It will be a long time before a reasonable verdict can be rendered on the presidency of George W. Bush. For instance, the War on Terror, which officially began during his tenure, will surely outlast him and probably many of his successors. There are, however, problems of a president’s own making, and “Big Government Conservatism” is an albatross around Bush’s neck that is certainly of his own making (and likely his worst legacy). For those who share this feeling — or need convincing of it — it is well worth slipping a copy of Bruce Bartlett’s path-breaking book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, in their stocking.
Bartlett pulls no punches, beginning with the opening paragraph: “Bush is more like Richard Nixon….In short, he is an impostor, a pretend conservative.” Impostor focuses primarily on domestic policy, however, with scant attention to foreign policy. Nevertheless, Bartlett’s critique is withering. He begins with an examination of the policy process in the Bush Administration, which he calls “a system that places little value on substance and judges success or failure on the basis of short-term politics.” Indeed, one can point to a plethora of examples of this, whether it is the debacle on immigration or the nomination of Harriet Miers.
One of Bush’s biggest blunders is in the area of free trade. Bush has shown little principle on this issue. Indeed, politics always wins out, as was the case when Bush imposed steel tariffs and restrictions on textile imports. While some of these moves enabled Bush to earn enough support in Congress to win fast-track negotiating authority, the steel tariffs hurt U.S. businesses that use steel, resulting in a net loss for the economy. They also helped doom the Doha multilateral trade negotiations, as foreign nations saw no reason to remove their trade barriers when the Bush Administration was imposing new ones in the U.S. While Bartlett suggests that the ultimate consequences of those trade policies may not come on Bush’s watch, there are indications that the chickens are already coming home to roost. With the new Democratic Congress, trade deals the Bush Administration is negotiating with countries such as Peru, Colombia, and South Korea are now in jeopardy.
Perhaps the worst aspect of Bush’s domestic policy has been spending. On this, Bush has abandoned almost any pretense of being conservative. It is cliche: Bush has the worst record on domestic spending since LBJ. As Bartlett notes, “Congress quickly figured out that Bush could easily be rolled on spending. Although he often threatened to veto legislation, he always backed down, usually without receiving anything more than cosmetic concessions in return.” It’s so bad, Bush has made his predecessor look fiscally stingy, leading Bartlett to name the chapter on spending “On the Budget, Clinton Was Better.”
The one thing that unfortunately hampers Impostor is Bartlett’s tendency to go to extremes, as can be seen from some of the chapter titles, such as “Is Bush Another Nixon?” and “Is Enron a Metaphor for Bush’s Economic Policy?” Another example is the chapter criticizing the Medicare prescription drug bill titled “The Worst Legislation in History?” Worse than the legislation that created Medicare in the fist place? Bartlett seems so intent on denying Bush any credit that he also gets some things wrong. For example, he suggests that Bush did not win over any additional Hispanic support in the 2004, yet Bush’s share of the Hispanic vote jumped at least five points compared to how he fared in 2000.
In all, though, Impostor makes for a compelling and challenging read for any conservative inclined to support President Bush. In years to come, it may become the quintessential critique of the Bush Administration’s domestic policy — one that historians will have to grapple with when contemplating Bush’s legacy.
David Hogberg is a senior analyst at the National Center for Public Policy Research. He also hosts his own website, Hog Haven. See also his earlier Christmas gift recommendations, in “Have Yourself a Very Healthy Christmas.”