“It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe,” blared a searing essay on the left-wing website Truthout earlier this month. This is, of course, conventional wisdom among many liberals. But the author, Mike Lofgren, wasn’t a man of the left: He was a veteran Republican congressional staffer.
The piece was just the latest bit of evidence of the rift in the Republican Party between the establishmentarians who once defined it and the right-wingers who have largely taken it over. And perhaps no one in Washington is more sensitive to that rift than David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter and prominent neoconservative.
A few weeks after Lofgren’s piece was published, I called Frum to ask what he thought of it. “I think there’s a lot of truth to it,” he said. It’s a “little too much of a stark morality play,” he added. “The story I would tell is not of a golden age that ended in 2009. What I see is a gradual accumulating breakdown.”
Even with the caveats, it was a striking admission. Frum, a man who dedicated years of his life to the GOP, has, over the course of President Barack Obama’s tenure, been inching toward the conclusion that his party is full of cranks and an obstacle to the normal working of government. He’s still a conservative, he says, and he still wants the Republican Party to succeed. But as the Tea Party has come to dominate the GOP, Frum has been transformed in a remarkably short period of time from right-wing royalty to apostate.
Frum’s website, Frum Forum, which launched on the day of Obama’s inauguration, is a quixotic outpost of sober, anti-populist, pragmatic conservatism far removed from the prevailing tone of the conservative media. His writing, once aggressive and hyper-confident—he co-authored a book with Richard Perle in December 2003 titled An End to Evil—now seems almost elegiac.
Meanwhile, his wife, Danielle Crittenden, once best-known for her criticism of feminism, has now turned her fire on the right. In a 2010 piece defending her husband from his conservative detractors, she blasted “the thuggish demagoguery of the Limbaughs and the Becks … a trait we once derided in the old Socialist Left.” She recently took a job working for the liberal doyenne Arianna Huffington as managing blog editor of the Huffington Post Canada. Though they were once a conservative power couple—Frum says they have a “mind meld”—it’s no longer clear where the Frums belong. “I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” Frum says. “I have three dogs.”
Frum is deeply critical of Obama in his writings, but his criticism often dovetails with the discontents of the left rather than the fevered accusations of the right. While many conservatives see the president as a socialist bent on radically transforming American life, Frum faults Obama for being passive and equivocal in the face of an obstructionist Congress. “A big part of my criticism of him is simply on the grounds of being good at the job of being president,” Frum explains. “The president has to be effective, and he has to use the instrumentalities of presidential power.”
Had Lyndon Johnson been in the White House during the debt-ceiling debate, Frum argued to me, Johnson might have called powerful congressmen into a back room and explained how the administration would allocate funds when the money started running out. Frum imagined him taking charge: “I just want you all to know that any bill with a South Carolina ZIP code, that’s going to be a lower priority. Any bill with a Texas ZIP code, that’s going to be a lower priority. Any bill with a California or New York ZIP code? That’s going to be a high priority.” Obama clearly has no taste for such hardball. Frum is one of very few Republicans who finds this disappointing.
Frum often seems to share the liberal perception of the Republican base as febrile and unhinged—and he’s unafraid to say so publicly. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 2009 about various anti-Obama conspiracy theories, he denounced the “wild accusations and the paranoid delusions coming from the fever swamps.” In Canada’s National Post this August, he wrote that Michele Bachmann’s “religiously grounded rejection of the American state finds a hearing with many more conventional conservatives radicalized by today’s hard economic times.”
Of course, the right-wing populism of the Tea Party is hardly a new thing. And Frum himself hasn’t always been turned off by the conservative id—quite the opposite. He served the proudly anti-intellectual George W. Bush and then painted an admiring portrait of him in the 2003 book The Right Man, concluding that the president’s courage and rectitude trumped his tendency to be “dogmatic” and “ill-informed.” It’s true that the GOP has moved even further rightward in recent years. But Frum has changed too, and reading him one often senses a man in the midst of a painful ideological evolution.
Born in Canada to successful parents—his father was a wealthy real-estate developer, his mother a well-known broadcast journalist—Frum came of age in the 1970s, a time he chronicled in his 2000 book, How We Got Here: The 70’s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life—For Better or Worse. It was a time when liberalism seemed calcified, unable to adjust its deepest assumptions in the face of rising social disorder. “One of the things that moved a lot of people in my cohort to the right was the encounter with fossilized thinking on the liberal left,” he says. Neoconservatives fancied themselves clear-eyed realists, unwilling to be bound by dishonest pieties and cant.
Flash forward to 2010, when Frum was fired from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, for disparaging Republican intransigence on health-care reform. Frum was not, it is important to note, advocating liberal policies. Rather, he was pointing out that Obama’s health-care reform plan drew on ideas that came out of the Heritage Foundation, another conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. Frum argued that if Republicans took part in the process of reform, they could push the resulting law in a more conservative direction. “David subscribes to old-fashioned notions like when your ideas have an opportunity to make it into law that you see that as a good thing,” says Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein. “A lot of people don’t if the other party is going to be the one with its name on the bill.”
Of course, it’s not as if Frum was a political innocent, suddenly shocked to his senses by the discovery that partisanship could trump civic duty in Washington. His conflict with his former confreres goes beyond tactics. Unlike many conservatives, he’s keenly aware that our current economic catastrophe began under Republican leadership. And unlike many conservatives, he’s chastened by it.
“A lot of conservatives are trying to cope with the disappointing economic results of the first decade of the 21st century, and the final catastrophe of 2008,” he says. “It’s sobering that part of that decade saw the longest period of unified Republican power at the national level since the 1920s.” Some conservatives are coping through denial: “Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are now trying to move the economic crisis forward in time,” in order to lay the blame at Obama’s feet, argues Frum. Others have doubled down on their orthodoxies. Frum shifted his thinking.
In April, he published a piece on his website titled “Two Cheers for the Welfare State,” the culmination of a seven-part response to “Beyond the Welfare State,” a National Affairs essay by Yuval Levin. Frum’s piece explained how the economic crisis prompted his move away from the “radical free-market economics I embraced in the late 1970s.”
“In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the free-market assumption and expectation that an unemployed person could always find work somewhere has been massively falsified: at the trough of this recession, there were almost 6 jobseekers in the U.S. for every unfilled job,” he wrote. “Nothing like such a disparity had been seen since the 1930s. The young faced the worst job odds. … GK Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built.”
Frum has come to embrace some quintessentially liberal ideas about the role of chance as opposed to virtue in economic fortune. “Success is not always a matter of luck,” he says. “But as I get older, even the ability to work hard is itself a product of luck. Being born with a certain set of mental attributes, brain chemistry. Every once in a while you encounter a little kid who’s not that likable. Their life is going to be so much worse because they’re not that likable. Did they ask to be not likable?”
And yet, despite all of this, he remains a committed Republican. Frum hopes for a President Mitt Romney who will govern the country as a technocratic moderate, as he did Massachusetts. (A record, of course, Romney is now running from.) “There’s a style and a sensibility in the Republican Party right now that I find myself removed from,” he says. But, he insists, “you can do more good for the country by working for a better Republican Party than by leaving it to the extremists. What have they done to deserve that inheritance?”
Yet the power of individuals to define a political party, or a political movement, only goes so far. Despite Frum’s devotion to the GOP, the gulf between his ideas and actually existing Republicanism may not always be bridgeable. He can barely countenance the idea that the 2012 Republican nominee might be Rick Perry, and he is convinced the Tea Party phenomenon is more transitory than it seems. But what if it’s not? What if the choice comes down to Obama or Perry? Could he really vote Republican then? “As a parent of teenagers,” he says, “I’ve gotten very good at postponing difficult questions.”