another analyst who is more popular amongst conservatives, and who, therefore, can do more to strengthen the institute’s underlying economic position.

This, in fact, may be the reason that AEI recently hired Jonah Goldberg and Mark Thiessen, two younger and more popular conservative firebrands: because it viewed them as far more promising financial prospects.

This is a perfectly legitimate and reasonable thing to do. Think tanks are, after all, businesses, which, in order to survive, must find new sources of revenue. And there is nothing wrong or dishonorable about this. I just wish that AEI would be more candid and forthright about the economic calculus that caused it to fire David after a fruitful, seven-year run.

You assert that “AEI offered to keep Frum on as a paid employee if [only] he would go into the office, participate at AEI events, contribute to the AEI blog, and help mentor AEI staff.”

Well, that’s the spin put forth by anonymous “AEI insiders” quoted by Tunku Varadarajan in his Daily Beast piece. But there’s no evidence to support Tunku’s theory, which doesn’t make sense in any case, given David’s enormous productivity as an AEI scholar.

No, a more plausible explanation, as I say, involves money and finances. Simply put, AEI was willing to tolerate David’s perceived apostasies so long as he helped to shore up the institute’s bottom line — or at least so long as he didn’t hurt them financially. But when, because of his own notoriety within conservative circles, David was unable to do this, AEI decided to coldly drop him.

In that sense, David has, indeed, been punished for his heterodox views and unconventional thinking.

Is this wrong? I think so. David, after all, is one of the most important conservative thinkers of his generation; and his contributions to the public dialogue and debate strengthen the conservative cause. And if one of America’s top conservative think tanks can’t find a home for David Frum, then the conservative movement may be in worse shape than any of us would like to admit or acknowledge.

On the other hand, as a free marketer, I certainly understand and appreciate the need for any employee — including a think tank scholar — to sustain his own means of financial support in a free and open market.

So in that sense, David is no victim. He is instead someone who has ridden a market wave, but is now crashing on the shoals of a rocky economy.

But mark my words: despite being condemned by some of the self-avowed guardians of conservative doctrinal purity, David will be back. You will hear from him again, and soon — with or without AEI.

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