Tuesday, April 18, 2006

In every administration, there is always one journalist that the White House trusts above the others to represent its point of view. In this administration, it is Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard magazine.

Whenever you read one of Mr. Barnes’ columns, you know that you are getting an inside perspective. You are, in effect, reading what the White House itself is thinking on any given day on any given subject.

This is an arrangement that suits everyone. Mr. Barnes is regularly able to scoop other reporters viewed as hostile to this administration, while the administration has a conduit through which it can get its message out in relatively undiluted form.

Now Mr. Barnes has produced a book about George W. Bush, “Rebel-in-Chief,” recently published by Crown Forum. Although not explicitly authorized by Mr. Bush, the book virtually carries his endorsement by virtue of his having given Mr. Barnes an interview just for this book and allowing senior White House staffers to speak to him on the record.

It is reasonable to assume similar access would not have been granted to, say, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, viewed very negatively by the White House. Therefore, we can reasonably say Mr. Barnes’ book pretty accurately represents the White House view on various issues.

Since I have recently published a book that takes a rather dim view of Mr. Bush’s policies from a conservative viewpoint, I was naturally curious to see if there is any evidence in Mr. Barnes’ book that supports my thesis. I was not disappointed.

Early in the book, Mr. Barnes concedes Mr. Bush lacks a “conservative governing temperament.” Although insisting Mr. Bush is indeed a conservative, Mr. Barnes admits that he is “no libertarian or small government conservative,” even though he notes that virtually all Republicans are one or the other.

Mr. Bush “pays lip service” to limiting government, Mr. Barnes says. “More often than not,” Mr. Barnes goes on to say, “he relies on a bigger federal government and billions of taxpayer dollars” to achieve his goals.

Mr. Barnes says Mr. Bush has no sympathy for federalism, despite having been a state governor. “He’s favorably disposed to federal power in education and health care,” Mr. Barnes tells us.

In foreign policy, Mr. Barnes says Mr. Bush’s policies are most like those of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who said, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” (Address to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Germany, April 2, 1917.)

In a revealing comment on Mr. Bush’s consistency (or lack thereof), Mr. Barnes tries to make his frequent flip-flopping seem like a virtue — as proof he is not rigid. Says Mr. Barnes of Mr. Bush: “He proposed school vouchers, then gave up on them at the first sign of resistance. He changed his mind famously in 2002 when he switched from opposing a new Department of Homeland Security to proposing one. He flipped on the planned path to democracy in Iraq. … He disliked campaign finance reform legislation, then signed it into law.”

Mr. Barnes also admits Mr. Bush’s governing philosophy, taken on its own terms, is incoherent. “Proposing to reduce Social Security’s unfunded liability, as Bush has, just after ballooning Medicare’s with a prescription drug benefit is hardly coherent,” Mr. Barnes writes. “Nor does it make sense to sign a lavish farm subsidy bill, which Bush did, while advocating fiscal restraint.”

Though Mr. Bush is said to be famously loyal to his staff, Mr. Barnes cannot explain the firing of National Economic Council Director Larry Lindsey in 2002. He was fired “merely for show,” Mr. Barnes tells us, “a demonstration of White House concern over a struggling economy.”

This is nonsense, and Mr. Barnes knows it. It hardly makes sense to fire your chief economic adviser when your official position is that the policies he devised are working perfectly. Indeed, Mr. Barnes says Mr. Bush greeted Mr. Lindsey after the 2004 election thus: “You’re the guy whose tax cuts won the election for me. … We call it the Lindsey recovery around here.”

I still don’t know the real reason for the Lindsey firing, but Mr. Barnes only makes it more confusing. He says Mr. Bush was simply indulging in the ways of Washington, which hardly fits in with his idea Mr. Bush is a rebel who cares nothing about such things.

Toward the end of the book, Mr. Barnes more clearly says Mr. Bush is no conservative. “George W. Bush isn’t one of them,” Mr. Barnes says. On the contrary, he appeals to the “liberal instincts” of his supporters.

In his conclusion, Mr. Barnes compares Mr. Bush to Ronald Reagan on a three-point scale, with Reagan getting a full point on taxes, foreign policy and social values. Mr. Barnes gives Mr. Bush a full point only on values, with just half a point each for taxes and foreign policy. That makes Mr. Bush two-thirds of a real conservative, which sounds about right to me.

Bruce Bartlett is the author of “Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy,” just published by Doubleday.

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