Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy
by Bruce Bartlett
(Doubleday, 310 pages, $26)
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.
Any conservative who ever believed Bush was going to enlist in small-government causes, however, simply wasn’t paying attention. He did not run as a budget-cutter in 2000. Instead he proposed new programs and criticized Gingrich-style Republicans for trying to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor.” Bush has only railed against big government while in the process of criticizing Democratic general-election opponents.
Most conservatives were willing to overlook Bush’s softness on spending (among other issues) in the hopes that he would deliver on taxes, free-market entitlement reform, and judicial nominations. After 9/11, national security through the war on terror was added to that list.
It’s always been an uneasy bargain, which is why conservatives have been outraged at times when Bush appeared to fall short. Think of the right’s response to Harriet Miers (a sign of wobbliness on judges) and the Dubai Ports World Deal (perceived wobbliness on national security).
Bartlett dabbles in criticism of Bush on many fronts, ranging from Iraq to the president’s management style, with varying degrees of effectiveness. But he is strongest when he argues that the Bush bargain hasn’t paid off for economic conservatives. Social Security reform is stalled; Medicare’s financial picture has been worsened; even the tax cuts are in danger if spending levels continue their dizzying ascent.
We have been here before. The failure to curb federal spending during the 1980s eroded public support for the Reagan tax cuts and contributed to their partial reversal. The problem is even more acute today since Bush’s tax cuts are scheduled to expire unless Congress acts to extend them.
The book is not without flaws. As George Will wrote in the New York Times, “Bartlett is angry as a hornet but, like a hornet, he stings indiscriminately.” Pointing out that the tax cuts could have been better crafted with fewer credits and deeper marginal rate reduction, he fails to acknowledge evidence that the cuts have nonetheless had some salutary economic effects. Congress is criticized but doesn’t receive its fair share of blame for Washington’s spendthrift ways. And the chapter promoting the value-added tax complicates Bartlett’s brief against big-government conservatism.
But big-government conservatism, as much as George W. Bush, is Bartlett’s real target. Indulging in fiscal recklessness has made the rest of the Republican domestic agenda, from tax cuts to Social Security reform, less tenable. Which is the third thing that sets Impostor apart from the average anti-Bush book — conservatives would do well to read it.