Respond to this Article March 2006

George W. Bush is no Ronald Reagan

Review of The Impostor.

By Kevin Drum

There was a period stretching roughly from August 2003 through November 2004 when it was nearly impossible to walk through a branch of Barnes & Noble without tripping over half a dozen stacks of books explaining why George Bush was the most disastrous president in U.S. history. Al Franken had a book. Eric Alterman and Mark Green had a book. Arianna Huffington had a book. So did Molly Ivins, Joe Conason, and David Corn.

I read two or three of these tomes before I got bored and stopped. It turned out the bill of particulars was pretty much the same from book to book, and since I already agreed that Bush was an unusually bad president--in fact, my daily job at The Washington Monthly was frequently dedicated to illustrating just that point--there hardly seemed much sense in proving the law of diminishing returns by continuing to read every new screed that came out.

In any case, America finally held its presidential election in 2004 and the market for Bush-bashing books promptly ebbed for a time while shell-shocked liberals tried to figure out just what had hit them. It was, once again, safe to stroll leisurely through your local bookstore.

Predictably, it didn't take much time for the tide to turn back, and in early 2006, another Bush-bashing book hit the stands. The charges leveled against the president were familiar: reckless spending increases, out-of-control deficits, relentless pandering to business interests, and a deliberate and willful contempt for policy analysis. The Bush White House, it argued, judges legislation not by whether it's conservative or liberal, but solely by whether it will gain the Republican Party a couple of percentage points of support among some voting bloc or other. Principle is nothing. Politics is everything.

In other words, more of the same. Except for one thing: The author of Impostor (Doubleday, $26.00) is Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan-era official and longtime conservative columnist. In fact, until last year--when he was fired for writing this book--he was a senior fellow at the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, a right-wing think tank dedicated to flat taxes, Social Security privatization, and a host of other conservative hot buttons.

Put in plain terms, Bartlett's charge is simple. George W. Bush, he says on page one, is a "pretend conservative." Philosophically, Bush actually has more in common with liberals than he does with true conservatives.

Now, there's not much question that this is overstated. Bush won't be getting an invitation to join The New York Times editorial board any time soon. Among other things, he's appointed hundreds of conservative judges, cut taxes repeatedly and dramatically, signed into law a ban on partial-birth abortions, and committed America to its biggest and costliest war of choice since Vietnam.

And yet, in a narrower but still provocative way, Bartlett makes a persuasive case. I'm a pretty conventional FDR liberal myself, but several years ago, I came to the same conclusion Bartlett did: Bush may be a Republican--boy howdy, is he a Republican--but he's not the fire-breathing ideologue of liberal legend.

Don't believe it? Consider Bartlett's review of Bush's major domestic legislative accomplishments. He teamed up with Ted Kennedy to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, which increased education spending by over $20 billion and legislated a massive new federal intrusion into local schools. He co-opted Joe Lieberman's proposal to create a gigantic new federal bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security. He has mostly abandoned free trade in favor of a hodgepodge of interest-group-pleasing tariffs. And after initially opposing it, Bush signed the Sarbanes-Oxley bill with almost pathetic eagerness in the wake of the Enron debacle, putting in place a phonebook-sized stack of new business regulations.

Want more? He signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, a bęte noir of conservatives for years. His Medicare prescription-drug bill was the biggest new entitlement program since the Great Society. He initially put a hold on a wide range of last-minute executive orders from the Clinton administration, but after a few months of "study" allowed nearly all of them to stand. And he has increased domestic discretionary spending at a higher rate than any president since LBJ.

Bartlett even has a bone to pick with the most prominent feature of Bush's record that's incontestably conservative, his almost religious dedication to tax cuts. Yes, Bush has cut taxes. Yes, that's generally a good, conservative thing to do. But as Bartlett correctly points out, cutting taxes without cutting spending doesn't do the conservative cause any good. Bush and the modern Republican Party plainly have no interest in cutting federal spending, and the resulting massive deficits will eventually force "the largest tax increase in American history"--one that will be entirely Bush's fault. Some conservative.

To be sure, there are plenty of counterarguments to these charges that Bartlett doesn't address. NCLB may increase education funding, but it also contains stealth provisions designed to increase support for school vouchers in future years. Bush may have signed DHS into existence, but only after using it as an excuse for a bitterly partisan round of union bashing and traitor mongering. The Medicare bill may have been an entitlement increase, but it also contained plenty of business- friendly provisions that made liberals--and conscientious conservatives--gag. And a tax cut is a tax cut, even if it's not the precise kind of tax cut Bartlett would prefer.

Still, open-minded liberals who want to understand the nature of contemporary American politics should give serious consideration to Bartlett's argument: Despite five years of seething anger at George Bush's supposed hardcore conservatism, the fact is that he's not really a hardcore conservative.

So what is Bush, then? This is where things get a little more confusing. As it turns out, Bartlett has about half the answer right, but there's more to the story than he seems willing to acknowledge.

For starters, it's worth conceding that there is more than one legitimate definition of "conservative." I've long viewed George Bush as a temperamental conservative, the kind of guy you meet in a bar who slams down his drink and asks belligerently, "You know what this country needs?"--and then proceeds to tell you. He's a conservative who is defined by a visceral loathing of '60s-era "moral decay," not one who's read the collected works of Russell Kirk and Milton Friedman or who has been inhaling National Review since he was a teenager. Still, even if the guy in the bar is indeed one particular type of conservative, Bartlett makes the reasonable point that a conservative president needs to have at least a few vague guiding conservative principles, and those are hard to find in Bush. If you raise spending, increase tariffs, and create new entitlements without blinking an eye, even belligerence doesn't make you into a genuine conservative.

This, then, is the half of the answer that Bartlett gets right: Bush, he says, is not so much a conservative ideologue as he is simply a politician who has taken tribal partisanship to levels not seen since the 19th century. Bush is relentless at fighting for what he wants, but it turns out that what he mainly wants is to increase the Republican majority and kick some Democratic ass. If that means he's "perfectly willing to jettison conservative principles at a moment's notice to achieve that goal"--which he obviously is--well, that's the price you pay for electoral victory, isn't it?

In other words, Bush is another Richard Nixon, a comparison that Bartlett spends an entire chapter on.

The first person to draw a parallel between Bush and Nixon was someone who knew Nixon well: then-New York Times columnist William Safire, who had been a speechwriter for Nixon. In a July 2003 column, Safire imagined a conversation with the late president, who spoke approvingly about Bush's strategy of moving left domestically while keeping the Republican base preoccupied with an external threat. Nixon had done this successfully with Vietnam and Bush was doing it with Iraq.

Although the popular perception of Nixon is still that of an archconservative who infuriated liberals, Bartlett reminds us that on domestic policy Nixon routinely caved in to public opinion and betrayed his conservative principles--for example, by creating the EPA, supporting enormous increases in Social Security, and proposing a guaranteed-incomes policy. Likewise, Bush spent nearly his entire first term talking tough but then caving in with barely a whimper to any interest group that might help him win a few more precious votes in 2004. Tariffs were enacted in order to appeal to steelworkers; the Medicare bill was designed to buy the votes of the elderly; and McCain-Feingold was signed in the hope that it would provide a temporary fundraising advantage for the Republican Party. If all of these actions were precisely the opposite of what a real conservative would do, so what? As Nixon might have said, don't you know there's an election coming up?

As far as all this goes, Bartlett's argument is a good one, and the Nixon comparison even provides a neat and underappreciated explanation for why liberals hate Bush so much. After all, it's possible to respect someone with whom you have a principled disagreement, but not so easy to respect someone whose only real principle is to crush anybody who gets in his way. (Bush's alter-ego, Karl Rove, summed up this philosophy within earshot of journalist Ron Suskind when he yelled to an aide about someone who had displeased him, "We will fuck him. Do you hear me? We will fuck him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever fucked him!") As with Nixon, it's not really Bush's conservatism that gets liberals seething. In fact, it's just the opposite. It's precisely his lack of political principle, combined with a vengeful ruthlessness so dark it's scary, that makes liberals break out in hives.

But this is where the second half of the story kicks in, and it's a part of the story that Bartlett avoids. Like many a true believer on both right and left, he's convinced that Bush's opportunism has all been for nought. He didn't need to pander to all those special interests. He could have stayed faithful to the conservative creed and still won reelection.

In this, Bartlett is almost certainly wrong. Genuine conservatives have a grim electoral history, after all. Robert Taft lost to Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater got crushed by LBJ, and Bob Dole was never even a serious contender against Bill Clinton. Newt Gingrich was certain that conservatism had finally won the day in 1994, but five years later he left office a defeated man. And does anyone even remember Phil Gramm?

That leaves only Ronald Reagan, and it's true that Reagan campaigned and won as an unapologetic conservative. Unfortunately, this single example simply doesn't do the analytic heavy lifting that Bartlett thinks it does. The reality is that Reagan came along at a unique moment in history, a time when the country was exhausted from the perceived liberal excesses of the '60s and '70s and ready for a short breather, especially one delivered with Reagan's trademark optimism and sunniness. Reagan was a reaction to an era, not the father of a movement.

What's more, as Bartlett tacitly acknowledges, Reagan in practice wasn't as conservative as his supporters remember him being. Sure, he famously cut taxes in 1981, but he raised taxes in nearly every year after that--including corporate taxes. He took a stab at cutting Social Security, but backed off after losing seats in the 1982 election and ended up endorsing a conventional liberal solution that increased payroll taxes and created a massive trust fund. He reduced the growth of domestic spending, but he never eliminated the cabinet departments he had promised to eliminate. In fact, he even added a new one. And he supported expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, an important anti-poverty measure. The reason that even liberals look back on Reagan a little more fondly today than they did at the time is that, in the end, he turned out to be a fairly pragmatic guy. (For more on this, see "Reagan's Liberal Legacy," by Joshua Green, January/February 2003.)

This is the reality that true-believer conservatives--Bartlett among them--don't want to believe. For all the trash talking from right-wing leaders like Grover Norquist and Tom DeLay, the fact is that America is only a moderately conservative country. And despite the electoral success of conservatives over the past decade, that hasn't changed much. Although party affiliations have shifted as Southern conservatives have migrated to the GOP, Harris polls since the early 1970s show that Americans self-identify as about 20 percent liberal, 35 percent conservative, and the rest in between, and those numbers have been rock-steady for decades. So where's the conservative revolution?

The answer is that it almost certainly never existed. Americans may not be ready for European-style soft socialism, but poll after poll demonstrates that they like Social Security and Medicare, they support iconic liberal programs in areas like environmentalism and worker safety, and they're pretty tolerant on social issues--and getting more tolerant over time, not less. George Bush couldn't have bucked these trends even if he'd wanted to, which is why he campaigned as a "compassionate conservative" and frequently gave speeches in which observers could have been forgiven for thinking they were hearing the reincarnation of FDR. Even at that, though, he only barely won. Hardcore conservatism simply doesn't sell in America.

What's more, it's never really been the governing philosophy of the Republican Party anyway. Bartlett usefully points out, for example, that Bush is "incapable of telling the difference between being pro-business and being for the free market," and he's right that this is a distinction that's seldom acknowledged. As Bartlett puts it, "Genuine supporters of free markets… denounced just as strongly government policies that subsidize businesses as those that unfairly penalize them." In other words, they believe in real competition. But Bush's Medicare bill didn't promote free-market competition; it simply tossed benefits at pharmaceutical companies. Likewise, his energy bill was stuffed with giveaways for utilities and oil companies, his transportation bill was a pork fest that would have made Boss Tweed blush, and his bankruptcy bill was little more than an out-and-out payoff to the credit card industry.

This is far from being an aberration. The current incarnation of the GOP may have taken interest-group pandering to new levels, but Bartlett fails to acknowledge that the Republican Party has long been more faithful to the pro-business creed than the pro-market one. Ronald Reagan's 1986 tax-reform bill may indeed have been a rare instance of high-minded, bipartisan tax policy--and a surprisingly progressive one--but the very reason it's so celebrated is because such things are so rare. After all, didn't Reagan also preside over the savings-and-loan debacle, surely the largest giveaway of all time to the wealthy business class that funds the Republican Party?

Like it or not, the pay-to-play machine built by Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff--and enthusiastically supported by George Bush--is the apotheosis of what the Republican Party has always been about, not a betrayal of its principles. There is no primitive conservatism to go back to, and no messiah to lead the Republican Party out of its corporate welfare wilderness.

In the end, this is what Bartlett doesn't--or can't--get. Ideological activists may be loath to acknowledge this, but the truth is that today both major political parties are largely stuck. On the left, the problem is that liberals have achieved the bulk of what they set out to achieve 75 years ago, and the country is pretty happy with it. In the arena of economic security, they've given us Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, subsidized public education, welfare, and the minimum wage. Equal rights? We've got the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, gender discrimination laws, the Violence Against Women Act, and the ADA. Abortion is legal, forced prayer is gone from public schools, and criminal defendants are guaranteed a lawyer. In the area of protection from corporate predation, we've got OSHA, workers comp, loads of environmental regulations, consumer-protection laws by the bushel, and capital markets that are more transparent than ever in history. Sure, there's more to do, but that's not bad. There just aren't very many big-ticket items left with the potential to generate a lot of voter excitement.

In the same vein, the problem on the right is that conservatives have failed miserably whenever they've tried to take a serious chainsaw to modern liberalism. Cutting taxes is just about all they have left, and as Bartlett concedes, taxes can't be cut forever. This has mostly reduced conservatives to nibbling modestly around the edges of the contemporary liberal edifice while simultaneously passing out enough goodies to keep their supporters happy and the rubes, if not happy, at least scared enough to keep voting for them. This means that unlike the '30s or the '60s, when politics was vitriolic because the stakes were high and society was undergoing dramatic changes, the source of today's vitriol is precisely the opposite. As with World War I trench warfare, it's the result of two evenly matched sides beating each other bloody year after year but neither being able to claim victory. Bill Clinton couldn't get national health care passed, but George Bush couldn't gut Social Security either.

Although the heat of battle often obscures this, the unhappy reality is that modern American politics is mostly played at the margins. In practical terms, we're no longer fighting seriously over grand principle, we're just fighting over who gets the most toys. The fact that Impostor--perhaps unwittingly--lays this so bare makes it a worthwhile read not just for its intended conservative audience, but for liberals as well. If progressives ever want to break our current political stalemate, they're going to have to open a new front.

Kevin Drum is a contributing writer for The Washington Monthly.


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