Right to Nowhere

Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed The Reagan Legacy by Bruce Bartlett (Doubleday, 310 pages, $26.00)

Even before it was published, Bruce Bartlett's Impostor had a dramatic effect: It cost Bartlett his job as a policy analyst at a conservative think tank, the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), based in Dallas. Bartlett, a veteran of the Reagan White House and the elder Bush's Treasury Department, clearly has the courage of his convictions. But those convictions are so extreme that, far from damaging George W. Bush with his critique, Bartlett makes the president look like a moderate.

Some of Bartlett's criticisms hit the mark. In a chapter titled “Is Enron a Metaphor for Bush's Economic Policy?” he argues that Bush-style conservatism is pro-business rather than pro-market: “In reality, the last thing most businessmen want is a truly free market, which would force them to compete and erode their profits. What they really want are subsidies, monopolies, and protection.” As an example, Bartlett cites the reimbursement of corporations for the drug benefits they were already providing for employees: “After passage of the legislation, The Wall Street Journal reported that General Motors anticipated receiving $4 billion to cover its prescription drug costs. Other big recipients included Verizon ($1.3 billion), BellSouth ($572 million), Delphi ($500 million), U.S. Steel ($450 million), American Airlines ($415 million), John Deere ($400 million), United Airlines ($280 million), and Alcoa ($190 million) … [T]he effect is to substantially raise corporate profits.”

Bartlett praises Bill Clinton for vetoing spending legislation, writing of Bush: “Amazingly, he is the first president since John Quincy Adams to serve a full term without vetoing anything.” One of his chapters is called “On the Budget, Clinton Was Better.”

Yet the worst thing that Bartlett can say about Bush is that he is really a liberal. “Free marketeers celebrated Bush's renunciation of the Kyoto Treaty on global warming shortly after he took office in 2001,” Bartlett writes. “And they cheered when all of the ‘midnight regulations' imposed in the last days of the Clinton administration were frozen.” Tragically, according to Bartlett, “By the end of 2003, the Bush administration was proudly promoting its imposition of new regulations banning the diet supplement ephedra and protecting consumers from ‘mad cow' disease. It also celebrated a ‘get tough' policy toward corporate wrongdoers.” That's right, Bartlett is criticizing Bush for trying to use government to thwart corporate crime and mad cow disease.

According to Bartlett, Bush has betrayed the Republican Party's commitment to small and limited government, emulating Nixon, the original opportunistic “big-government conservative,” rather than Reagan, Bartlett's hero. Bartlett is candid enough to admit that Reagan failed to bring about the end of big government in America. He includes an appendix showing that tax increases under Reagan neutralized about half of Reagan's tax cuts. Bartlett undermines his case for Reagan further by admitting, “In some ways, increased taxes were always implicit in the Reagan tax cut -- and not because of the Laffer Curve. Inflation, which was very high when he took office, automatically raises taxes by pushing people into higher tax brackets. Although Reagan supported ‘indexing' to prevent this from happening, he did not want it to take effect until 1984. In essence, he wanted a few years of bracket creep to raise federal revenues even as he was cutting them. The problem was that inflation came down more quickly than anyone thought possible in 1981, thus depriving the government of revenue it had anticipated, which is a key reason why deficits were larger than expected.” A strategy worthy of Tricky Dick himself! George W. Bush is no Ronald Reagan, and neither was Ronald Reagan.

Reagan is not Bartlett's only example of a principled conservative. Bartlett writes: “Among the strongest Nixon-haters was the ultraconservative John Birch Society, which routinely published attacks on Nixon's liberal policies. Indeed, in 1972 a member of the society, Congressman John Schmitz (R-CA), ran against Nixon for president and garnered more than a million votes, including mine” (emphasis added). From Bartlett's perspective, genuine conservatism is better represented by the John Birch Society than by those closet liberals, Nixon and the two Bushes, not to mention Eisenhower, whom the Birchers accused of being a Communist (provoking Russell Kirk, one of the founders of modern conservatism, to quip, “Eisenhower isn't a Communist, he's a golfer”).

The truth is that Bartlett is the right's answer to Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, and others who denounce all liberals who can actually win elections as conservatives in disguise. But there is no reason to limit the term “conservative” to individuals like Bartlett, who at one point describes himself as a libertarian, and his “traditionalist” allies. Big-government conservatism is common elsewhere in the world; think of British Tory “wets,” French Gaullists, and German Christian Democrats. This being the case, Bartlett's premise that the defeat of the small-government right is a victory for the big-government left is simply wrong. In fact, the big-government right has defeated liberals and libertarians alike. Not that big government is all that big in the United States, anyway. Bartlett himself notes that in 2002 the total tax burden in the United States was merely 26.4 percent of GDP, compared to average of 36.3 percent in the advanced economies that belong to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Bartlett concedes wistfully that “the deepest discontent with Bush is among the conservative intelligentsia. Such people tend to be dismissed by political-types as dreamers with no understanding of political realities or getting elected.” With good reason, it appears. According to Bartlett, by the end of 2003 the list of “conservative leaders who were becoming actively hostile to Bush [included] direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie, National Taxpayers Union president John Berthoud, New York Conservative Party chairman Michael Long, and Don Devine of the American Conservative Union. I myself basically gave up on Bush in November of that year.” To this list, Bartlett adds the criticism of Bush by “former special assistant to President Reagan Doug Bandow, Reason magazine editor Brian Doherty, New York Post editorial writer Robert George, and the editorial page of the Tampa Tribune.” Notwithstanding their opposition, Bush was not only re-elected in 2004 but also received a majority in the popular vote as well as the electoral vote.

The combination of middle-class entitlements, corporate welfare, cultural conservatism, and a hawkish foreign policy is a winning formula that has propelled the Republican Party from minority to majority status in the past generation. The basis of this realignment has been the conversion to the GOP of the white working class, which likes New Deal benefits such as Social Security and Medicare and dislikes cultural liberal policies such as gay marriage. These former “Reagan Democrats” have few intellectuals but many voters, while the libertarians, like neoconservatives, have many intellectuals but few voters. As long as Republican politicians can attract voters with a mixture of social conservatism, middle-class entitlement spending, and a perpetual sense of danger from terrorism, they can afford to ignore the complaints of small-government libertarians like Bruce Bartlett, who have nowhere else to go except, perhaps, to the John Birch Society.

Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics.