Bruce Bartlett is a well-respected conservative thinker on economic matters. A former Treasury Department official, Bartlett has long been one of the few supply-siders that liberals felt they needed to take seriously. Like many libertarian-leaning conservatives, Bartlett is quite unhappy with the Bush Administration, and wrote a forthcoming book about it: Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. Bartlett's employer, the Texas-based National Center for Policy Analysis -- a libertarian/conservative think tank -- was not to pleased. So, last week, NCPA dismissed Bartlett, as it did not want to be associated with his book. Although it is not due out until early 2006, you can pre-order Impostor here.
David Brooks has sympathy for Bruce Bartlett, "a man of immense intellectual integrity." Brooks begins his latest NYT column (only available on Times Select) observing:
In an era when many commentators write whatever will affirm the prejudices of their own team, Bartlett follows his conscience and has paid a price. He was fired by his conservative think tank for being critical of President Bush.But Brooks' sympathy only goes so far, as he rejects Bartlett's charge that Bush has betrayed conservativism. According to Brooks, "Bush hasn't abandoned conservatism; he's modernized and saved it." As Brooks tells the story, "conservatism was adrift and bereft of ideas" until President Bush came along.
Almost single-handedly, Bush reconnected with the positive and idealistic instincts of middle-class Americans. He did it by recasting conservatism more significantly than anyone had since Ronald Reagan. He rejected the prejudice that the private sector is good and the public sector is bad, and he tried to use government to encourage responsible citizenship and community service. He sought to mobilize government so the children of prisoners can build their lives, so parents can get data to measure their school's performance, so millions of AIDS victims in Africa can live another day, so people around the world can dream of freedom.I agree with Brooks that President Bush never embraced a limited government agenda, but I think it is a bit much to suggest Bush has "recast" conservatism and, as Brooks goes on to suggest, laid the predicate for a new governing majority. I would further suggest that the Administration's repeated embrace of big government policies, from new entitlements and No Child Left Behind to the explosion in federal spending and campaign finance "reform," has more to do with political opportunism than a coherent governing philosophy, "conservative" or otherwise. The question for conservatives is: At what point do such actions outweigh whatever commitments to conservative policies the Bush Administration can still be expected to keep. For Bruce Bartlett that line has been crossed, and I am not far behind.
"Government should help people improve their lives, not run their lives," Bush said. This is not the Government-Is-the-Problem philosophy of the mid-'90s, but the philosophy of a governing majority party in a country where people look to government to play a positive but not overbearing role in their lives.
Last week I was critical of the National Center for Policy Analysis's decision to dismiss Bruce Bartlett for writing a book harshly critical of the Bush Administration. For a more sympathetic take on the NCPA's decision, see Zach Wendling's post here.