On Feb. 21, Doubleday will publish the book that cost me my job: Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy.
The germination began when I heard about the extraordinary efforts made by the White House to ram the Medicare drug benefit through the House of Representatives during the night. Until that point, I had given President Bush the benefit of the doubt—even on things with which I was uncomfortable. For example, I had reluctantly concluded the Iraq War was justified on the basis of what I knew at the time it began.
I don’t normally write about foreign policy, but I felt that I had an obligation as a “public intellectual” to render a judgment before the war. It would have been too easy to wait and see what happened and then choose the popular side afterwards.
I still don’t know what information the White House had about WMD, and I don’t believe that President Bush knowingly falsified data to undertake a war he had already decided upon for other reasons. But I am dismayed that the White House subsequently claimed that WMD were only a secondary reason for the war and that liberating the Iraqi people was the primary aim.
Knowing what I know now, I would not have supported the war. But sometimes leaders must take action based on incomplete and inconclusive evidence. Where I really fault the White House is on its extreme reluctance to admit error and for inadequately preparing for the postwar operation. A willingness to admit honest error has always seemed to me to be a hallmark of great leadership. Sadly, this White House failed that test.
As someone primarily concerned with economic policy, enactment of the Medicare drug benefit hit me the way the failure to find WMD hit supporters of the war, especially on the Left, or the way Harriet Miers’s nomination affected judicial conservatives. This is going to cost taxpayers trillions upon trillions of dollars and will eventually lead to massively higher taxes, while doing little to improve the health of those who will benefit from the program or the political fortunes of the Republican Party, which sold its soul just to buy one lousy election.
In the months leading up to a vote, I thought the White House was playing a game of appearing to support a popular but substantively awful program by proclaiming support for it publicly while doing nothing to overcome the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. Bush could look like the good guy and blame Congress for the failure to enact the legislation. The proof for this proposition was repeated White House statements that Bush would sign any drug bill no matter what was in it. This position seemed so patently irresponsible that I had to believe that this was all part of a secret plan to kill it.
Consequently, the enormous White House effort to threaten, cajole, and even bribe House members to get the last votes for passage was a slap in the face. I suddenly realized that the White House did want this bill to pass and was not just playing some clever political game designed by Karl Rove, and I concluded that George W. Bush is no conservative.
I found myself increasingly alienated from President Bush and the whole Republican establishment. I didn’t become a Republican to create new entitlement programs and hugely expand the size of government. That’s what Democrats do.
I shared my concerns with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, author of the bestselling book The Price of Loyalty. After I wrote a favorable column about Suskind’s book, he called me and we began talking about what makes George W. Bush tick. Where does he get his ideas, we wondered, and how is it that he has such absolute certainty about the rightness of his decisions when he seemingly devotes little time to study or analysis? And why does he stick to those decisions regardless of results?
In the course of my conversations with Suskind, I threw out a lot of ideas as speculation. He wrote some of them up in an article for the New York Times Magazine on Oct. 17, 2004:
Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a treasury official for the first President Bush, told me recently that ‘if Bush wins, there will be a civil war in the Republican Party starting on Nov. 3.’ The nature of that conflict, as Bartlett sees it? Essentially, the same as the one raging across much of the world: a battle between modernists and fundamentalists, pragmatists and true believers, reason and religion.
‘Just in the last few months,’ Bartlett said, ‘I think a light has gone off for people who’ve spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he’s always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.’ Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush’s governance, went on to say: ‘This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can’t be persuaded, that they’re extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he’s just like them …
‘This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,’ Bartlett went on to say. ‘He truly believes he’s on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.’ Bartlett paused, then said, ‘But you can’t run the world on faith.’
If I had known that Ron was going to quote me, I would have been more guarded and explained myself more clearly. For example, I meant my statement about Bush and al-Qaeda as a compliment. I am not a religious person and don’t pretend to understand why anyone would be motivated to kill another person over religious differences. But it is clearly the case that some misguided Muslims do hate the American people, and their hatred is motivated by deep religious faith. I think it is helpful to have a leader whose own deep faith helps him understand our enemies.
As for a civil war in the Republican Party, I was thinking less about a war between faith and reason than the simple fact that once past the election, the race for 2008 would start almost immediately. I also thought that conservatives like myself, long concerned about Bush’s big-government policies, would no longer have any reason to hold their tongues and would become more outspoken in their criticism.
Unfortunately, I was given no opportunity to explain myself. My boss at the National Center for Policy Analysis, the conservative think tank where I worked, told me that Karl Rove had called him to complain about the article, and I was forbidden from writing anything or giving any interviews that might have blunted its political impact.
Like most conservative Republicans, I muted my public criticism of President Bush during the election season. As bad as he was, I feared that Kerry would be even worse. Had Kerry run as if he would return to the moderate liberalism and budgetary policies of Bill Clinton, he would have strongly tempted me and many other conservatives. Instead, he ran to the left and gave us no choice but to vote for Bush as the lesser of evils.
I began my book after the election as a general history of economic policy during the Bush administration. Although I had been critical of Bush in my syndicated column, especially after passage of the drug bill, I was overwhelmingly supportive during his first three years. And during the election, I wrote many columns criticizing Kerry’s proposals.
But it was harder and harder for me to contain my growing frustration with Bush, which spilled out in places like Suskind’s article. This created tensions between me and my Dallas-based employer. I was repeatedly warned that every time I criticized President Bush—even if it was for violating the very principles for which the organization existed—I was losing contributions among Bush’s supporters, who represented a large part of the organization’s fundraising base.
In a meeting with the chairman and president of the organization, I was told that if I continued to criticize the president, I would be fired. At no time did anyone connected with the organization ever tell me that my substantive analysis was wrong. Nor had anyone ever warned me against criticizing Bill Clinton. It was solely a matter of appearances and fundraising, they said.
As I researched, it became increasingly clear to me that I was going to have a hard time finding anything good to say about Bush’s economic policy. Even his tax cuts, which I had supported totally at the time, seemed much less effective with the benefit of hindsight. And contrary to the experience of the 1980s, tax cuts and growing deficits had no limiting effect on congressional spending, which shot through the roof without any White House restraint.
I knew this would create problems, but I thought that if conservatives simply read my argument, analysis, and supporting documentation, they would have no choice but to accept my conclusion that George W. Bush isn’t one of us.
In retrospect, I was naïve in thinking that facts and analysis had much chance against money and misguided loyalty to friends and party. After giving the completed manuscript to my boss, I was fired without severance after 10 years of service.
Said New York Times columnist David Brooks about this incident, “In an era when many commentators write whatever will affirm the prejudices of their own team, Bartlett follows his conscience and has paid a price. He was fired by his conservative think tank for being critical of President Bush.”
I have no reason to believe that the White House had anything to do with this. Bush’s supporters in Dallas didn’t need to be told by anyone in Washington what to do. They probably informed my employer that further donations would not be forthcoming as long as I was on the payroll. My boss told me that my dismissal was a business decision related to lost contributions.
It took longer than I thought it would, but the Republican civil war that I predicted finally erupted with the nomination of Harriet Miers. For many conservatives, this was the final straw—as the drug bill had been for me. Belatedly, they, too, came around to the conclusion that Bush’s abrogation of conservative principles had gone too far, and they turned on him with surprising vehemence.
I think many conservatives knew as well as I did that Bush is no conservative. While the tax cuts were supported by most of them, they also knew that Bush allowed spending to explode and that this would eventually lead to tax increases. Others were disturbed by Bush’s signing of an unconstitutional campaign-finance bill, the growth of government regulation, and failure to do anything about illegal immigration.
But these conservatives thought that the war on terror and the opportunity to get judicial conservatives on the courts trumped. However, continuing problems in Iraq together with growing reports that the evidence of WMD was weak or nonexistent before the war weighed heavily on even the most hawkish conservatives.
When Bush nominated a woefully unqualified crony to the most important of all court appointments, conservative doubts about Bush that had been held in check by 9/11, the war, and the election suddenly exploded. Virtually the entire conservative intelligentsia turned against Bush overnight. The White House foolishly fed this revolt by attacking conservative critics for elitism and sexism. Bush would have been in far worse shape politically if the conservative wing of the Republican Party had a leader who could articulate a respectful critique.
Although I lost my job for writing a book critical of George W. Bush, I have no regrets. Sometimes you just have to say the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. My loyalty to my country and my party supersede whatever loyalty I may have to my president. As someone once said, facts are hard things.
I think it better for all loyal Republicans to face these facts now, no matter how painful they may be. Denouncing Bush’s conservative critics or firing them from allegedly conservative organizations won’t make those facts go away. Refusing to address them and circling the wagons against even the friendliest of critics only erodes the Republican Party’s base, setting it up for defeat in 2008. Better to have a debate now, when there is still time to change course.
Bruce Bartlett is a former fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis who served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Treasury Departments.