George W. Bush came to the presidency in 2000 claiming to be the heir of Ronald Reagan. But while he did cut taxes, in most other respects he has governed in a way utterly unlike his revered predecessor, expanding the size and scope of government, letting immigration go unchecked, and allowing the federal budget to mushroom out of control.
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Despite their strong misgivings, most conservatives remained silent during Bush’s first term. But a series of missteps and scandals, culminating in the ill-conceived nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, has brought this hidden rift within the conservative movement crashing to the surface.
Now, in what is sure to be the political book of the season, Bruce Bartlett lays bare the incompetence and profligacy of Bush’s economic policies. A highly respected Washington economist—and true-believing Reaganite—Bartlett started out as a supporter of Bush and helped him craft his tax cuts. But he was dismayed by the way they were executed. Reagan combined his tax cuts with fiscal restraint, but Bush has done the opposite. Bartlett thus reluctantly concluded that Bush is not a Reaganite at all, but an unprincipled opportunist who will do whatever he or his advisers think is expedient to buy votes.
In this sober, thorough, and utterly devastating book, Bartlett attacks the Bush Administration's economic performance root and branch, from the "stovepiping" of its policy process to the coercive tactics used to ram its policies through Congress, to the effects of the policies themselves. He is especially hard on Bush’s enormous new Medicare entitlement...and predicts that within a few years, Bush's tax cuts and unrestricted spending will produce an economic crisis that will require a major tax increase, probably in the form of a European-style VAT.
Bartlett has surprisingly kind words for Bill Clinton, whose record on the budget was far better than Bush’s. Whatever else one may think of him, Bartlett argues, Clinton cut spending, abolished a federal entitlement program, and left a budget surplus. By contrast, Bush has increased spending, created a massive entitlement program, and produced the biggest deficits in American history.
In fact, Bartlett concludes, Bush is less like Reagan than like Nixon: an arch-conservative Republican, bitterly hated by liberals, who vainly tried to woo moderates by enacting big parts of the liberal program. It didn't work then, and it won't work now—and may have similar harmful effects for the GOP.
I Know Conservatives, and George W. Bush Is No Conservative
George W. Bush is widely considered to be one of the most politically conservative presidents in history. His invasion of Iraq, his huge tax cuts, and his intervention in the Terri Schiavo case are among the issues where those on the left view him as being to the right of Attila the Hun. But those on the right have a different perspective–mostly discussed among themselves or in forums that fly below the major media’s radar. They know that Bush has never really been one of them the way Ronald Reagan was. Bush is more like Richard Nixon–a man who used the right to pursue his agenda, but was never really part of it. In short, he is an impostor, a pretend conservative.
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. On that basis, Bush clearly is not a Reaganite or “small c” conservative. 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. In the same way, Bush has used government to pursue a “conservative” agenda as he sees it. But that is something that runs totally contrary to the restraints and limits to power inherent in the very nature of traditional conservatism. It is inconceivable to traditional conservatives that there could ever be such a thing as “big government conservatism,” a term often used to describe Bush’s philosophy.(1)
Perhaps the greatest sin of liberals is their belief that it is possible for them to know everything necessary to manage the economy and society. To conservatives, such conceit leads directly to socialism and totalitarianism. At a minimum, it makes for errors that are hard to correct.(2) By contrast, conservatives like Ronald Reagan understand that the collective knowledge of people as expressed in the free market is far greater than any individual, government bureau, or even the most powerful computer can possibly have.(3) And in politics, they believe that the will of the people as expressed through democratic institutions is more likely to result in correct policies than those devised by Platonic philosopher kings.(4) Liberals, on the other hand, are fundamentally distrustful of the wisdom and judgment of the people, preferring instead the absolutism of the courts to the chaos and uncertainty of democracy.(5)
Traditional conservatives view the federal government as being untrustworthy and undependable. They utilize it only for those necessary functions like national defense that by their nature cannot be provided at the state and local level or privately. The idea that government could ever be used actively to promote their goals in some positive sense is a contradiction in terms to them. It smacks too much of saying that the ends justify the means, which conservatives have condemned since at least the French Revolution.
George W. Bush, by contrast, often looks first to government to solve societal problems without even considering other options. Said Bush in 2003, “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”(6) A more succinct description of liberalism would be hard to find.
My main concern is with Bush’s economic policy because that is my field of expertise. But it doesn’t mean that I am content with the rest of his program. I am deeply concerned about the Iraq operation, which has more in common with Woodrow Wilson’s policy of making the world safe for democracy than with traditional conservative foreign policy, which is based on defending the American homeland and avoiding unnecessary political and military entanglements with other countries–a view best expressed in George Washington’s Farewell Address.(7)
I am also concerned with Bush’s cavalier attitude toward federalism and his insistence on absolute, unquestioning loyalty, which stifles honest criticism and creates a cult of personality around him that I find disturbing. As former Reagan speechwriter John Podhoretz, author of a sympathetic book about Bush, has observed, “One of the remarkable aspects of this White House has been the fanatical loyalty its people have displayed toward Bush–even talking to friendly journalists like me, it’s been nearly impossible to get past the feel-good spin.”(8)
For example, in 2002, the White House directly ordered the firing of former Republican congressman Mike Parker of Mississippi as head of the Army Corps of Engineers because he publicly disagreed with the administration’s budget request for his agency.(9) In 2005, it ordered the demotion of a Justice Department statistician who merely put out some data that the White House found inconvenient.(10) This micromanagement of such low-level personnel is extraordinary in my experience. Columnist Robert Novak referred to this sort of thing as the Bush White House’s “authoritarian aura.”(11)
In White Houses filled with high-caliber people, dissent invariably arises and becomes known. The apparent lack of dissent in this White House, therefore, is an indication to me of something troubling–an unwillingness to question policies even behind closed doors, an anti-intellectual distrust of facts and analysis, and blind acceptance of whatever decisions have been made by the boss.
The only alternative is something equally bad–fear of telling Bush something he doesn’t want to hear. When asked whether he ever disagreed with him, Mark McKinnon, Bush’s chief campaign media adviser in 2004, said, “I prefer for others to go into the propeller first.”(12) This is the sort of thing that has gotten many big corporations like Enron in trouble in recent years, and I fear similar results from some of Bush’s ill-considered policies, especially the disastrous unfunded expansion of Medicare.
In thinking about Bush, I keep coming back to Ronald Reagan. Although derided as an amiable dunce by his enemies, it is clear from recent research that his knowledge and intellect were far deeper than they imagined. Articles and speeches drafted in his own hand leave no doubt that Reagan was exceptionally well read and had an excellent grasp of both history and current issues, including highly technical matters and complex statistics.(13) This knowledge was honed by decades of reading the classics of conservative thought and having spent much of his life publicly debating those whose views were diametrically opposed to his.
By contrast, George W. Bush brags about never even reading a daily newspaper.(14) Having worked in the White House, I know how cloistered the environment can be and how limited its information resources are–much of what White House staffers know about what is going on in the White House actually comes from reporters and news reports rather than inside knowledge, which is frequently much less than reporters imagine. It’s distressing to contemplate the possibility that the president’s opinion about the worthlessness of outside information sources is widely held within the White House. Unfortunately, I know from experience that the president sets the tone and style for everyone in the White House, suggesting that it is more likely than not that this view does indeed permeate the West Wing–a suspicion confirmed by the memoirs of those who have worked in this White House.(15)
Reagan, on the other hand, had a conservative distrust of his own ability to know all the facts and arguments before making important decisions. That is one reason why he was so tolerant of leaks from the White House during his administration. Reagan knew that this was an important safety valve that allowed dissenting viewpoints to reach him without being blocked by those with their own agendas. Deputy Chief of Staff Dick Darman, who controlled the paper flow in and out of the Oval Office, for example, was often accused of preventing Reagan from seeing memos that argued against positions Darman favored.(16)
I was involved in one very small effort to get around Darman myself. One day early in the Reagan Administration, while I was still working on Capitol Hill, a midlevel White House staffer whom I knew called me. He had written a memo to the president that he couldn’t get through the bureaucracy. Knowing that Reagan was an avid reader of Human Events, the conservative weekly newspaper, my friend suggested that I take his memo, put my name on it, and publish it as an article in Human Events. I did, thereby getting the information and analysis to the president that my friend thought he needed.(17) Others in the White House frequently did the same thing by leaking memos to the Washington Post or the New York Times that appeared as news stories.
By contrast, the Bush White House is obsessive about secrecy, viewing leaks of even the most mundane information as the equivalent of high treason.(18) Ironically, this attitude can be self-defeating, since “leaks” are a very effective way of getting one’s message out–as the Clinton White House often demonstrated. Think of it as giving an exclusive story to a reporter who has no choice but to accept the leaker’s “spin.” In this way, a leak can garner more and better press for a White House initiative than more conventional means like press releases. Leaking, in short, is not a moral issue, but can be a useful public relations technique.
Traditional conservatives had grave doubts about George W. Bush since day one. First, he was his father’s son. George H. W. Bush ran as Reagan’s heir, but did not govern like him. Indeed, the elder Bush signaled that there would be a sharp break with Reagan-style conservatism in his inaugural address, when he spoke of being R...
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