The High Cost of Conservative Intellectual Bankruptcy

I hold no particular brief for David Frum, the conservative writer who was abruptly ousted as a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute last week. I've participated on panel discussions and debates with him (including at AEI) but wouldn't consider him a personal friend. He once accused me of becoming like Charles Lindbergh (I'm pretty sure he wasn't referring to my aviation heroics). I consider "axis of evil," his best-known construction as a Bush speechwriter, one of the most irresponsible phrases ever put in a president's mouth. And with 15 million people unemployed, the last person who needs my sympathy is one who's had seven years in one of the sweetest deals imaginable, a well-paid think-tank fellowship with few institutional responsibilities.

And yet, Frum's ouster is a sad day not only for conservatism but for political discourse generally. I don't say that because Frum and I agree on anything. I don't say it because I think he's a nice guy to have a beer with -- I've never had that pleasure -- or because he seems "reasonable," like David Brooks or some fifth-generation "Rockefeller Republican." I say it specifically because I disagree with him, because he's often unreasonable, because he represents a fierce, principled, engaged conservatism, one that participates in arguments in the real world, and sometimes comes back with those arguments modified, and probably improved. That's been my sense of him ever since reading his first major book, Dead Right in the mid-1990s.

It's always risky to pass judgment on any organization's personnel decisions, but from the outside it certainly seems that it was that engagement itself which led to Frum's ousting. Frum's immediate offense, it seems, was in predicting that the conservative strategy of blind opposition to health reform would be the Republicans' Waterloo, not Obama's. In other words, his heresy was to question the strategy of refusing to engage in the health-reform debate.

Bruce Bartlett, a conservative who was similarly ousted from a think-tank post several years ago for heresy about taxes, last Thursday reported Frum had told him AEI scholars had been instructed to hold their fire on health reform because so many of them agreed with the Obama approach. That account isn't quite borne out by the evidence, but the revised version of it -- that Frum told Bartlett AEI was "punching below its weight in the healthcare debate" -- surely is.

While AEI employs some whose resumés identify them as health experts, much of their recent output seems to have been devoted to opposition talking points, in blog posts like "ObamaCare is Rotten to the Core" by an improbably coiffed Intelligent Design advocate named Jay Richards. A recent article by an actual health expert, Thomas Miller, promised "Six ideas to make real progress"; all six involved political tactics for defeating Democrats, like "Mobilize the tens of millions of irate voters who were dissed and dismissed by leaders of the current (but not future) majority."

"I would expect that by September the Republicans will have come up with some constructive ideas" for health reform, former Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota said last week. But the time for constructive ideas was the past year, when the legislation was in play. That the vaunted conservative intellectual infrastructure offered little useful during that period is ample proof of "punching below their weight." Unlike Frum's, theirs is not a conservatism that is confident of its ideas and willing to find compromises and connections but one that would rather take comfort in claiming that it represents a secret majority that was "dissed and dismissed."

But why should we care? Why does it matter to liberals if conservatives disengage, or the American Enterprise Institute wants to downgrade from Frum to (rumored hire) Marc Thiessen, the former Jesse Helms press flack, or John Bolton?

The answer is that we all benefit from a fully engaged debate. There are a lot of things I respect about conservatism, there are points I'm willing to hear, and I'm willing to adjust my own views of the world in response. I want to see my own ideas tested and challenged, in a vigorous debate with people like Frum, and while I'm confident my ideas will "win," so is he. I'm confident that both ideas will be improved by the interaction.

And I'm pretty confident I'm joined in this view by the president of the United States, for whom a formative experience was managing the fight between very Frum-like conservatives and liberals at the Harvard Law Review in the late 1980s, and whose expressed admiration for Ronald Reagan, I think, is not entirely based on Reagan's effectiveness but might have a little to do with partial, grudging respect for the conservative critique of late 1970s liberalism. Obama's enthusiasm for bipartisanship, I believe, is not just a matter of attaching some Republican names to legislation but a commitment to a kind of debate in which people of various viewpoints can find an acceptable solution not just on the basis of their interests but their values.

That hasn't happened and it's not just a matter of congressional Republicans holding back. The entire conservative movement seems to have chosen to sit this round out to avoid the risk of becoming complicit in governance, as if waiting for another chance at the total dominance they enjoyed during the Bush years. It's a kind of willful intellectual bankruptcy, and it's not likely to end well, for their movement or for American democracy.

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