Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bruce Bartlett

Six years ago Bruce Bartlett was fired from the National Center for Policy Analysis for his criticisms of President George W. Bush. Bartlett essentially argued that that Bush was a false conservative, embracing numerous policies that should be properly viewed as antithetical to believers in the free market and limited government.  He then expanded upon this thesis in his 2006 book Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. Here's an excerpt:
George W. Bush is widely considered to be one of the most politically conservative presidents in history. His invasion of Iraq, his huge tax cuts, and his intervention in the Terri Schiavo case are among the issues where those on the left view him as being to the right of Attila the Hun. But those on the right have a different perspective — mostly discussed among themselves or in forums that fly below the major media's radar. They know that Bush has never really been one of them the way Ronald Reagan was. Bush is more like Richard Nixon — a man who used the right to pursue his agenda, but was never really part of it. In short, he is an impostor, a pretend conservative.
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. On that basis, Bush clearly is not a Reaganite or "small c" conservative. 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. In the same way, Bush has used government to pursue a "conservative" agenda as he sees it. But that is something that runs totally contrary to the restraints and limits to power inherent in the very nature of traditional conservatism. It is inconceivable to traditional conservatives that there could ever be such a thing as "big government conservatism," a term often used to describe Bush's philosophy.
This is pretty on point and one must admire Bartlett for his intellectual honesty. Since this time, however, Bartlett has pretty much gone off the rails, calling for an Keynesian approach to rescue the economy from its current doldrums (which is working out brilliantly). For his efforts Bartlett is now a darling of the left, frequently quoted as evidence that the political right has lost its collective mind ("Even conservative Bruce Bartlett says..."). I can only wonder whether Bartlett would have been recently  invited to join the staff of the New York Times Economix blog if he weren't such a regular fount of anti-conservative sentiment and a supply-side heretic.

But some of Bartlett's pronouncements raise the question of whether he even remains a man of the right. Indeed, Tino Sanandaji last year said the following of Bartlett:
[He is] just another Social Democrat, someone who claims taxes do not affect economic behavior in a major ways, someone who wants people to accept the delusion that the payroll tax is not a tax on the worker’s income, someone who wants the U.S to be impressed by and emulate the French economy, even though the U.S produces 50% more on a per capita basis than France.
Further evidence of his migration to the left, meanwhile, is further seen in his declaration this past week that -- brace yourself -- President Obama is some kind of conservative. I kid you not:
Liberals hoped that Obama would overturn conservative policies and launch a new era of government activism. Although Republicans routinely accuse him of being a socialist, an honest examination of his presidency must conclude that he has in fact been moderately conservative to exactly the same degree that Nixon was moderately liberal.
Here are a few examples of Obama's effective conservatism:
* His stimulus bill was half the size that his advisers thought necessary; 
* He continued Bush’s war and national security policies without change and even retained Bush’s defense secretary;   
* He put forward a health plan almost identical to those that had been supported by Republicans such as Mitt Romney in the recent past, pointedly rejecting the single-payer option favored by liberals; 
* He caved to conservative demands that the Bush tax cuts be extended without getting any quid pro quo whatsoever;   
* And in the past few weeks he has supported deficit reductions that go far beyond those offered by Republicans.
He goes on to cite "Obama's conservatism" and "Obama's basic conservatism" before concluding the column. Leaving aside the foreign policy aspects, which are of only peripheral interest to this blog, this is simply a heavy dose of spin. In the first two examples Bartlett notes that various groups wanted something even further to the left of what was actually passed (stimulus, health care), so the failure to embrace an unfeasible left-wing extreme then morphs into evidence of conservatism. On tax cuts, meanwhile, Obama simply bowed to political reality and his inability to sign a bill that raised the top income bracket.  Again, the failure to embrace an extreme left-wing position and raise taxes on all Americans during a soft patch in the economy apparently makes on conservative. Basically anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders or Nancy Pelosi a conservative, making it about the least exclusive club around.

The last bullet, meanwhile, is difficult to comment upon as we don't know exactly what Obama placed on the table during the debt ceiling negotiations. What we do know, however, is that he offered a budget earlier this year that called for $1+ trillion budget deficits over the next two years and no deficit smaller than $600 billion through 2016. This is conservatism?

Let's remember that all of this is coming from a guy who only short years ago said that President Bush wasn't a real conservative for his big spending ways and other apostasies. It's utter nonsense. 

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