Impostor by Bruce Bartlett

The economist Paul Krugman has been issuing powerful, persuasive criticism of the Bush administration’s economic policies for several years now, but a great many people disregard him without even acknowledging the strength of his case; he is, after all, a liberal. Hence the value of Bruce Bartlett’s Impostor. Written by a credentialed, die-hard Reaganite conservative, this scathing condemnation of the wrongheaded, misguided, and flat-out corrupt Bush policies cannot be dismissed by conservatives on the basis of one of their well-practiced ad hominem attacks. Bruce Bartlett will not be swift-boated.

Not that conservatives are above trying — one anonymous review on the National Review Book Service accuses Bartlett of being in the paid service of the Democratic Party. It’s a patently absurd notion; in fact, Bartlett worked in the Reagan White House and the first Bush Treasury Department. He has a long list of publications celebrating supply-side economics and lambasting things like the minimum wage. He voted for a John Birch Society member for President in 1972 because Nixon was too liberal. He is, in short, a bona fide conservative. And he likes the George W. Bush administration about as much as Michael Moore does.

The basis for Bartlett’s contentions is that Bush claims to be a conservative, but isn’t one; the President has replaced economic policy considerations with political ones, and shows more interest in bestowing benefits on corporations and the wealthy than in the true conservative goal of reducing government, which has in fact ballooned in size and debt under his guidance. Damning evidence abounds, as Bartlett shows one episode after another of what he calls “a total subordination of analysis to short-term politics.”

First he inspects personnel. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was forced out of the cabinet in late 2002 after reminding Bush that “tax cuts alone aren’t an economic policy.” National Economic Council director Larry Lindsey helped Bush formulate his tax plan in 1999 and had been with him since, but he too got the boot on the same day as O’Neill, having publicly estimated the cost of the Iraq occupation at $100 billion a year. At the time, the administration was projecting much lower claims, as fabricated as its evidence to justify going to war; in April 2006 the Washington Post reported the cost for this fiscal year at $101.8 billion, and rising. The fact that Lindsey was correct (as was evident even at the time) mattered little. Of paramount importance for the Bush administration, both then and now, was the manipulation of facts and information to generate and maintain public support, not to inform the public of the truth.

Tax policy under Bush operates the same way, as Bartlett shows, based more on political considerations than what Bush lackeys would call “reality-based” predictions. Campaigning for office, Bush presented his tax cuts as a means to perpetuate the economic boom of the late 1990s. By the time he entered office the economy had long since slowed down, but instead of adjusting policy to accommodate the situation, Bush simply adjusted his rhetoric to maintain his cherished tax cuts under conditions in which their ostensible rationale had evaporated. What had been supply-side cuts intended to redirect government surpluses toward the market overnight emerged reframed as a Keynesian device to facilitate spending. As Bartlett notes, the tax cuts reflected more political philosophy than economic policy, and a crassly opportunistic one at that.

Impostor‘s laundry list of accusations goes on to show the Bush hypocrisy of supporting protectionist policies toward the US steel industry even while demanding the lowering of trade barriers by other nations, a double standard that alienated trading partners on several continents, from Japan to Canada. The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 also receives sustained attention, as Bartlett shows in painstaking (and painful) detail how the House Republican leadership withheld the text of the conference report containing the full text of the bill (running hundreds of pages) until the very morning of the House debate. A 15-minute vote was then extended to three hours after the bill failed to amass sufficient votes, as the GOP leadership resorted to threats and even open bribery on the floor of Congress. Finally, at 5:53AM the Republicans forced the bill through the reluctant House.

Once again, Bartlett notes, the Bush administration misled the public, as well as Congress, by knowingly underestimating the costs of the legislation, much of which flow straight into the corporate coffers of Big Pharma. While the Medicare legislation was a mixed bag for struggling seniors, who encountered new difficulties along with new benefits, such anti-consumer provisions as a prohibition on the government utilizing its buying power to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices reflects the true motivation behind the bill. An outraged Bartlett, somewhat less concerned with the elderly than the costs of Medicare, and perhaps unmindful of such endeavors as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, suggests this “may well be the worst piece of legislation ever enacted.”

As he traverses several other examples of Bush economic malfeasance, Bartlett makes historical arguments positioning Bush relative to three iconic figures: Reagan, against whom Bush utterly fails to measure up to as a true conservative; Clinton, who was “much better” when it came to economic policy; and Nixon, the scheming, pseudo-conservative charlatan whose indifference to principle makes him the closest reference point for Bush. While Bartlett’s warm embrace of Clinton may surprise some, it’s important to keep in mind that the public image of Clinton as a liberal is stunningly inaccurate. Under the guise of “triangulation,” Clinton essentially offered a series of concessions to the right that better implemented GOP policy than did his predecessor George H.W. Bush: NAFTA, “welfare reform” (a nicely phrased evisceration of the welfare state on which the Democratic Party had largely staked its claim to public support for several decades), even the gay-baiting Defense of Marriage Act. It’s no wonder Bartlett is so fond of the man.

It is, however, distressing to see Reagan so lionized. “I write as a Reaganite,” Bartlett declares on the first page, and his definition of “traditional conservatism” includes rejecting “the idea that government could ever be used to promote their goals in some positive sense.” The intellectual convolutions required to maintain that Reagan fit that description are mind-boggling, even if libertarian principles end at the libertarians’ wallets. This was, after all, the man whose administration undertook the illegal Iran-Contra Affair in order to subvert national self-determination for Nicaragua; who supported sodomy laws and whose administration spent $2 million dollars on the anti-pornography Meese Commission to chase after material made by and for consenting adults; whose wasteful “war on drugs” resulted in little more than the widespread incarceration of inner-city men of color; who fired striking air-traffic controllers in the name of the public good but felt no need to protect that good when it came to the banking and securities deregulation that ultimately cost the public much, much more.

On top of all that, Reagan himself ran up a sizeable deficit, exactly the major crime with which Bartlett charges Bush. Exonerating his hero on the extremely vague basis of “necessary functions like national defense,” Bartlett effaces the face that such efforts as the infamous Strategic Defense Initiative — the “Star Wars” missile defense shield — were not only expensive and ill-advised, but also blatant attempts to shovel money into the contractors of the military-industrial complex, many the same firms now war-profiteering off Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

One could easily ferret out numerous other moments of ideologically tainted moments in Impostor. Bartlett mentions the “legitimate debate” over global warming, stem cells, and missile defense, which bestows unwarranted credibility on corporate-funded deniers of scientific consensus, anti-abortion extremists operating well beyond the mainstream “pro-life” movement, and an expensive system (supported by both Reagan and the current Bush) that is not only demonstrably unsuccessful but also obsolete when it comes to protecting the U.S. from attack. He constructs an elaborate metaphor comparing the Bush administration to Enron, but then bemoans the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act intended to restore corporate accountability as “regulatory overkill.” His assertion that welfare reform was “by all accounts … a smashing success” is demonstrably false. Bartlett is the kind of two-faced conservative who proclaims faith in the “Constitution as originally understood by the Founding Fathers” over the interpretations of judges on one hand, then goes on to worry about “the ease with which people can become citizens, simply by being born on our soil.”

Last time I checked, those Founding Fathers intentionally left the Constitution open to amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment began its very first sentence by giving citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” It’s telling that Bartlett somehow casts doubt on that very straightforward clause but neglects to mention that the same Amendment gave birth to the legal personhood of corporations (the basis for their current rights) only through some rather flagrant “judicial activism” around the turn of the 20th century.

For all that, one need not share Bartlett’s flawed perspective to find his condemnation of the Bush administration persuasive. As he argues, the massive deficits being run up now will inevitably result in a future tax increase, meaning the costs of Bush’s non-policy of tax cuts combined with heavy spending are simply being passed on to future generations (one symbolic indication of this came after Impostor‘s publication, when Bush signed a $69 billion tax cut in May 2006 that eased burdens even further for the wealthy but tripled tax rates for teenagers with college savings funds; if anyone doubted Bush was a liar, this provides evidence, as it directly contravenes his 1999 promise to veto any and all tax increases). Bartlett makes a typically biased argument for a value-added tax, noting that liberals oppose such measures as regressive and conservatives oppose them as expansions of government; the latter concern he addresses by countering that Bush has already expanded government, and a VAT would simply play catch-up in reducing the deficit. Of liberal worries about the disproportionate burden on the poor, Bartlett weakly suggests VAT revenue could finance other tax modifications “that would minimize the impact on those with low incomes.” That’s a lot of faith in a government that hasn’t earned much as of late.

So Bruce Bartlett is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of those whose politics are informed by some amount of human compassion rather than dogmatic semi-libertarianism. That being said, Impostor nonetheless performs a valuable service in forcing those on the right to take seriously arguments that they routinely dismiss when voiced by those outside their sophisticated Big Lie machinery.