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Counterfeit Conservative

Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, Bruce Bartlett, Doubleday, 320 pages

President George W. Bush took office to the sustained applause of America’s conservative movement. In 2000, he defeated the liberal environmentalist Al Gore, abruptly terminated the legacy of the even more hated Bill Clinton, and gave Republicans control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. A few cynics were suspicious of Bush’s understanding of and commitment to conservative principles, but most on the Right welcomed his inauguration.

Five years later, the traditional conservative agenda lies in ruins. Government is bigger, spending is higher, and Washington is more powerful. The national government has intruded further into state and local concerns. Federal officials have sacrificed civil liberties and constitutional rights while airily demanding that the public trust them not to abuse their power.

The U.S. has engaged in aggressive war to promote democracy and undertaken an expensive foreign-aid program. The administration and its supporters routinely denounce critics as partisans and even traitors. Indeed, the White House defenestrates anyone who acknowledges that reality sometimes conflicts with official fantasies.

In short, it is precisely the sort of government that conservatives once feared would result from liberal control in Washington.

Still, conservative criticism remains muted. Mumbled complaints are heard at right-wing gatherings. Worries are expressed on blogs and internet discussions. A few activists such as former Congressman Bob Barr challenge administration policies. And a few courageous publications more directly confront Republicans who, like the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, have morphed into what they originally opposed.

The criticisms are about to get louder, however. Bruce Bartlett has been involved in conservative politics for a quarter century. He authored one of the leading books on supply-side economics, worked in the Reagan administration, and held a position at the National Center for Policy Analysis—until the Dallas-based group fired him, apparently fearful of financial retaliation arising from his sharp criticisms of the administration.

That the truth is so feared is particularly notable because Bartlett’s criticism is measured, largely limited to economics. Bartlett notes in passing his concern over Iraq, federalism, and Bush’s “insistence on absolute, unquestioning loyalty, which stifles honest criticism and creates a cult of personality around him.” These issues warrant a separate book, since it is apparent that Americans have died, not, perhaps, because Bush lied, but certainly because Bush and his appointees are both arrogant and incompetent.

Although modest in scope, Impostor is a critically important book. Bartlett demonstrates that Bush is no conservative. He notes: “I write as a Reaganite, by which I mean someone who believes in the historical conservative philosophy of small government, federalism, free trade, and the Constitution as originally understood by the Founding Fathers.”

Bush believes in none of these things. His conservatism, such as it is, is cultural rather than political. Writes Bartlett, “Philosophically, he has more in common with liberals, who see no limits to state power as long as it is used to advance what they think is right.” Until now, big-government conservatism was widely understood to be an oxymoron.

For this reason, Bartlett contends that Bush has betrayed the Reagan legacy. Obviously, Ronald Reagan had only indifferent success in reducing government spending and power. For this there were many reasons, including Democratic control of the House and the need to compromise to win more money for the military.

Yet Reagan, in sharp contrast to Bush, read books, magazines, and newspapers. (On the campaign plane in 1980 he handed articles to me to review.) He believed in limited government even if he fell short of achieving that goal. And he understood that he was sacrificing his basic principles when he forged one or another political compromise. George W. Bush has no principles to sacrifice. Rather, complains Bartlett, Bush “is simply a partisan Republican, anxious to improve the fortunes of his party, to be sure. But he is perfectly willing to jettison conservative principles at a moment’s notice to achieve that goal.”

Which means Bush’s conservative image bears no relation to his actions. Indeed, reading Impostor leaves one thinking of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, as if the administration’s real record is depicted in a painting hidden from public view.

Bartlett’s analysis is devastating. He begins with process rather than substance, Bush’s “apparent disdain for serious thought and research to develop his policy initiatives.” In this way, Bartlett helps explain why Bush’s policies are almost uniformly bad.

As someone who served on a presidential staff, I can affirm that developing policy is never easy. Departments push their agendas, political allies and interest groups fight for influence, and legislators intrude. But the best hope for good policy, and especially good policy that also is good politics, is an open policy-making process.

That is precisely the opposite of the Bush White House, which views obsessive secrecy as a virtue and demands lockstep obedience. Bartlett reviews the experience of several officials who fell out with the administration, as well as the downgrading of policy agencies and the “total subordination of analysis to short-term politics.”

The biggest problem is Bush himself, who—though a decent person who might make a good neighbor—suffers from unbridled hubris. His absolute certainty appears to be matched only by his extraordinary ignorance. His refusal to reconsider his own decisions and hold his officials accountable for obvious errors have proved to be a combustible combination. As a result, writes Bartlett, “Bush is failing to win any converts to the conservative cause.”

The consequences have been dire. Bartlett, long an advocate of supply-side economics, is critical of the Bush tax program. A rebate was added and the program was sold on Keynesian grounds of getting the economy moving. The politics might have been good, but the economics was bad. Unfortunately, writes Bartlett, the rebate “and other add-ons to the original Bush proposal ballooned its cost, forcing a scale-back of some important provisions, which undermined their effectiveness.” Although rate reductions have the greatest economic impact, rates were lowered less and less quickly.

Bartlett also criticizes Bush on trade, on which he views him as potentially the worst president since Herbert Hoover. “Since then, all presidents except George W. Bush have made free trade a cornerstone of their international economic policy. While his rhetoric on the subject is little different than theirs, Bush’s actions have been far more protectionist.”

Many TAC readers may view Bush as insufficiently protectionist. However, the obvious inconsistency—rhetorical commitment to open international markets mixed with protectionist splurges—is not good policy. Here, as elsewhere, Bush’s actions are supremely political, where the nation’s long-term economic health is bartered away for short-term political gain.

However, it is on spending that the Bush administration has most obviously and most dramatically failed. Bartlett entitles one chapter “On the Budget, Clinton was Better.” Not just Clinton but George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and even Lyndon Johnson, depending on the measure used.

In this area Impostor makes for particularly depressing reading. The administration is not just spendthrift. It is dishonest. Given the administration’s foreign-policy deceptions, it should come as no surprise that the administration cares little about the truth in fiscal matters. Writes Bartlett:

As budget expert Stan Collender has pointed out, the Bush Administration had a habit of putting out inaccurate budget numbers. The deficit in its 2004 budget appears to have been deliberately overestimated just so that a lower figure could be reported right before the election, thus giving the illusion of budgetary improvement. The following year, the deficit projected in January 2005 was also significantly higher than estimated in the midsession budget review in July. This led Collender to conclude that budget numbers produced by the Bush administration ‘should not be taken seriously.’

Like the typical Democratic demagogue, Bush has used spending to buy votes whenever possible. In this, of course, he has been joined by the Republican Congress. But his lack of commitment is evident from just one statistic: Bush has yet to veto a single bill. One has to go back almost two centuries to find another full-term president who did not veto even one measure.

In fact, the Republican president and Republican Congress have been full partners in bankrupting the nation. The low point was undoubtedly passage of the Medicare drug benefit, to which Bartlett devotes one chapter. The GOP majority misused House rules and employed a dubious set of carrots and sticks to turn around an apparent 216 to 218 loss. Worse was the administration’s conduct. The administration shamelessly lied about the program’s costs, covered up the truth, and threatened to fire Medicare’s chief actuary if he talked to Congress. The bill is badly drafted and, more importantly, adds $18 trillion to Medicare’s unfunded liability.

In Bartlett’s view, this might be the worst single piece of legislation in U.S. history, which would be quite a legacy. Writes Bartlett, “It will cost vast sums the nation cannot afford, even if its initial budgetary projections prove to be accurate, which is highly doubtful. It will inevitably lead to higher taxes and price controls that will reduce the supply of new lifesaving drugs.” In short, an allegedly conservative president inaugurated the biggest expansion of the welfare state in four decades.

Bartlett believes that tax hikes are inevitable, and he offers some decidedly unconservative observations on these issues, including the desirability of imposing a Value-Added Tax. He also speculates on the political future and a likely “Republican crack-up.”

But the core of his book remains his analysis of the Bush record. Bush, Bartlett believes, is likely to be seen as another Richard Nixon:

There has been an interesting transformation of Richard Nixon over the last twenty years or so. Whereas once he was viewed as an archconservative, increasing numbers of historians now view him as basically a liberal, at least on domestic policy. They have learned to look past Nixon’s rhetoric and methods to the substance of his policies, and discovered that there is almost nothing conservative about them. So it is likely to be with George W. Bush.

It is almost certainly too late to save the Bush presidency. Impostor demonstrates that the problems are systemic, well beyond the remedy of a simple change in policy or personnel. There may still be time, however, to save the conservative movement. But the hour is late. Unless the Right soon demonstrates that it is no longer Bush’s obsequious political tool, it may never escape his destructive legacy.


Doug Bandow is vice president of policy for Citizens Outreach. A collection of his columns, Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Crusade, will be published by Town Forum Press.