On the evening of January 20, as Washington’s liberals were toasting the inauguration of Barack Obama, some of the city’s most prominent conservative intellectuals escaped to the elegant Northwest Washington home of David Frum. In one room, Richard Perle—dressed in a jacket and royal-blue shirt, open at the collar—leaned against a fireplace as Norah Jones crooned softly on the stereo and tea candles flickered from the bookshelves. In the kitchen, ideologically themed drinks were arrayed on a table: Obama enthusiasts—both right-wing apostates and Frum’s liberal guests—could drink Blue Hawaiians; Palinphobes could drink cosmopolitans; and, for supporters of the Alaska governor, there was (of course) beer. Even though the conservative movement had just suffered a total political meltdown, few guests seemed to be in a bitter mood. Frum—a courtly man in his late forties best known as the Bush speechwriter who helped craft the phrase “axis of evil”—had set a light tone for the gathering with his invitation, which asked guests to “Celebrate/ Commiserate [cuz wtf else r we gna do?]”
If Frum didn’t seem particularly angry about Obama’s election, perhaps it’s because, these days, he’s more focused on the flaws plaguing his own end of the political spectrum. He had recently resigned from National Review in order to start his own publication, NewMajority.com, and the Inauguration Day gathering at his house doubled as a launch party for the venture. Frum says his project aims to be to conservatism what The New Republic was to liberalism during the 1980s. “The ideas that were hashed out in those pages became the basis of the Hart campaigns and the Clinton campaign in the 1990s,” he told me. “If you understand that change takes time, these kinds of debates can have a big impact. “
Frum’s frustration with the conservative movement—”when things happen in it that I think are dangerous and destructive, I take it very personally,” he says—dates back more than four years, to what he saw as the unsustainable cultural-populist swagger of the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign. Bush’s parade of second-term fiascoes—from Iraq to Katrina to Harriet Miers—convinced Frum that Republicans were running their party into the ground by scaring off the educated middle class. In his 2007 book Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, he advocated modernizing the GOP along the lines of David Cameron’s Tories in Great Britain—by de-emphasizing social issues and focusing on good (but still small) government, climate change, income inequality, health care, and obesity.
Not everyone appreciated the advice. Ramesh Ponnuru, one of Frum’s colleagues at National Review, criticized the book both in print and in several sharp-edged blog posts, complaining that some of Frum’s proposals would impinge on conservative principle and alienate the GOP base. Today, Frum concedes that Ponnuru may have been right to allege that some of his ideas weren’t really conservative. But that, he says, is conservatism’s problem, not his. “One of the issues [Ponnuru] called me out on was that I’m very worried about the public health implications of obesity,” Frum told me. “Ramesh said that National Review’s conservatism has no room to worry about a problem like that. That may even be right. If it’s right, that doesn’t make obesity any less of a public health problem. It may indicate the limits of conservatism.”
Next came Sarah Palin. When John McCain chose her as a running mate last August, Frum wrote that her lack of experience “makes Barack Obama look like George C. Marshall.” Even though he would eventually vote for McCain, he considered Palin a threat to national security as well as a troubling sign of the right’s continued preference for fire-breathing hacks. “Here’s a candidate who embodies and epitomizes not just conservative values but a conservative style,” he told me. “At the same time, she’s a person who inspires very little confidence in her ability to run a modern government. Which of these things is more important to you?” At National Review, Palin became a source of rancor, with some writers defending her while others—such as syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker, whose articles on the magazine’s website drew reams of hate mail—vehemently denounced her. Frum soon resigned. “I think a little more distance can help everybody do a better job of keeping their temper,” he explained to The New York Times.
Now, Frum is hoping his modest website—which, he explains, is “a partnership between myself and some private investors”—can have big consequences. “I’m going to see if we can build an online community that models what future conservative political organizations are going to look like,” he says. The site contains a detailed comments policy that aims to enforce civility: “While we do not censor comments based on political or ideological point of view, comments that are abusive, engage in personal attacks, contain racist, sexist, homophobic or other slurs, express hatred, are off-topic, use excessive foul language, or include any other type of ad hominem attacks (including comments that celebrate the death or illness of any person, public figure or otherwise) will be subject to removal.” Meanwhile, in addition to established voices like former McCain adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Frum has enlisted a quirky group of contributors, including an ex-Social Security administrator, a former naval intelligence officer, a Teach For America participant, a military wife, an ex-defense consultant who writes under the pseudonym “J. Moses Browning,” an anonymous French civil servant, and even an official from the Carter administration—not exactly Whittaker Chambers or William F. Buckley. He also hired an investigative reporter—a former RNC aide whose biggest scoop so far was the revelation that $180,000 worth of Sarah Palin’s clothes were, months after the election, still lying around RNC headquarters in trash bags.
Amid the identifiable Washingtonians at Frum’s party—the Tucker Carlsons and the Doug Feiths—there was an eager sub-society of young bloggers and editors that Frum seems to have hired from all corners of the country during the past few months. The kids spent time in huddled discussion about the dilapidated state of conservatism. “How can we expect to win when we’re spending millions against our own candidates?” one of them asked me, referring to conservative pressure groups that target moderate Republicans. Presiding over his new community in a lime-green tie, Frum looked harried but satisfied. Policing their movement for gay bashing, distributing the musings of an anonymous French civil servant—these may not be the ways that conservative intellectuals traditionally dream of spending their time. But really, at this point, wtf else r they gna do?
This article appeared in the February 18, 2009 issue of the magazine.