Spurning the Great Communicator

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For those of us who are committed to limited government, the Bush administration has been a major disappointment. It isn’t just the huge deficits or the massive spending for the “war on terror” that’s the problem; it’s the fact that this nominally conservative president has refused to veto anything and has doubled the budget of the Department of Education.

President Bush has gotten a good deal of pummeling, much of it justified, from the Left. But this is the most significant attack on the Bush presidency from the free-market Right. Bartlett comes to the project with impeccable credentials, including years of experience on Capitol Hill as well as service in the Treasury Department during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Moreover, this is a very brave book, as Bartlett was sacked from a cushy position as a fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis for writing it. Think- tank fellows lose their jobs for many reasons, but I can’t recall another case in which one was fired from a right-wing think tank for advocating free-market ideas, even if that meant attacking a Republican administration. Bartlett’s courage in maintaining his commitment to liberty even at the cost of his job is admirable.

Most of the cheers for “Impostor” have come from the Left, who are happy to see a veteran Republican join the pile-on-the-president crowd. Libertarians might well be suspicious of this book, given that its endorsers include liberal Washington Post columnist E.]. Dionne and Jonathan Chait, a Los Angeles Times columnist who is also the most left-wing editor at the New Republic. But many liberals haven’t been quite sure what to make of this book. The reviewer for the Post provided a typical response, saying that while he was happy to see anybody attack the president, what he really wanted was a book on Bush’s foreign policy, and since there was nothing about foreign policy in the book, it was a disappointment.

Well, Bartlett isn’t a foreign policy expert, and anyone wanting to read a book about the problems of neoconservative imperialism will need to read another book (such as Leon Hadar’s “Sandstorm”). What Bartlett is best at is sober, cogent, economic analysis.

In chapter after chapter, Bartlett shows that the administration is more committed to buying votes than helping the ordinary taxpayer. Take the Medicare prescription drug subsidy passed in 2004. This subsidy is the big-

Republicans are at their worst when they are dime-store New Dealers.


gest expansion of the welfare state since Medicare’s passage in 1965; it ultimately could, according to Medicare’s actuaries, cost taxpayers up to $16 trillion. But there’s no evidence that the prescription drug plan bought any votes or indeed had any effect the 2004 elections. Bartlett sees the prescription drug saga as evidence that the Bush administra-

I can’t recall another case in which a fellow was fired from a right-wing think tank for advocating free-market ideas.

tion is more interested in pandering to big business (which saved billions in pension expenses) than in maintaining budget discipline.

In another chapter, Bartlett offers a revisionist view of the Clinton administration – it wasn’t that bad! Yes, Clinton had his zipper problems, but government was relatively restrained during his time in office and budget deficits shrank. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the federal government grew by a rate of 2.5% per year during the Clinton administration – and has grown 8.2% each year for the entire Bush administration. Moreover, with the passage of welfare reform in 1996, President Clinton actually cut the welfare state, something President Bush is unable or unwilling to do.

Bartlett offers a grim conclusion. “The Republican Party needs to start a dialogue that will get it back on track as the party of small government before it loses what is left of its principles, reputation, and heritage,” he writes. “If the American people conclude that it stands for nothing except for payoffs for those on its team, it will have lost something precious that, like one’s virtue or good name, is awfully hard to get back once lost.”

If the 2008 presidential contest turns into a tussle between a robust Democratic statist and a flabby Republican statist, the Democrat will win. Republicans, as history shows, are at their worst when they are dime-store New Dealers. But Bartlett reminds us that in times like these, the task for libertarians is to sharpen our arguments and continue to make the case that the Bush administration and its big-government conservative allies are wrong when they bloat the state.

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