First, let me say at the outset that I think this has gotten way more attention than it deserves. I don’t know if that’s a pro-Frum statement or an anti-Frum statement. But the 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. Still, it’s forgivable that David sees this as huge news, it’s his life. But in the grander scheme of things, what’s giant news for David Frum isn’t necessarily giant news for America or the conservative movement.
Second, let me agree with some of the comments around here. I haven’t agreed with much that David has had to say in the last few years (more on that in a moment), but I don’t think the Frum Project is about getting invited to liberal cocktail parties. I think Tunku is a brilliant guy, but that is a pretty lazy bit of analysis. First of all, even when David was a leading right-winger on such issues as socialized medicine, gay marriage, and immigration, he was already being invited to liberal cocktail parties. He’s that charming and interesting a guy. His taking a flamethrower to the Republican party and his fellow conservatives is not a signal flare to Sally Quinn saying “call me!”
Third: So what is his motivation? Well, I haven’t talked to David privately about this, but I’ve discussed it with quite a few people who have (many of his friends are baffled by the Frum Project) and I doubt he’d change his story just for me. I think his public motivations are largely as advertised. He honestly believes the GOP needs to moderate its stance to survive. He’s seen conservatives in Canada and Britain broken to the demands of a progressive age and he thinks the same will, and must, happen here. If I could ask him one question about this point, it would probably be: “You do know this isn’t Canada or Britain, right?”
If personal ambition plays a role — and I think it clearly does, David’s an ambitious guy — it’s certainly not about getting invited to cocktail parties. It’s about getting way out ahead of what he believes is an inevitable shift. If you beat the pack to the new conservatism 2.0, you will be hailed as both a prophet and a natural leader of the new David Cameron style conservatism. Let me say that I don’t have any huge problem with this. Public intellectuals from time immemorial have tried to get ahead of public trends and if David believes that such a change in conservatism is right and good, I have no objection to him showing leadership on his convictions.
But here is my problem with what he’s doing. If I were convinced by his analysis — and I am not — I still wouldn’t argue my points the way he does. If you think Rush, Beck, Hannity, Palin, et al. are bad for conservatism, that’s fine. If you think that the Right is too committed to tax cuts or that its emphasis on social issues is hurting it with the young and the affluent, that’s totally reasonable (if not necessarily persuasive or dispositive). But time and again David seems to relish and glory in the GOP’s “failures.” And this makes no sense to me.
It seems like the day before yesterday Frum was putting steel in the spine of the GOP on immigration, gay marriage, etc. If he really believed those things then and he believes his new analysis about the GOP now, then he should at least be remorseful about the changing times and the need for the party and movement to moderate. He should be saying things like “I wish I was wrong, but we have to face reality.” He should be celebrating when his thesis has been disproved (as it was, to one extent or another, in every off-year election of the last 12 months). He should be saying, “As much as I disagree with how Rush says X, I have to concede on the merits he’s right about X.” And he should both cheer and revisit his thesis when serious social conservatives win without compromising their beliefs (as happened in the McDonnell election).
Instead, we get an almost giddy excitement at GOP failures or, worse, a sometimes absurd effort to spin GOP successes into failures (again, as with the McDonnell election). On the conservative front, it’s almost impossible to reconcile the Frum of ten years ago with the Frum of today. And while I don’t study the FrumForum too closely, I’ve seen little effort by David to explain his apparent philosophical transformation or why he thinks the base of the party should abandon theirs. Instead, one gets the sense that he read the polls and the long-term trends, and decided to defenestrate a lot of his old core convictions — and many of his personal and professional allegiances — to become the leader of a movement (that basically doesn’t exist).
I hope that’s not the case, and respecting David as I do, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But the shocking tone-deafness of his project certainly leaves that impression.