- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Just because liberals see President Bush as the personification of everything that is wrong with the world doesn’t mean that all is well on his right flank, either. Some conservatives think his tenure in office has been less than stellar and that he has squandered many opportunities to institute genuine reforms in the way government is run.

While these criticisms usually take place at think tanks and late-night bull sessions among activists and intellectuals, it is rare that they are aired in a book from a major publisher. That ‘s why “Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy” has generated so much buzz.

Bruce Bartlett, who served in the Reagan White House and the Treasury Department of the first Bush administration, has produced a well-researched book that takes aim at what he sees as the administration’s preference for political expediency over ideological purity and for its lack of intellectual rigor.

“Philosophically, he has more in common with liberals, who see no limits to state power as long as it is used to advance what they see as right. In the same way, Bush has used government to pursue a ‘conservative’ agenda as he sees it. But that is something that runs totally contrary to the restraints and limits to power inherent in the very nature of traditional conservatism,’ Mr. Bartlett writes.

He sees the fundamental premise of Mr. Bush’s philosophy of governing — “compassionate conservatism” — as a fraud and an erroneous admission that the approach taken by people like Mr. Reagan was misguided.

The author makes some compelling points that will both please and anger those on all sides of the ideological divide. The book is, however, plagued by a consistent political naivete that is surprising coming from someone who has been in the trenches for as long as Mr. Bartlett has. It is easy to criticize an administration (of either party) when you don’t have to answer to voters or 535 members of Congress, each with his or her own agenda.

Those flaws, and the author’s generally tedious writing style, notwithstanding, the book is worth paying attention to because of Mr. Bartlett’s insightful analyses of a range of issues.

The author, whose syndicated column runs in many papers including this one, is especially critical of the Medicare drug-prescription plan that passed Congress in 2003. He views it as flawed public policy and an almost surefire precursor to both larger deficits and higher taxes.

The program, he contends, is little more than an attempt to curry favor with a key block of voters. He predicts that eventually this will not be a net plus for Republicans. He is similarly hard on Mr. Bush’s trade policies (especially tariffs on foreign steel) and the overall growth in domestic spending since 2001.

Mr. Bartlett also tags the Republican-controlled Congress as enablers of Mr. Bush’s spending excesses. “Congress quickly figured out that Bush could easily be rolled on spending. Although he often threatened to veto legislation, he always backed down, usually without receiving anything more than cosmetic concessions in return,’ Mr. Bartlett writes.

He maintains that on many budget and spending issues, President Clinton’s approach was more responsible than is President Bush’s. Mr. Bartlett said Mr. Clinton’s success was partially due to the fact that he had to deal with a Republican Congress and that the two branches saved one another from their ideological extremes. The author makes a strong case that gridlock and divided government actually produce better policies. That is a sound view, though many academic experts and strong partisans see it differently.

Beyond the flaws in individual programs, the author finds fault with what he sees as a lack of serious intellectual analysis during the policy-formulation process. He cites numerous examples of advisers who were ignored or even dismissed for raising concerns about potential programs. Further, he is critical of Mr. Bush’s preference for secrecy and lack of intellectual curiosity.

While the Clinton administration often went overboard in debating issues to death and having members of his staff who leaked to the press excessively, allowing frank internal discussions of a subject often leads to policies that are more intellectually honest.

Mr. Bartlett has already been ostracized by many conservatives for having the temerity to publicly criticize what he sees as the shortcomings of the Bush presidency. That’s unfortunate, because despite the flaws of “Impostor,” the book contains constructive and important criticisms from a man who cares deeply about the future of both conservative policies and of the conservative movement.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass.


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