Journalist David Frum

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Journalist discusses his ouster from the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute and the ‘crisis of followship.’

A former speechwriter for the George W. Bush White House and credited with coining the phrase "axis of evil," David Frum is a best-selling author, with titles that include The Right Man and Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again. He also contributes to The New York Times and Wall Street Journal editorial pages and is the founder of The Canadian-born journalist recently left his position as a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute after criticizing GOP strategy on the healthcare reform bill.



Tavis: David Frum is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush whose previous best-selling books include “The Right Man” and “An End to Evil.” His most recent book is called “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.” It’s now out in paperback. David Frum joins us tonight from Washington. David, as always, good to have you on the program.
David Frum: Hey, thank you so much.
Tavis: Since we’re friends I’ll give you a choice. Do you want to deal with the AEI stuff at the top or at the bottom?
Frum: (Laughter) Let’s deal with it – let’s get it off the table.
Tavis: Let’s get it off the table – so what happened?
Frum: On Sunday, I think it was March 22nd, I posted an essay on my website from, saying that what happened with the Republican position on the healthcare bill was a catastrophe, that Republicans had tried to defeat the bill, had failed to do so, and had missed the chance, therefore, to shape the bill.
So you not only had a big political defeat but you had a bill that was from a conservative and free market point of view much worse than the one I believe could have been negotiated for.
So this piece got a lot of attention and it was much discussed, and the next morning there was an editorial in “The Wall Street Journal” denouncing the piece and me. A few minutes after that I got an email from my boss, the president of AEI, saying let’s have lunch soon. We had lunch a couple of days later and I was invited to stay as an honored guest at AEI, but of course without pay and without an office, and I said (laughter) under those circumstances, you can have my resignation and we’ll part ways.
Tavis: That makes you feel how now, on this side of that conversation?
Frum: Well, look, I completely understand what happened and I have no complaints about it – that Republicans right now are under a lot of pressure. We had been having an argument for 18 months whether to do business or to try to do business with the president or not.
I had been saying for 18 months that I thought that that was doable and that it was important to try; others had felt strongly the other way. When it ended as badly as it did for Republicans and I said that we ought to have some learning here, that at a time of very intense emotion that I could understand why it was difficult to have people around.
All these think tanks, like anybody else, have to raise money. Donors are very enflamed, feelings are running very hot right now, and my call for feelings not running so hot can be a little counterproductive.
Tavis: You’ve experienced this now on the right, I’ve gone through this on the left in terms of progressive politics and people not always agreeing. What do you make of the fact that we can’t seem to have civil discourse, we can’t seem to agree to disagree without being disagreeable. If you have a point of view that’s a bit different than other people then they want to cast aspersion on you.
In this case, they want to ask you to leave the building. Again, to your point, it’s their right, but what’s it say about our discourse in America?
Frum: We right now are playing for some very, very big stakes, and I have to say as – I’m playing in this game too and I’m playing for big stakes, and we are debating the future shape of the Republican Party, the kind of party it’s going to be.
That involves whether or not we’re going to take account of this healthcare problem, so I think there’s a lot at stake and I can understand why people feel strongly, and I have a thick hide and I have no complaints.
I think what we have to decide as Republicans, if someone is giving you bad advice, by all means get him out of the building. But maybe it’s good advice, and I think I can make a case that the advice I was offering was the right advice to follow.
Tavis: What do you make, then, beyond you, of all the turmoil that’s existing right now in the Republican Party? There are folk who are calling for the ouster of Michael Steele, the party chair. There are some other big heavyweights – Ed Gillespie, Karl Rove, Mike Duncan, who started their own group now to raise money for Republican candidates. What’s happening on the right, as you see it?
Frum: Well, let me talk for a minute about Michael Steele, who has made, I’m sure, many missteps, as anybody would have in that very sensitive position at this time.
But I will defend him. I think the Republican Party needs him. It needs him both as a voice and as a symbol, and I think we just this week had a very sharp reminder of why that’s so.
Governor Bob McDonald of Virginia, somebody who had run as a modernizer, as a pragmatist, he was leaving behind his hard social conservative origins, he just issued a proclamation honoring Confederate History Month in Virginia.
He wasn’t trying to be provocative; he was actually trying to avoid controversy. It was not written in the inflammatory way that George Allen used to write those proclamations a decade ago, but running through that proclamation it just completely takes for granted that all of Virginia in the year 1861 was White, all of Virginia was for secession and all of Virginia was fighting for self-rule.
Well, that’s not true – a third of Virginia was Black. Much of Virginia was loyal to the Union, not only Black but also White. And they were not fighting for home rule; they were fighting to own other people.
Now if you had somebody inside the party structure for whom that history was something that was more than they had read in a book, we would not now be having a firestorm in Virginia where the Republican Party had immolated its own hopes of building a bigger base.
Someone like Bob McDonald, who should have had a big career in national politics, maybe a future vice presidential candidate, has done himself a lot of harm, again, not out of malice, I think; just out of blindness.
That’s where somebody like Michael Steele is really necessary inside the Republican party – not as a racial thing but look, if you’re the Democratic party and everybody in the leadership is a schoolteacher, it might be helpful to have businessman in the building just to remind you every once in a while that not everybody is a unionized public employee. Some people see the world differently. In the same way, the Republican Party needs the kind of voice that Michael Steele can bring.
Tavis: These challenges notwithstanding that the party is facing now, what say you about what’s likely to happen, as you see it, at least, come November?
Frum: Well, November 2010 is shaping up to be a very good year for Republicans. First it’s very rare for any party to do badly three elections in a row. The Republicans lost an election in 2006, they lost in 2008, so they just – history tells you they must win in 2010.
Plus they have the wind at the back. There’s a very difficult economy right now; people vote against the incumbents during a recession year. Plus it’s an off year, which means that the electorate will be older, more conservative, more affluent, and Whiter than the presidential year electorate.
All of those things point to a good Republican year. But there’s the year after that. There’s the presidency, there’s 2012, and if in 2010 the Republicans park themselves so far into the extreme they may have a good outing, but that may set you up for trouble the very next cycle. That’s what I worry about a lot.
Tavis: Tell me what can be done, then, between now and November to, for lack of a better term, moderate where the party is going to find itself in November.
Frum: The elected leaders of the Republican Party are not immoderate people. People like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, who’s the governor of Minnesota, people like the leaders in the Senate, the important people in the Senate, these are very reasonable people.
They are tripped by a crisis of followership. The Republican base has been so enflamed, has persuaded itself to take such a negative view of what is happening in Washington, such a negative view of the intentions of people in the other party well beyond disagreement – I think Barack Obama spends too much and taxes too much and borrows too much too, but I don’t think he’s plotting the end of constitutional democracy in the United States.
You can get yourself into a position where it becomes impossible for the leaders of your party to do the things they need to do to be effective leaders for the big electorate that votes in presidential years.
Tavis: But this is that age-old question back around again, David, which is whether or not moderates – here comes that word again – are welcome in the Republican party of 2010. Are they?
Frum: Well, “moderate” is a word that people in politics with strong views on either side dislike because they think it means you’re just not intensely committed. That a moderate is somebody with the passion left out, with the commitment left out.
I wanna talk, especially on the Republican side, about being moderate – about accepting the country as it is. About recognizing that the problems of 2010 are different from the problems of 1980. In 1980, Republicans had answers to the problem of overregulation of the economy and inflation. Well, today we have very different problems, beginning at home with this healthcare crisis and internationally with global terrorism, and they require some very different answers.
Right now we’re having a huge argument about the nuclear posture of the United States. I tend to disagree with the president’s assessment of the nuclear posture, but the nuclear weapons are not going to help us very much in Afghanistan.
Tavis: What say you, then, about the news of late that seems to suggest the White House is starting to back up a bit from Mr. Karzai, that he might not be welcome at the White House next month as we expected he would? How are you reading this?
Frum: Well, President Karzai just erupted in this tirade against the United States, against the president. Americans are in Afghanistan right now, among other things, keeping President Karzai alive, so you’d think he would have somewhat better manners in this situation.
He is a very unreliable partner and there are other partners, some of whom may have gotten more votes in the actual election if the votes had been honestly counted.
Tavis: Finally, back to this Republican thing because I don’t want to forget about – I wanted to raise this right quick. Since you are in Washington and I’m sitting, as I do every night, here in California, I read a fascinating piece – yeah, lucky me. I read a fascinating piece by you the other day where you believed that Republicans have a chance in 2010 in this state, Ronald Reagan’s state?
Frum: I hope they have a chance, but I think the main thing I want to emphasize about California is the Republican Party desperately needs California to be back as part of the Republican coalition.
Back in the 1980s, when the Republicans were the stronger of the two parties, the Republican Party was based in California plus Texas plus Florida. It was a Sunbelt party, not just a Southern party, and it did reach into the Midwest and the Northeast.
When California dropped out of the Republican coalition after 1990 that made the most important state in the Republican coalition Texas, and it made the party a Texas plus Deep South coalition, and that’s how you get yourself into problems like this Confederate History Month problem. You’re just cut off from the experience of much of the rest of the country.
So I was arguing yes, I think there’s a hope of defeating Barbara Boxer. I think there’s more than a hope of electing Meg Whitman or Steve Poizner governor of California, but much more important than that Republicans can win in California is what California can bring to the GOP. California is a very diverse state, it’s a big state, it’s a modern state, and if it re-joins the Republican coalition it will change that coalition for the better.
Tavis: We will see what happens in California and for that matter across the nation, and we will follow the career of David Frum. I’m certain that David’s long career thus far bodes well for where he’s going to go in the future. So Dave Frum’s going to be all right.
Frum: Thank you.
Tavis: David, good to have you back on this program. (Laughter)
Frum: Tavis, thank you, always a pleasure.

Tavis: My pleasure.

Last modified: September 19, 2014 at 7:10 pm