Revenge of the Reality-Based Community
I know that it’s unattractive and bad form to say “I told you so” when one’s advice was ignored yet ultimately proved correct. But in the wake of the Republican election debacle, it’s essential that conservatives undertake a clear-eyed assessment of who on their side was right and who was wrong. Those who were wrong should be purged and ignored; those who were right, especially those who inflicted maximum discomfort on movement conservatives in being right, ought to get credit for it and become regular reading for them once again.
I’m not going to beat around the bush and pretend I don’t have a vested interest here. Frankly, I think I’m at ground zero in the saga of Republicans closing their eyes to any facts or evidence that conflict with their dogma. Rather than listen to me, they threw me under a bus. To this day, I don’t think they understand that my motives were to help them avoid the permanent decline that now seems inevitable.
For more than 30 years, I was very comfortable within the conservative wing of the Republican Party. I still recall supporting Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater as a schoolchild. As a student, I was a member of Young Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom at the height of the Vietnam War, when conservatives on college campuses mostly kept their heads down.
In graduate school, I wrote a master’s thesis on how Franklin Roosevelt covered up his responsibility for the Pearl Harbor attack—long a right-wing obsession. My first real job out of graduate school was working for Ron Paul the first time he was elected to Congress in a special election in 1976. (He lost that same year and came back two years later.) In those days, he was the only Tea Party-type Republican in Congress.
After Paul’s defeat, I went to work for Congressman Jack Kemp and helped draft the famous Kemp-Roth tax bill, which Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1981. I made important contributions to the development of supply-side economics and detailed my research in a 1981 book, Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
After Reagan’s victory, I chose to stay on Capitol Hill, where I was staff director for the Joint Economic Committee and thought I would have more impact. I left to work for Jude Wanniski’s consulting company in 1984, but missed Washington and came back the following year. Jude was, of course, the founding father of supply-side economics, the man who discovered the economists Robert Mundell and Arthur Laffer and made them famous.
I went to work for the Heritage Foundation, but left in 1987 to join the White House staff. I was recruited by Gary Bauer, who was Reagan’s principal domestic policy adviser. Gary remains well known among religious conservatives. Late in the administration I moved over to the Treasury Department, where I remained throughout the George H.W. Bush administration.
Afterwards I worked for the Cato Institute and the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank based in Dallas. I wrote regularly for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, National Review, and other conservative publications. For 12 years I wrote a syndicated column that ran in the Washington Times, Investor’s Business Daily, the New York Sun, and other conservative newspapers.
I supported George W. Bush in 2000, and many close friends served in high-level administration positions. I was especially close to the Council of Economic Advisers and often wrote columns based on input and suggestions from its chairmen, all of whom were friends of mine. Once I even briefed Vice President Dick Cheney on the economy.
But as the Bush 43 administration progressed, I developed an increasingly uneasy feeling about its direction. Its tax policy was incoherent, and it had an extremely lackadaisical attitude toward spending. In November 2003, I had an intellectual crisis.
All during the summer of that year, an expansion of Medicare to pay for prescription drugs for seniors was under discussion. I thought this was a dreadful idea since Medicare was already broke, but I understood that it was very popular politically. I talked myself into believing that Karl Rove was so smart that he had concocted an extremely clever plan—Bush would endorse the new benefit but do nothing to bring competing House and Senate versions of the legislation together. That way he could get credit for supporting a popular new spending program, but it would never actually be enacted.
I was shocked beyond belief when it turned out that Bush really wanted a massive, budget-busting new entitlement program after all, apparently to buy himself re-election in 2004. He put all the pressure the White House could muster on House Republicans to vote for Medicare Part D and even suppressed internal administration estimates that it would cost far more than Congress believed. After holding the vote open for an unprecedented three hours, with Bush himself awakened in the middle of the night to apply pressure, the House Republican leadership was successful in ramming the legislation through after a few cowardly conservatives switched their votes.
It’s worth remembering that Paul Ryan, among other so-called fiscal hawks, voted for this irresponsible, unfunded expansion of government.
Suddenly, I felt adrift, politically and intellectually. I now saw many things I had long had misgivings about, such as all the Republican pork-barrel projects that Bush refused to veto, in sharper relief. They were no longer exceptions to conservative governance but its core during the Bush 43 years.
I began writing columns that were highly critical of Bush’s policies and those of Republicans in Congress—all based on solid conservative principles. In other words, I was criticizing them from the inside, from the right.
In 2004 I got to know the journalist Ron Suskind, whose book The Price of Loyalty I had praised in a column. He and I shared an interest in trying to figure out what made Bush tick. Neither of us ever figured it out.
A couple of weeks before the 2004 election, Suskind wrote a long article for the New York Times Magazine that quoted some of my comments to him that were highly critical of Bush and the drift of Republican policy. The article is best remembered for his quote from an anonymous White House official dismissing critics like me for being “the reality-based community.”
The day after the article appeared, my boss called to chew me out, saying that Karl Rove had called him personally to complain about it. I promised to be more circumspect in the future.
Interestingly, a couple of days after the Suskind article appeared, I happened to be at a reception for some right-wing organization that many of my think tank friends were also attending. I assumed I would get a lot of grief for my comments in the Suskind article and was surprised when there was none at all.
Finally, I started asking people about it. Not one person had read it or cared in the slightest what the New York Times had to say about anything. They all viewed it as having as much credibility as Pravda and a similar political philosophy as well. Some were indignant that I would even suspect them of reading a left-wing rag such as the New York Times.
I was flabbergasted. Until that moment I had not realized how closed the right-wing mind had become. Even assuming that my friends’ view of the Times’ philosophy was correct, which it most certainly was not, why would they not want to know what their enemy was thinking? This was my first exposure to what has been called “epistemic closure” among conservatives—living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction.
My growing alienation from the right created problems for me and my employer. I was read the riot act and told to lay off Bush because my criticism was threatening contributions from right-wing millionaires in Dallas, many of whom were close personal friends of his. I decided to stick to writing columns on topics where I didn’t have to take issue with Republican policies and to channel my concerns into a book.
I naïvely thought that a conservative critique of Bush when he was unable to run for reelection would be welcomed on the right since it would do no electoral harm. I also thought that once past the election, conservatives would turn on Bush to ensure that the 2008 Republican nomination would go to someone who would not make his mistakes.
As I wrote the book, however, my utter disdain for Bush grew, as I recalled forgotten screw-ups and researched topics that hadn’t crossed my radar screen. I grew to totally despise the man for his stupidity, cockiness, arrogance, ignorance, and general cluelessness. I also lost any respect for conservatives who continued to glorify Bush as the second coming of Ronald Reagan and as a man they would gladly follow to the gates of hell. This was either gross, willful ignorance or total insanity, I thought.
My book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, was published in February 2006. I had been summarily fired by the think tank I worked for back in October 2005. Although the book was then only in manuscript, my boss falsely claimed that it was already costing the organization contributions. He never detailed, nor has anyone, any factual or analytical error in the book.
Among the interesting reactions to my book is that I was banned from Fox News. My publicist was told that orders had come down from on high that it was to receive no publicity whatsoever, not even attacks. Whoever gave that order was smart; attacks from the right would have sold books. Being ignored was poison for sales.
I later learned that the order to ignore me extended throughout Rupert Murdoch’s empire. For example, I stopped being quoted in the Wall Street Journal.* Awhile back, a reporter who left the Journal confirmed to me that the paper had given her orders not to mention me. Other dissident conservatives, such as David Frum and Andrew Sullivan, have told me that they are banned from Fox as well. More epistemic closure.
Seeing the demographic trends toward an increasingly nonwhite electorate, which were obvious in easily available census projections, I decided to write a book about how Republicans could deal with it. I concluded that the anti-immigrant attitude among the Republican base was too severe for the party to reach out meaningfully to the fast-growing Latino community. Recall that Bush’s proposal for immigration reform was soundly rejected by his own party.
If Republicans had no hope of attracting Latino votes, what other nonwhite group could they attract? Maybe the time had come for them to make a major play for the black vote. I thought that blacks and Latinos were natural political and economic competitors, and I saw in poll data that blacks were receptive to a hardline position on illegal immigration. I also knew that many blacks felt ignored by Democrats, who simply took their votes for granted—as Republicans did for 60 years after the Civil War.
If Republicans could only increase their share of the black vote from 10 percent, which it had been since Goldwater, to the 30 percent level that Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed, it would have major electoral ramifications.
The best way to get Republicans to read a book about reaching out for the black vote, I thought, was to detail the Democratic Party’s long history of maltreatment of blacks. After all, the party was based in the South for 100 years after the war, and all of the ugly racism we associate with that region was enacted and enforced by Democratic politicians. I was surprised that such a book didn’t already exist.
I thought knowing the Democratic Party’s pre-1964 history of racism, which is indisputable, would give Republicans a story to tell when they went before black groups to solicit votes. I thought it would also make Republicans more sympathetic to the problems of the black community, many of which are historical in their origins. Analyses by economists and sociologists show that historical racism still holds back African-Americans even though it has diminished radically since the 1960s.
So I wrote Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past. Unfortunately, it was published the day Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. But I still held out hope that Hillary Clinton, who was pandering to the white working class in unsubtle racial terms, would capture the Democratic nomination. The anger among blacks at having the nomination effectively stolen from Obama would make them highly receptive to GOP outreach, I believed. I even met with John McCain’s staff about this.
As we know, McCain took a sharp right turn after Obama won the Democratic nomination. The Arizona senator abandoned any pretense of being a moderate or “maverick” and spent the campaign pandering to the Republican Party’s lowest common denominator. His decision to put the grossly unqualified Sarah Palin on his ticket was nothing short of irresponsible. Perhaps more importantly, it didn’t work, and Obama won easily.
After the failure of my race book, I turned my attention again to economics. I had written an op-ed for the New York Times in 2007 suggesting that it was time to retire “supply-side economics” as a school of thought. Having been deeply involved in its development, I felt that everything important the supply-siders had to say had now been fully incorporated into mainstream economics. All that was left was nutty stuff like the Laffer Curve that alienated academic economists who were otherwise sympathetic to the supply-side view. I said the supply-siders should declare victory and go home.
I decided to write a book elaborating my argument. I thought I had a nice thesis to put forward. All successful schools of economic thought follow a progression of being outsiders and revolutionaries, achieving success when economic circumstances cannot be explained by orthodox theory, acceptance for the dissidents, followed by inevitable failure when new circumstances arise that don’t fit the model, leading to the rise of a fresh school of thought. It was basically a Thomas Kuhnian view of economic theory.
I thought I had two perfect examples that fit my model of the rise and fall of economic ideas: Keynesian economics and supply-side economics. I thought at first I knew enough about the former to say what I wanted to say, but eventually I found the research I had previously done to be wanting. It was based too much on what academics thought and not enough on how Keynesian ideas penetrated the policymaking community.
I hit upon the idea of ignoring the academic journals and looking instead at what economists like John Maynard Keynes, Irving Fisher, and others said in newspaper interviews and articles for popular publications. Recently computerized databases made such investigation far easier than it previously had been.
After careful research along these lines, I came to the annoying conclusion that Keynes had been 100 percent right in the 1930s. Previously, I had thought the opposite. But facts were facts and there was no denying my conclusion. It didn’t affect the argument in my book, which was only about the rise and fall of ideas. The fact that Keynesian ideas were correct as well as popular simply made my thesis stronger.
I finished the book just as the economy was collapsing in the fall of 2008. This created another intellectual crisis for me. Having just finished a careful study of the 1930s, it was immediately obvious to me that the economy was suffering from the very same problem, a lack of aggregate demand. We needed Keynesian policies again, which completely ruined my nice rise-and-fall thesis. Keynesian ideas had arisen from the intellectual grave.
The book needed to be rethought and rewritten from scratch in light of new developments. Unfortunately, my publisher insisted on publishing it on schedule. I tried to repair the damage as best I could, but in the end the book was a mishmash of competing ideas with no clear narrative. It sold poorly.
On the plus side, I think I had a very clear understanding of the economic crisis from day one. I even wrote another op-ed for the New York Times in December 2008 advocating a Keynesian cure that holds up very well in light of history. Annoyingly, however, I found myself joined at the hip to Paul Krugman, whose analysis was identical to my own. I had previously viewed Krugman as an intellectual enemy and attacked him rather colorfully in an old column that he still remembers.
For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman. The blind hatred for him on the right simply pushed me further away from my old allies and comrades.
The final line for me to cross in complete alienation from the right was my recognition that Obama is not a leftist. In fact, he’s barely a liberal—and only because the political spectrum has moved so far to the right that moderate Republicans from the past are now considered hardcore leftists by right-wing standards today. Viewed in historical context, I see Obama as actually being on the center-right.
At this point, I lost every last friend I had on the right. Some have been known to pass me in silence at the supermarket or even to cross the street when they see me coming. People who were as close to me as brothers and sisters have disowned me.
I think they believe they are just disciplining me, hoping I will admit error and ask for forgiveness. They clearly don’t know me very well. My attitude is that anyone who puts politics above friendship is not someone I care to have in my life.
So here we are, post-election 2012. All the stupidity and closed-mindedness that right-wingers have displayed over the last 10 years has come back to haunt them. It is now widely understood that the nation may be center-left after all, not center-right as conservatives thought. Overwhelming losses by Republicans to all the nation’s nonwhite voters have created a Democratic coalition that will govern the nation for the foreseeable future.
Tellingly, a key reason for Obama’s victory, according to exit polls, is none other than George W. Bush, whom 60 percent of voters primarily blame for the nation’s economic woes—an extraordinary fact when he has been out of office for four years. Even though they didn’t read my Impostor book, voters still absorbed its message.
Although the approach I suggested in my race book was ill-timed, the underlying theory is more true than ever. If Republicans can’t bring blacks into their coalition, they are finished at the presidential level, given the rapid rise of the Latino population. Perhaps after 2016, they may be willing to put my strategy into operation.
The economy continues to conform to textbook Keynesianism. We still need more aggregate demand, and the Republican idea that tax cuts for the rich will save us becomes more ridiculous by the day. People will long remember Mitt Romney’s politically tone-deaf attack on half the nation’s population for being losers, leeches, and moochers because he accurately articulated the right-wing worldview.
At least a few conservatives now recognize that Republicans suffer for epistemic closure. They were genuinely shocked at Romney’s loss because they ignored every poll not produced by a right-wing pollster such as Rasmussen or approved by right-wing pundits such as the perpetually wrong Dick Morris. Living in the Fox News cocoon, most Republicans had no clue that they were losing or that their ideas were both stupid and politically unpopular.
I am disinclined to think that Republicans are yet ready for a serious questioning of their philosophy or strategy. They comfort themselves with the fact that they held the House (due to gerrymandering) and think that just improving their get-out-the-vote system and throwing a few bones to the Latino community will fix their problem. There appears to be no recognition that their defects are far, far deeper and will require serious introspection and rethinking of how Republicans can win going forward. The alternative is permanent loss of the White House and probably the Senate as well, which means they can only temporarily block Democratic initiatives and never advance their own.
I’ve paid a heavy price, both personal and financial, for my evolution from comfortably within the Republican Party and conservative movement to a less than comfortable position somewhere on the center-left. Honest to God, I am not a liberal or a Democrat. But these days, they are the only people who will listen to me. When Republicans and conservatives once again start asking my opinion, I will know they are on the road to recovery.
Bruce Bartlett is the author of The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform—Why We Need It and What It Will Take.
*Gerald Seib, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, has contacted me to say that it is flatly untrue that Journal reporters are prohibited from quoting me. I take him at his word and do not doubt his sincerity.