Magazine article The American Conservative

Counterfeit Conservative

Magazine article The American Conservative

Counterfeit Conservative

Article excerpt

[Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, Bruce Bartlett, Doubleday, 320 pages]

Counterfeit Conservative

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH took office to the sustained applause of America's conservative movement. In 2000, he defeated the liberal environmentalist Al Gore, abruptly terminated the legacy of the even more hated Bill Clinton, and gave Republicans control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. A few cynics were suspicious of Bush's understanding of and commitment to conservative principles, but most on the Right welcomed his inauguration.

Five years later, the traditional conservative agenda lies in ruins. Government is bigger, spending is higher, and Washington is more powerful. The national government has intruded further into state and local concerns. Federal officials have sacrificed civil liberties and constitutional rights while airily demanding that the public trust them not to abuse their power.

The U.S. has engaged in aggressive war to promote democracy and undertaken an expensive foreign-aid program. The administration and its supporters routinely denounce critics as partisans and even traitors. Indeed, the White House defenestrates anyone who acknowledges that reality sometimes conflicts with official fantasies.

In short, it is precisely the sort of government that conservatives once feared would result from liberal control in Washington.

Still, conservative criticism remains muted. Mumbled complaints are heard at right-wing gatherings. Worries are expressed on blogs and internet discussions. A few activists such as former Congressman Bob Barr challenge administration policies. And a few courageous publications more directly confront Republicans who, like the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm, have morphed into what they originally opposed.

The criticisms are about to get louder, however. Bruce Bartlett has been involved in conservative politics for a quarter century. He authored one of the leading books on supply-side economics, worked in the Reagan administration, and held a position at the National Center for Policy Analysis-until the Dallas-based group fired him, apparently fearful of financial retaliation arising from his sharp criticisms of the administration.

That the truth is so feared is particularly notable because Bartlett's criticism is measured, largely limited to economics. Bartlett notes in passing his concern over Iraq, federalism, and Bush's "insistence on absolute, unquestioning loyalty, which stifles honest criticism and creates a cult of personality around him." These issues warrant a separate book, since it is apparent that Americans have died, not, perhaps, because Bush lied, but certainly because Bush and his appointees are both arrogant and incompetent.

Although modest in scope, Impostor is a critically important book. Bartlett demonstrates that Bush is no conservative. He notes: "I write as a Reaganite, by which I mean someone who believes in the historical conservative philosophy of small government, federalism, free trade, and the Constitution as originally understood by the Founding Fathers."

Bush believes in none of these things. His conservatism, such as it is, is cultural rather than political. Writes Bartlett, "Philosophically, he has more in common with liberals, who see no limits to state power as long as it is used to advance what they think is right." Until now, big-government conservatism was widely understood to be an oxymoron.

For this reason, Bartlett contends that Bush has betrayed the Reagan legacy. Obviously, Ronald Reagan had only indifferent success in reducing government spending and power. For this there were many reasons, including Democratic control of the House and the need to compromise to win more money for the military.

Yet Reagan, in sharp contrast to Bush, read books, magazines, and newspapers. (On the campaign plane in 1980 he handed articles to me to review. …

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