David Frum makes an extremely inconvenient martyr for liberals. Forced out of his cushy sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute, he will continue to be fabulously rich, thanks to his marriage to a Canadian newspaper heiress. His voice will be magnified in the national discourse, and tributes to his courage will dot the landscape of American political discourse for weeks to come.
But forget about Frum for a minute and take a look at why he was let go. Frum remains a right-winger. He has not renounced his former self for coming up with the bankrupt concept of the "axis of evil" in service to the Bush administration’s propaganda push for its disastrous, dishonest invasion of Iraq. (Frum’s tome An End to Evil, written with Richard Perle, will one day serve historians as a near-perfect exhibit for the self-serving intellectual vacuity of Bush-era hubris.) And he has strongly opposed the Obama administration, both at home and abroad, particularly its healthcare reforms.
No, Frum was drummed out of what is, sadly, the conservative movement’s most prestigious quasi-academic perch not for any recognizable form of philosophical or theological apostasy. Rather, it was for stating the obvious: that perhaps GOP leaders had screwed up their healthcare fight because they were listening to the wrong people, and hence doing the wrong things.
Way back on December 2, 1993, when William Kristol was still pretty much a nobody with a famous dad and a good-news/bad-news reputation as Dan Quayle’s chief attack dog and press leaker, he circulated a four-page memo to Republican leaders warning of the dangers lurking in President Clinton’s proposed comprehensive healthcare bill. True, the tone of his musings was a great deal friendlier to Republican muckety-mucks than that of Frum. "Nothing in these pages is intended to supplant the many thoughtful analyses of the Clinton health care plan already produced by Republicans and others," Kristol wrote. Even so, his warning presaged that made by Frum today. Should the Democrats pass their bill, he cautioned, their success would "revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle class by restraining government."
Last year Kristol–now a Republican kingmaker, Weekly Standard founder and editor, Fox News commentator, columnist for the Washington Post and previously for Time and the New York Times (all this despite an atrocious record of analysis regarding Iraq and a willingness to run intellectual interference for the likes of Sarah Palin)–repeated the same argument regarding Obama’s plan. On the Weekly Standard website, he informed his troops: "My advice, for what it’s worth: Resist the temptation. This is no time to pull punches. Go for the kill." He was echoing the advice of Senator Jim DeMint, who had opined, "If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."
OK, so that didn’t work out so well. Kristol, with Gumby-like flexibility, managed to reformulate DeMint’s Waterloo metaphor into something far more complicated, tripping up even himself in the process. In the aftermath of defeat, he cast Obama as Louis Napoleon as depicted in the opening of Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. I lack the space to do justice to the inspired nuttiness of this argument, but suffice it to say that no one will ever maintain that the problem with William Kristol was an unswerving commitment to principle or clarity.
Pretty much everybody else on the right flipped as well once it became clear that Obama would pursue reconciliation to get his votes. Suddenly, Republicans were arguing that victory, not defeat, was what would prove to be the Democrats’ Waterloo. As Obama joked to Congressional Democrats right before the vote, "Now, it could be that they are suddenly having a change of heart and they are deeply concerned about their Democratic friends. They are giving you the best possible advice in order to assure that Nancy Pelosi remains speaker and Harry Reid remains leader and that all of you keep your seats. That’s a possibility…"
So when Frum published his now-infamous blog post attacking GOP leaders for fealty to the "hysterical accusations and pseudo-information" of the right’s loudmouth know-nothings on cable and talk-radio, he was operating on the same strategic assumptions conservatives were spouting until they realized they were about to lose. But unlike Kristol and company, he refused to engage in the intellectual acrobatics necessary to repudiate his arguments of five minutes ago.
As Frum explained, the problem was the abdication of Republicans’ intellectual leadership to the folks at talk-radio and Fox News. "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox," he told ABC News, echoing an argument made in the Columbia Journalism Review, that Roger Ailes is "without close contest the most powerful Republican in the country today." (Personally, I might put him just behind Rush Limbaugh, with Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill Kristol barking just a few lengths behind.) Healthcare, Frum argued, was a "huge win for the conservative entertainment industry," but for "the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours."
The upshot of this tawdry affair–as with the less celebrated firing of Bruce Bartlett from the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis after he dissented from ruinous Bush-era budget policies–is, um, Kristol-clear. The rule of Roger and Rush will go unchallenged. No forms of deviation from the consensus of the conservative chatterboxes will be tolerated, no matter how trivial. AEI, like the rest of the conservative movement, will operate on the same basis Joseph Stalin legendarily used when he heard something he didn’t like: "no person, no problem."