Is Bush Really a 'Pretend Conservative'?

The libertarian-oriented Cato Institute recently held a briefing featuring economist Bruce Bartlett. According to a report in the Washington Post, “Bartlett called the administration ‘unconscionable,’ ‘irresponsible,’ ‘vindictive’ and ‘inept.’”

Is he really talking about the President who successfully planted two principled conservatives on the Supreme Court, made tax cuts the hallmark of his administration and is the only President to seriously take on the “third rail” of politics in a year-long, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to reform Social Security?

Bartlett’s book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, is a readable screed against the administration, and it’s getting lots of press attention—especially since he is a respected conservative economist who served in both the Reagan and the first Bush (41) Administrations.

Words like “impostor” and “betrayed” are inflammatory and meant to incite conservatives and maybe increase sales. But liberals salivate at these types of insider attacks, because they can let conservatives do their hatchet work for them.

Bartlett contends that President George W. Bush is no conservative: “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.”

This is mostly nonsense. Yes, Bush has taken steps that have deeply troubled most conservatives, but he has also achieved some important conservative victories. The same, incidentally, can be said about President Reagan.

So let’s bring a little perspective to Bartlett’s claims:

1) He first complains that the Bush Administration has insulated itself from outside policy input, what Bartlett calls the “policy vacuum.” While I can’t speak to every policy area, I can attest that the President has appointed three outstanding health policy advisers in the last five years, whose knowledge, accessibility and thoughtfulness couldn’t be much better.

2) Bartlett gives Bush no credit for his tax cuts, even saying recently that they were largely ineffective.

By contrast, Bartlett praises Ronald Reagan for cutting the marginal income tax rate, which Bush also did, though not by as much as Reagan. And as Bartlett points out, Reagan raised other taxes, which Bush hasn’t done, and both men increased deficit spending. Strangely, Bartlett recently said he would vote for Bill Clinton today over Bush, even though Clinton is the one responsible for raising Reagan’s marginal tax rates.

But the fact is that lots of conservatives agreed with and supported the Bush tax cuts. And most, including the Wall Street Journal, think that at least some of those cuts had a very positive impact on the economy.

3) No President has done more than Bush to try to reform the financially doomed Social Security program. For his part, Reagan created a commission in the early 1980s, headed by Alan Greenspan, that increased the payroll tax and postponed the retirement age to 67. Democrats today would be thrilled to increase the payroll tax again, at least on higher-income workers.

While the Bush Administration took a wrong turn in its marketing efforts to push personal accounts, Bush undeniably spent more political capital trying to reform Social Security than any other President.

4) And then there’s Bush’s successful attempt to pass a Medicare prescription drug benefit. This was, Bartlett concedes, the final straw for him.

Lots of conservatives have been critical of the Medicare drug benefit (including me). Although most conservatives in the health policy field agreed that Medicare needed a drug benefit, most wanted a limited benefit targeted to the very poor and those with very high drug costs.

That’s the direction Bush tried to take, which was evident in the initial $600 subsidy for low-income uninsured Medicare beneficiaries. It isn’t widely known, but it was the Republican leadership that pooh-poohed anything less than a comprehensive benefit for every senior—and the administration let them have their way.

Medicare also saw a major reform under the Reagan Administration. Congress in 1983 imposed a system of price controls on Medicare hospital payments. For more than 20 years, those price controls have created huge distortions in the Medicare system, leading to the widespread growth of HMOs and managed care.

The point here is not to criticize the Reagan Administration, which also had to deal with a Democratic Congress, but to point out that every President has his successes and failures. And Bush should be viewed in that light.

Finally, let’s look at Bartlett’s suggestions for where we go from here.

When I was VP of domestic policy at the National Center for Policy Analysis, NCPA tax expert Bartlett explained to me that budget deficits don’t matter and that a Value-Added Tax (VAT)—which typically adds a tax at each stage of production—was bad policy because it is so hard for people to know how much they are being taxed. That makes incremental tax increases easy for politicians.

Bartlett apparently now has come to conclude that deficits do matter, and dedicates a chapter to explaining why they will force us to increase taxes at some point in the future. There is no chapter on how the government can cut spending.

More surprising, he now supports the VAT and the ease with which politicians can raise it. “In my view, the VAT lends itself to dealing with our long-term budget problem because it can be raised a little bit at a time without causing serious economic repercussions. If people knew that income tax rates would be higher in the future, they would engage in a lot of inefficient economic transactions designed solely to bring future income into the present.”

Now, a reasonable conservative could argue that a VAT should be part of the U.S. tax system. But most conservatives, including the Bush Administration, oppose a VAT, while Bartlett—who is trying to convince us that Bush isn’t a conservative—supports it.

In summary, Bartlett’s book is well intended, but he needs to be a little more “fair and balanced.” While conservatives are very restless over a number of Bush’s policies, the President has taken a firm stand on several important conservative issues. Bartlett, by contrast, downplays most of those successes and “recognizes” the inevitability of a tax increase and proposes a VAT to do it.

So it may be fair to ask, “Who is the real ‘pretend conservative’?”