So many books devoted to disparaging President Bush have been published over the last five years that these screeds may now qualify as their own literary genre. Two things set Bruce Bartlett’s recently released Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy apart. The first is that the author is a bona fide conservative Republican and self-described Reaganite. The second is that Bartlett actually gave up a $172,000-a-year job to write it.
Bartlett doesn’t see Bush as the crazed right-wing ideologue of liberal fantasy, although he does share the left’s supposition that the Oval Office is located dangerously outside the reality-based community. Instead the veteran of two Republican administrations sets out to make the case that the current president is no conservative at all.
In a political culture that files everyone into neat little red and blue boxes, this might seem farfetched. Yet however one may describe the creation of the largest new entitlement program since the Great Society, an expanded federal role in education, the transformation of record surpluses into budget deficits, and discretionary spending binges that break records set under Lyndon Johnson, “conservative” is not the adjective that first comes to mind.
To Bartlett, this budget-busting isn’t merely a blemish on Bush’s record to be weighed against tax cuts or the partial-birth abortion ban. Instead he argues that these deviations from conservative orthodoxy are central to the Bush administration’s approach to governing, indicating that the president is a “pretend conservative” who “often looks first to government to solve societal problems without considering other options.”
Throughout Impostor Bush is compared to his predecessors, and the results are seldom flattering. The chapter titles ask whether Bush has pursued the worst trade policies since Herbert Hoover and if he is another Richard Nixon. “On the budget,” Bartlett writes, “Clinton was better.” It stings but he has a point — discretionary spending has grown twice as fast under Bush as during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
But the Nixon analogy is a larger component of Bartlett’s conservative case against Bush. The 37th president’s supporters were foreign-policy hawks and silent majority moral traditionalists, but Nixon’s domestic record was often breathtakingly liberal: wage and price controls, Social Security cost-of-living adjustments that ballooned government spending, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and expanded affirmative action.
Nixon was nevertheless despised by his liberal contemporaries and beloved by many people whose conservatism was more cultural than ideological. Bartlett describes him as “a man who used the right to pursue his agenda, but was never really part of it,” and puts Bush in the same category. Most conservatives are not likely to go that far, but they increasingly share many of the concerns that animate Impostor.
Federal spending is up, not just on national defense and homeland security but in almost every category. Real non-defense discretionary spending has surged 27.9 percent without a single Bush veto. The No Child Left Behind Act has helped drive a 137 percent increase in education spending. Unreformed entitlement programs continue to grow, now consuming 10.8 percent of GDP. The Medicare prescription drug benefit — which Bartlett decries as the “worst legislation in history” and is clearly one of the major reasons Impostor was written — added another $18 trillion to the system’s $50 trillion in unfunded liabilities.