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Off-Axis

David Frum was once GOP royalty. But as his party has moved rightward, the former Bush speechwriter sounds more and more like a Democrat.

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David Frum, left, with Arianna Huffington in 2003. (Amanda Edwards/KCRW.com/Getty Images)

“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.”

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As a Jewish conservative I welcome the Republican party’s moving in a conservative direction from the ‘go along to get along’ compromises they’ve hitorically made with Democrats getting us into the national mess we have.

If we promoted traditional Judeo-Christian values as behaviorally optimal, peace through military strength fighting wars to win when in our defense/interests, sealing the borders eradicating all magnets drawing illegals here, only allowed in H1B visa workers wanting to become citizens, pro Israeli Middle East policy, curbing spending to within our means, and used government to create an economic climate conducive to private sector jobs creation making cost of doing business in the US less expensive and cost of doing business overseas more expensive our country would be in much better shape.

Democrats are the monolithic party opposing wealth building killing the American dream punishing success, ‘anything goes’ amoral mindedness, emasculating our defense, pro Arab tilt, open borders/amnesty, big government proponents, and government controlling the private sector have all been disastrous to the country.

If Frum is more comfortable with the Democrat approach, he should vote Obama

As a disappointed Democrat, I share Frum’s frustration with Obama’s lack of leadership and long for the days of a Johnson or Reagan-style leadership. Those men knew the power of the office and were not afraid to wield it, often dragging reluctant Democrats (the Civil Rights acts) or Republicans (multiple tax hikes) into doing the right thing. I don’t know so much that Frum has moved so much as the goal posts have shifted, leaving him (and me) stranded in no-mans land.

Frum is a Canadian and his form of conservatism reflects the name born by Canada’s centre-right party of the days of his youth: the Progressive Conservatives. “Progressive” was dropped from the name a few years back when the PCs merged with the Canadian Alliance, a party a little more to the right of the PCs, but not as far as many perceived the CA to be, as the current Conservative leadership in Canada under Stephen Harper has not taken an ideological approach to dealing with the global recession, which has touched Canada, albeit not so far to the extent of most other nations.

Frum may be pegged by some “liberals” as a “neo-con” because he came up with the “Axis of Evil” label for the triumverate of North Korea, Iran and Iraq, but the label was misleading only to the extent that at that time Iran and Iraq were bitter enemies. Swope out Iraq for Syria and Frum was pretty much correct.

David’s comment above is right on. The goal posts have indeed moved, with ostensible “left/liberals” becoming apologists/enablers of some very reactionary movements.

The Republican party will be the ruin of America and Israel, it is an insane conglomerate of fascists, fools, and failures.

But Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Black Caucus, Main Line Protestant Churches, Academians, Self loathingJews like Tikkun’s Michael Lerner/J Street, and other assorted social justice lefties in the Democrat Party are Israel’s saviors, Jules?

jzsnake says:

Newsweek has become so anti-Israel it’s hard to believe anything you write.

Christopher Orev says:

Thanks for the insightful piece on David Frum. I wasn’t aware of his shift (or, as two of the commenters above observed, the moving of the goal posts). In any case, it speaks well of a person who retains a capacity to change their mind, “flip-flopper” label notwithstanding.

Salem, whatever your low opinion of Rabbi Michael Lerner, I think we’re all better off if we avoid the ugly “self-loathing” epithet.

Christopher, Lerner morally equates Arab aggression terrorizing of Israel to Israel’s aggression in self-defense. What would you call it?

Not too long ago, I could not stand the sight of David Frum. As a Canadian with a liberal heritage, I thought of him as a toadying boot licker – willing to jump further to the right just to please his “Masters” like Bush and Cheney.

If I met him in person, I would offer an apology. Obviously, he has grown and changed. Disappointment with one’s heroes will do that to a person.

Lynne T’s comments about the Conservative parties in Canada are absolutely correct. Our Conservatives would not even be allowed to join the Republican Party as it now stands – they are too non-ideological. It sounds to me as if Frum has grown into his Canadian Conservative roots. Good for him.

Frank:

Hard to say how much I used to dislike Frum had to do with Frum’s seemingly smug manner + youth, or how much he seems to have evolved. He became good friends with Christopher Hitchens a number of years ago through his wife, Danielle Crittenden, although I’m sure there’s no small gulf between the two on a number of subjects. And Hitchens, although still the polemicist, certainly left behind the politics of his youth too.

For that matter, my own political views have evolved considerably since my teens, when I became and remained an enthusiastic New Democrat, to become an unaligned centrist.

Frank, the right is swerving madly out of control state side and in Israel. When will someone step forward to put the brakes on this insanity?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cese6l5eekQ

David says:

I quite enjoy the transformation of Mr. Frum. I’m a conservative myself but never felt home in the neocon crowd. Pro-Israel? Sure. But Neocons are often little else than hawkish (neo)liberals. Just look at their stance on immigration. It’s one thing to be for a legal, orderly immigration where we truly select for the ‘best and the brightest’ and the total mess we have now.

Also, conservatives used to be skeptical to some extent of capitalism, even if neglecting the big Statism of the left that so often led to suffocating public life. Many conservatives were also environmentalists in the late 1800s, early 1900s.

Today, ‘conservatism’ in America is often little else than blind greed and blatant disregard for nature or the social cohesion in an area. In other words: it’s neoliberalism on steriods with extreme hawkishness.

I’d quite like an agressive – but smart – foreign policy and a more balanced domestic viewpoint where you don’t pay blind homage to the big bankers like the left pays blind homage to the big unions.

Frum’s always struck me as an independent thinker post-2003 and it’s about time he shed the idiocy of the necons.

@ Jules
972mag is an extreme leftwing propaganda magazine. And it’s funny because Anatot is a very secular community mostly inhabited by IDF officers. The truth is of course that the leftwing activists came and attacked the people of Anatot who just defended themselves against these thugs, as anyone should.

The right-wing in Israel has gone the opposite way of the right-wing in the USA – to the left, at least in the Palestinian issue: in 1994, some (very few) Likud members even voted against the peace with Jordan because the old Herut ideology stated that it was part of Eretz Israel. Today, Netanyahu accepts a Palestinian State. Even Rabin never accepted a Palestinian State and opposed any concession on Jerusalem.

Get your facts straight.

Michael in Ohio says:

As a moderate Republican, I’m probably more troubled by Mr. Frum’s web-site “endorsements” by Steven Colbert, Joan Walsh, Aaron Sorkin, Jonathan Chait, and John Judis, which speaks to the fact that Mr. Frum is fast becoming the liberal’s favorite conservative, which is to say that his currency amongst true conservatives is at the risk of becoming extremely devalued.

Maybe that explains why Michelle Goldberg did this softball piece on his “journey.”

Jules says:

Ben, do have your vision checked. You are clearly a not very clever or bright or clear eyed weak apologist for the lewd hard right Likud and the nauseous Neoconservatives we still have toiling in fandom’s fascism here at home down on the farm. It is quite obvious that you clutch this rot to your bosom like mother’s milk and a crank on the make with glib love of dirt for all it is cheaply worth. Oh for heaven’s sake the little white lies you’ll make like a crowning fake. I do think it would benefit your personal needs to make an appointment with a reliable optometrist.

I alone cannot help you with your sore uber Neoconservative’s myopia.

M Pearle says:

Frum is far more sensible than most Democrats on immigration, or neo-conservatives for that matter. He has pointed out the high future costs of cheap labor due to the low educational achievement of the US born descendants. See his essay on how he changed his position on immigration in the late 80′s.

Frum also sensibly defended the efforts by Arizona to control illegal immigration. Again, I don’t recall many Democrats taking a similarly principled and logical stance.

Baruch says:

Michelle Glodberg is clearly old liberal left, & writes with her prejudices up front. There is no effort on her part to be objective. Does she consider Herman Cain a right wing extremist? I consider him to be a man with practical ideas. And Rick Perry is not the devil she imagines but has right & left wing views, such as his ideas on immigration, legal & illegal.

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montrealeragain says:

David Frum a Democrat? Never. But can someone in the US give him a real job already? Please. Whatever you do. Just keep him busy enough to stop writing  his propaganda-filled warped logic op-eds in The National/Fascist Post.  The guy is a douche-bag and an embarrassment to his mother’s memory. But who cares as long as you keep him — far away from us!

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Off-Axis

David Frum was once GOP royalty. But as his party has moved rightward, the former Bush speechwriter sounds more and more like a Democrat.

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