With Jim Lobe

The ubiquitous right-wing media personality David Frum parted ways with his home base organization this week. The former George W. Bush speechwriter — who is most famous or notorious for his “Axis of Evil” formulation in the 2002 State of the Union — apparently got fired from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) because of comments he put on his website about the price that the Republican Party will face with the passage of President Obama’s health care reform legislation.

The split with AEI, which the Washington Post reports was not mutual, came after Frum was bashed by the neo-conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, where he worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Journal has taken many of its talking points from AEI since Irving Kristol’s heyday in the late 1970′s and 1980′s.

Don’t expect this to be the last time you hear from the neo-conservative Frum, who will likely retain any other number of perches commenting and writing in both the mainstream and right-wing media. However, the firing, handed down Wednesday, lays bare two major points on ideology and think-tank politics in Washington:

  1. 1. The ideological rigidity of the Tea Party Movement has seeped into D.C.’s GOP power centers. Dissent is not welcome; adherence to the party (or movement) line is a prerequisite to membership. If you’re not exclusively hurling vitriol from the far reaches of the right wing, you are a persona non grata.
  2. 2. Many think tanks in D.C. are not all they’re cracked up to be. They are not, as some would have you believe, institutions of independent policy research and political thought. They are instead beholden to certain industries and causes or, in the case of the Heritage Foundation and increasingly AEI, a political party. (Center for American Progress on the Democratic side, too.)

Frum’s break from the the Tea Party-turn of the Republican mainstream started with his questioning of John McCain’s vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, just two days before the 2008 convention. Though he remained a critic, citing her weakness as a candidate even on the pages of New York magazine, Frum still voted for McCain. But this is not enough.

He left National Review in January as Obama was inaugurated. A few months earlier, Christopher Buckley, the son of the magazine’s founder, left the magazine. In the New York Times, Frum laid out some of his reasons for leaving: “I am really and truly frightened by the collapse of support for the Republican Party by the young and the educated.”

A Yale grad and Harvard-educated Lawyer, Frum has been close to the corridors of power for long enough to realize that things are changing in the U.S., and a base of old white men from rural areas and the south won’t be able to sustain a party. He called for rethinking draconian conservative stances on immigration and, more recently, questioned the attempted stone-walling of health care reform. A year ago, he lashed out at another movement leader, Rush Limbaugh, in Newsweek, veering sharply into ad hominem attacks:

With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence—exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party.

Frum and Buckley’s departure from National Review, and particularly its blog, shattered the pretense of high-minded  conservative discourse there. NRO‘s ‘the Corner’ has been largely reduced to characters like Victor Davis Hanson and Andy McCarthy, among others, spitting as much venom as they can feebly muster from the right. All the while, NRO toes the obstinate GOP line, feeding the flames of the populist anger that has seized soul of the party.

The same can be said of AEI. Despite a more complex set of interests, with massive amounts of  defense and pharmaceutical industry dough flowing in, AEI seems to be nonetheless narrowing its political and ideological focus.

After losing power in Bush’s second term — their central accomplishment of the Iraq War widely recognized as a debacle — a few neocons were purged from the think tank in 2008. (Michael Ledeen and Reuel Marc Gerecht ended up at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which was hoping to, LobeLog speculated at the time, attract more niche Likudnik dollars from people like billionaire Sheldon Adelson.) Joshua Muravchik, one of the few neo-cons who has openly repented of his support for Ahmed Chalabi but was one of the first to call for bombing Iran (more than three years ago), was simply put out to pasture.

Now AEI is eliminating one of the few voices from the place that doesn’t say almost the exact same things as everyone else in the Republican Party. The “scholars” and “fellows” who hold forth there are now almost strictly polemicists for this or that cause. They establish the frames and talking points that are then used by paid lobbyists to press their case on Capitol Hill and in the Executive Branch. Independent thinkers — or people who reflect on things, or who actually disagree with the institution on key issues for which these think tanks are funded — can’t expect a long life expectancy there. (Election expert Norman Ornstein is an honorable exception at AEI.) Frum wasn’t refining party memes, but was instead questioning them altogether. So he had to go.

Conservative commentator Bruce Bartlett, Frum’s apparent friend, is quick to point the finger at right wing donors:

Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn’t already. [...] The donor community is only interested in financing organizations that parrot the party line.

In Salon.com, Gabriel Winant takes on the question of whether Frum was booted because of these donors, or the Tea Party-esque grass roots opposition to any sort of interaction with Democratic Washington, concluding that it’s probably a bit of both. (Winant skewers the notion, using AEI’s donation page, that Joe Sixpack has enough weight at AEI to pull this off on his own.) With reports of ‘astro-turfing’ in the Tea Party movement — corporate- and foundation-backing disguised as grass roots inspiration — the distinction may be meaningless anyway.

Frum, writing on his blog on Saturday, confirmed that, from his perspective, it was the donors:

Was the firing in response to donor pressure? At lunch, Arthur Brooks explained that AEI was facing a new kind of donor environment, in which donors were becoming much more specific about where they wanted their money to go.

Interestingly, Frum has a history of being the purger, rather than purgee (a point that Chris Buckley also counts as a con in his defense of Frum on the Daily Beast). In 2003, Frum wrote a story for (you guessed it) National Review which suggested Pat Buchanan and his ‘Paleoconservative’ movement were anti-Semites, accusing them outright of being ‘unpatriotic,’ because of their criticisms of Israel and U.S. foreign adventurism. “Now we turn our backs on them,” Frum wrote.  The irony is not lost on Winant, at Salon who sees a broader conservative trend of party line enforcement and cannibalism that draws a hilarious comparison to socialism’s troubled history:

Now that Frum is the right wing’s victim, rather than its enforcer, he’s easy to sympathize with. But it seems that the fundamental problem is more in the idea that conservatism has to be a monolith at all times. For a movement that has become obsessed with warding off the evils of socialism, the right wing does dearly love a purge.