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Did AEI Muzzle Its Scholars?

26 Mar 2010
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

In my post yesterday about David Frum I recounted a statement he made to me in the course of conversation a few months ago that AEI health experts had been ordered not to comment on Obama’s health care plan because they agreed with too much that was in it. This true statement of what I remember David telling me has AEI particularly riled up. For example, Conor Friedersdorf has published statements by a number of people associated with AEI vociferously denying any such muzzling. So let me explain myself more fully.

To begin with, I think the important thing about what David told me is that I believed it instantly because it seemed very plausible for two reasons. First, I know from personal experience and from private comments by people I know in the conservative think tank community that there is enormous pressure to follow the Republican Party line. Those that dissent keep their mouths shut lest it cost them their job, a promotion, friendships or just because they don’t like to be hassled by those they work with. I’ve known people who shifted their specialties so they wouldn’t have to work in areas where they had objections to the party line that may have only involved tactics.
Second, I knew that there were a great many conservative health analysts who have long accepted the idea that universal coverage without a single-payer system basically requires some sort of individual mandate. Here, for example, is some testimony that Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation gave on this topic a few years ago before the party line changed. Sensible conservatives understand that you can’t cover preexisting conditions without a mandate and you can’t have a mandate without subsidies that have to be paid for. That leads logically to the system Mitt Romney enacted in Massachusetts that is virtually identical to the legislation that has just passed Congress.
So it didn’t surprise me at all that some AEI health specialists would have agreed with much of what Obama was proposing. Nor did it surprise me that the media and fundraising people at AEI might have suggested that they avoid making public comments supportive of the Democrats’ health plan. Before I was fired by NCPA I was often told that my comments critical of George W. Bush were unhelpful to fundraising even though they agreed that I was right on the substance.
I don’t have access to Nexis to check and see what comments AEI fellows might have said in the months before David made his comment to me and things may have changed afterwards. I have no way of knowing what things AEI people may have avoided saying or said off the record or on background to a reporter and were identified as a conservative health expert or whatever. Perhaps David was just wrong and that every AEI health expert was in fact opposed to every provision of the Democratic health plan and completely agreed with the Republican Party line that it was a huge step on the road to socialism that would completely destroy the American health system. I only know what he told me and that it rang true at the time he said it.
If it turns out that I misheard or misunderstood what David told me I promise a full retraction and public apology to AEI. In the meantime, my inclination is to believe anything David tells me and treat with deep skepticism anything I hear from AEI to the contrary. The organization has lost an enormous amount of credibility by firing him and hiring Republican political hacks like Marc Thiessen. That’s a statement I will never need to retract.
Note: Further comment here.

the implications for the discourse

The media turns to Brookings as the left and AEI/Heritage/Cato as the right for its panel discussions.

It is now very clear that, whatever they may have been in the past, many of these "think tanks" aren't gatherings of scholars who may share a certain philosophical bent. At the end of the day, they exist to generate and to launder talking points.

The media's entire approach to reporting about different perspectives is about giving the illusion of debate. All the perspectives they will ever hear in reading every paper and every news program all come pre-approved.

Man, I supported the invasion of Iraq, and now I'm sounding like Noam Chomsky or something over here. It's been a rough few years for folks like me who are temperamentally inclined to defend the status quo, yet also committed to empiricism and reality.

(apologies if this is a repost, got an error message a se ago).

Echo the Noam comment

I had my consent (to the Iraq War) manufactured by reportage that turned out to be basically written in Cheney's office. Boy was I pissed when the "mobile bioweapon labs" and other materials from Colin Powell's presentation turned out to be unsubstantiated.

I have a question for "folks like [you] who are temperamentally inclined to defend the status quo, yet also committed to empiricism and reality". What do you think the status quo amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be?

You're missing Conor's crucial point

It seems to me that there are two partially-overlapping allegations here: 1) That AEI scholars were muzzled from commenting on the health care bill at all, and 2) that AEI scholars were muzzled from expressing support for the parts of Obama's plan they agreed with.

Now, #2 sounds plausible to me, although you're right that's it's nearly impossible to prove other than by comparing current statements by AEI scholars with previous statements on identical ideas coming out of the conservative movement a decade ago.

The statement you recounted from David, however, did not just imply #2, it implied #1: that AEI scholars were being prevented from talking about health care at all lest they betray some level of agreement with Obama ("He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI 'scholars' on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do." Emphasis mine). But #1 is clearly and definitively false. Just look at AEI's health care page. Their scholars--and I mean the real scholars, not just Newt Gingrich--have been actively commenting on health care issue for months now.

Perhaps they are under pressure to overemphasize disagreement with Obama, but there's no question that Frum's accusation that they haven't been commenting at all is false.

Double error

I made a double error in my original post. Not only was I factually wrong in the first place, but I didn't even say properly what I mean to say. I never meant to say that AEI's health scholars had said nothing about HCR, which is ridiculous. I meant only to say that they had been discouraged from saying anything publicly in support of Obama's plan even though they were on the record as supporting many aspects of it.

Silver Lining

The silver lining for you and David Frum is that this recent dust up has exposed you and your blogs to many new readers like me. As a fiscally conservative but socially liberal person, I have not be able to support the Republican party for nearly 10 years. My change started with some policy issues but the rise of anti-intellectual forces like Beck, Hannity, Palin and others, combined with the fomenting of anger seriously disturbs me.

And another thing... We all understand political spin. Politicians of all stripes use soundbites and spin frequently. Often for good reason. However, characterizing HCR as a government take over goes over the line of spin and is really more of a lie than spin. When you spend a year lying to the american people, many of them are going to know it, including some who normally support you. I agree with David that this is looking like the Republican's Waterloo and, sadly, also agree that the Republican party has moved away from the intelectuals and ideas. The silver lining is that you guys get to pick up lots of followers. People like me, who spend way too much time on Huffington Post (*gasp*) but are sympathetic to classic conservative principles.

Here Here!

I put myself in the "displaced republican" bucket as well, and have enjoyed reading this blog over the past several days. It is nice to see a republican/conservative blog written with such clear thinking and absent of inflammatory language. Please keep up the great work!

Here, here. I like to think

Here, here. I like to think of myself as an old-school Eisenhower republican (small r intended). We now have a party of 2.

David Frum resigned. He

David Frum resigned. He posted his own resignation letter.


In the real world being asked to quit or work for nothing is the same thing as being fired. And AEI wasn't under financial pressure. In just the last few weeks they have hired Republican political hacks Marc Thiessen and Jonah Goldberg.

Silver Lining

Silver Lining, couldn't agree with you more. Reading Bartlett is a breath of fresh air - intellectual honesty not tied to party. Thanks to Sullivan/Daily Dish for directing me here to give me a better understanding of these complex economic issues.

I love watching wingnuts eat

I love watching wingnuts eat their own. It's only four days old, but HCR is already starting to pay dividends. But remember, someone shot a bullet at Cantor's office... or something like that. 'Tis to laugh.

Police have now said that it

Police have now said that it apparently a bullet that fell to earth (thru the office's window) from a shot up in the air (which will be hard for the flat earth people to absorb - gravity you know!)by an unknown person, not a bullet shot at the window.

Silver Lining

I'll second/third that opinion. I'm probably more left than this site usually gets, but believe me I'll be back. We need non-insane Conservatives in the discussions and debates.

You are familiar with Norman

You are familiar with Norman Ornstein, right? He has notably been critical of the Republican Party.

There is no reason to immediately believe Frum over that of AEI fellows, despite the unceremonious Frum departure. Frum was increasingly becoming heterodox (in relation to conservatism), and any organization should be able to use its resources in ways that reflect its core mission.

You say you believe Frum due to his integrity. I do not doubt that. But, how does Frum know people were told to silence their support, or was this idle speculation on his part?

But, to say that AEI scholars were silent on Obamacare shows a disturbing lack of thoroughness, especially when the charge is so serious. As the charge scholars secretly supported Obamacare, but were not allowed to speak lest they be reprimanded by AEI, is made possible by an absence of publications. There was no absence.

see here:


He's been the token liberal at AEI for decades and thus is permitted--encouraged--to differ from the party line so that the organization can show how open minded it is and avoid an IRS audit. But someone who served as a speechwriter for George W. Bush is not given the same latitude. He is expected to toe the party line without reservation.

Re: Ornstein

Bruce, you seem to be arguing in a closed system.

Any evidence presented in hopes of deflecting your position only reaffirms it: Ornstein's presence is proof that AEI is close-minded, the denunciation by AEI scholars of the claim they were silenced is discounted as an organization trying to preserve its false sheen of rigorous analysis, and so on.

To be honest, that opinion is rather condescending and belittling to the work of Dr. Ornstein.

For example: AEI's conspicuous affiliation with the Brookings Institute (notice it is only on regulatory affairs!) just further extenuates the self-evident truth that AEI is a self-serving arm of the Republican Party whose influence is only a function of its ability to hoodwink its readers that their analysis is more thorough than your typical punditry.

Furthermore, what animates Frum's departure, IMO, was his primary purpose. Frum is a very intelligent thinker with good ideas. But his primarily role was that of a polemicist. We can certainly argue whether polemicists should be on staff at places like the AEI, but if they are going to be, I would imagine their polemics should be reasonably construed within the seems of the group's organizing mission.


It terminated its relationship with AEI on regulatory policy some time ago. 


If the group's organizing mission is crafted or construed to exclude public statements which question either the mission or the means to achieve that mission - that is, if the ideology and premises become sacrosanct and no longer available for reflection - then that group has fallen into the realm of ideological stagnation and, to be fair, a species of internal totalitarianism.

The firing of Frum set alongside the hire of Mark Thiessen makes Bartlett's case as clearly as anything might make it.

Bravo, Bruce!

Bruce, I've been a fan of yours since the publication of "Impostor" in 2006. You had the sheer guts to challenge and question the insane fiscal policies of George W Bush.

The subtitle to "Impostor" couldn't be more accurate:

"How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy"

And the book was published in early 2006!!

Bruce: You take a

Bruce: You take a flamethrower to your old friends slandering them and calling them idiots. You enjoy your newfound fame in the national media as the truth-power conservative who points how what a bunch of corrupt idiots are on the right. And then you whine about people on the right have shunned you.

Ask Joe Antos or Tom Miller what they think about you after you just had their reputations wacked in the Washington Post.

Quite the Strawman

Bartlett wrote: "Perhaps David was just wrong and that every AEI health expert was in fact opposed to every provision of the Democratic health plan and completely agreed with the Republican Party line that it was a huge step on the road to socialism that would completely destroy the American health system."

Ah, yes - because if you don't endorse the Democratic plan, the only logical reason is because you believe it's socialistic and because you agree entirely with the GOP line.

Wow. This has to be the single most absurd straw man I've read in a long, long time. I don't like the plan because I don't think it does enough to control costs, not because I think it's "socialistic."

For someone who writes incessantly about the GOP's supposed intellectual vapidity, you've penned some pretty intellectually lazy pieces of hackery here lately.

Why didn't Republicans

Why didn't Republicans offered their ideas for health care, financial reform etc? Republican or democrat, people generally like constructive, thoughtful ideas and not inflammatory rhetoric. The negative rhetoric of fox news talkers like O Reilly, beck, hannity has become really boring.

Frum Corrects the Record

David Frum is now providing a slightly different account of what he told you:

"3) Did AEI muzzle healthcare scholars? I fear that in reproducing in print a private conversation from some months ago, Bruce Bartlett made a transmission error. I did not report as fact that scholars were laboring under any restrictions. What I did say was that AEI was punching way below its weight in the healthcare debate. I wondered, not alleged, wondered, whether AEI scholars were constrained by fear of saying something that might get them into trouble. To repeat: this was something I asked many months ago in private conversation, not something I allege today in public debate."

His full post is here:


Chris Buckley on his father, Frum and Bartlett

"Like Frum, WFB was charged — by very stupid and self-revealing people — with being an elitist suck-up, in this case to Manhattan and other eastern-seaboard liberals. One particularly stupid person, whom I'll spare the ignominy of naming, actually accused him of adjusting his views so that they would be fragrant to Norman Podhoretz. We all had a good laugh at that one."

Full column here...

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