Bush agonistes

Bruce Bartlett
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Posted: Oct 10, 2006 12:01 AM
Bush agonistes

With victory in the November elections now in jeopardy, the Republican establishment has finally noticed the party's significant weakness at its base -- especially within the small-government or Reagan wing -- and launched a counterattack.

The frustration of conservatives, who constitute the Republican Party's core, with many actions of George W. Bush and the Republican Congress is hardly news. I quote dozens of prominent conservative commentators complaining about Bush's policies and proposals dating all the way back to the 2000 election in my book "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy."

Since I finished writing the book last year, many more leading conservatives have joined the chorus. Last November, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey complained that "President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress are presiding over the largest expansion of government since LBJ's Great Society."

In April, a Wall Street Journal editorial observed that "a sense of entitlement" had set in among many congressional Republicans "who forgot why they were elected and began to believe that power was its own reward."

In July, columnist Robert Novak reported: "The hostility toward the Republican Party by the conservative base remains as intense as we have ever seen. ... There is continuing debate among the previously faithful party activists over whether it might not be a good idea for the GOP to lose one or both houses of Congress."

In the last few weeks, an impressive number of leading conservatives have said publicly that Republicans in Congress have so badly betrayed their principles that Democratic control wouldn't be such a bad idea. These include Jeffrey Hart, Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review magazine, direct-mail king Richard Viguerie, former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough and several others.

For a long time, the Republican establishment and its mouthpieces have ignored this insurgency within the party. My publisher was told that the slavishly pro-Bush New York Post and Weekly Standard magazine made a deliberate decision not to review my book, which was reviewed in every other major media outlet. Apparently, they decided that if they were to attack me it would create a controversy that would give publicity to my argument.

It is my experience that when defenders of a position refuse to even respond to legitimate critics it is because they know their position is intellectually untenable. But as Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have recently discovered with the Mark Foley incident, ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away. It just festers and becomes worse when it inevitably becomes too big to ignore.

Now the White House's apologists have concluded that they can no longer ignore the conservative revolt and have begun a belated counterattack. The Oct. 9 issue of The Weekly Standard has an article by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam that attempts to defend President Bush from his conservative critics, including me. At best, it is a case of too-little-too-late.

The gist of their argument is that conservatives have no right to complain about the orgy of federal spending on Bush's watch because he never pretended to be a small government kind of guy. Go back to his speeches in 1999 and 2000, Douthat and Salem say, and you will see that he has always had an expansive view of government. "Compassionate conservatism" was never about cutting government, but always about using government aggressively to promote Bush's agenda.

I agree up to a point. Rereading Bush's old campaign speeches does indeed indicate a strong pro-government bias. But at the time, I and most other conservatives thought this was just empty campaign rhetoric, not a true reflection of his governing philosophy. I should have listened more closely to my friend Ed Crane of the Cato Institute, who always said that Bush was a phony baloney conservative.

But whether Bush accurately telegraphed his big government policies doesn't insulate him from the tragic consequences of them. As Heritage Foundation analyst Brian Riedl and others have documented, not only has federal spending ballooned under this administration, even after adjusting for national defense and homeland security, it is going to continue growing for decades because of actions taken by it.

In particular, the ill-conceived Medicare drug benefit will raise federal spending by 1.1 percent of the gross domestic product forever -- equivalent to $150 billion this year and every year thereafter in inflation-adjusted terms, according to Medicare's trustees. And according to press reports, this huge federal largess is not even helping Republicans at the polls. Basically, they sold their souls for nothing.

History will eventually determine who is right: conservative critics of Bush and congressional Republicans, or their apologists. It will take a lot more evidence than Douthat and Salem have presented to convince me that Bush hasn't been an unmitigated disaster for conservatism.