Watching the David Frum saga unfold, culminating with his being fired from the American Enterprise Institute yesterday and essentially purged from the respectable conservative movement, I'm reminded more and more of my old boss, Charlie Peters. Charlie founded The Washington Monthly magazine in 1969, and undertook to reorient a liberal movement that he felt had become hopelessly lost and inward looking. Charlie believed in a liberal vision for society--just not the means by which the Democrats of the 1970s and '80s were pursuing it. His philosophy became known as neoliberalism. It's a measure of how out of step Democrats at the time were with popular sentiment that a 1976 Washington Monthly cover story titled "Criminals Belong in Jail" was controversial.
The conservative reaction to Frum's suggestion that health-care reform is a Republican Waterloo feels uncannily similar. Will David Frum become the conservative Charlie Peters? He certainly shares many of the same attributes--he's an unfailingly interesting thinker and writer, he's intellectually honest so far as I can tell, and he's obviously not afraid to criticize his own side or confront its shortcomings. Frum is practically alone among conservatives in recognizing the importance of growing income inequality and social mobility in American society and wanting to do something about it. He's also like Charlie in seeming as though he's going to stick with his beliefs, no matter how unpopular. He's no gadfly.
Over time, Charlie built a movement. He helped steer the Democratic Party in a better direction. Today his acolytes are everywhere--especially at The Atlantic, where they include James Bennet, James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, and, um, me. Frum, too, runs a publication, FrumForum.com, with a lot of young writers. Someday, Republicans will right the ship, come up with compelling new ideas for the country, and return to power. It isn't going very far out on a limb to expect that Frum will have a lot to do with that. But that day seems a lot further off even than it did last week.
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