Bruce Bartlett is the author of “Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy.” In this question and answer session, Bartlett explains why Bush is not what he says he is, nor what we think he is.
When you say George W. Bush is not a conservative, what do you mean?
A bedrock principle of conservatism is small government. Bush has made no effort whatsoever to restrain the growth of government and has greatly increased domestic spending, created a new entitlement program for prescription drugs, failed to veto a single bill and expanded both the size and scope of government in many ways quite apart from national defense and homeland security. Therefore, he is not a conservative.
Even if he is not a traditional conservative, do you think his policies have been effective?
Depends on how one defines “effective.” In terms of achieving re-election, they were minimally effective. But I think he would have done just as well electorally if he had supported policies that were more consistent with the conservative philosophy. For example, he could have supported a more limited and targeted prescription drug plan that would have cost taxpayers much less. He could have supported tax cuts that did much more to achieve fundamental reform. In terms of the economy, I don’t think his policies have mattered all that much. The normal workings of the business cycle would have given us growth and unemployment rates about the same as what we got even if there had been no tax cuts, in my opinion.
Which president has the better budget: G.W. Bush or Clinton?
There is no contest here-Clinton was unquestionably better. He actually vetoed bills because they spent too much and significantly reduced overall government spending.
Why do you describe the Bush Administration as a policy vacuum?
Having worked in the White House, at the Treasury Department, and in the House and Senate, I have a pretty good idea of how the policy development system should operate. It involves serious study and analysis of important issues, consultation with outside experts and Congress, and an open and transparent system for review and input from the public and affected parties. But this White House will have none of that. Policies are developed on the fly and in secret with little or no analysis or forethought, and then rammed through a compliant Congress, often without anyone knowing the full details. This is a bad system that leads to mistakes, most obviously in the case of the inept implementation of the prescription drug program. Although I do not explicitly draw this connection in the book, I think many of our problems in Iraq are also due to a poor policy development process.
What went wrong with Bush’s tax cuts?
I think there was never any plan for what the tax cuts were supposed to achieve substantively. Many of the provisions enacted are the tax-equivalent of pork-barrel spending, which lost a lot of revenue while doing little or nothing to increase economic growth or improve the structure of the tax system.
Why do you call the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill the worst legislation in history?
As the Baby Boom generation ages, the federal government faces enormous financial problems as that huge age group begins drawing Social Security and Medicare. Even if the drug benefit were never enacted, we would be facing a financial crisis in coming decades. Hence, the prudent thing to have done would have been to find ways to reduce those financial pressures by, for example, raising the retirement age. Instead, Bush made those problems vastly worse. Inevitably, this is going to lead to price controls on drugs, which will dry up research and development. Thus, in the long run, we will have no infrastructure to find new drugs to deal with new diseases like bird flu and others.
How is the collapse of Enron a metaphor for Bush’s economic policy?
As I say in the book, Enron borrowed heavily, paid little in taxes, and made big profits in ways that were known to be contrary to sound business practices. But for a while, its system seemed to work, until its basic unsoundness caused it to collapse. I see this as a metaphor for Bush’s policies because they are also based on a huge increase in debt, tax cuts, and an unsound increase in federal financial commitments at a time when such commitments should have been scaled back, rather than increased.
In what ways are Bush and Reagan similar? And Bush and Nixon?
I think Bush’s policies have far more in common with Nixon’s policies than Reagan’s. Reagan tried to downsize government, deregulate and cut taxes in very specific ways designed to increase growth, and improve the tax system. Nixon greatly increased spending and regulation and was utterly unconcerned about conservative principles. His one and only aim was to gain re-election. But the basic unsoundness of his policies eventually came crashing down, destroying Nixon’s presidency in the process. By contrast, Reagan’s reputation only continues to grow. I think in future years, historians are more likely to associate Bush with Nixon than with Reagan.
Why do you think a Bush tax increase is inevitable?
In the long run, spending has to be paid for with taxes. Since I see no evidence that this president or this Congress have the slightest desire to cut spending, higher taxes are therefore inevitable.
Would you raise or lower taxes? If so, how?
I would like taxes to be as low as possible to fund the essential functions of government. I think it would be unwise to cut taxes further UNLESS accompanied by cuts in spending.
How do you think the 2006 congressional elections will play out of the Republicans?
I think it is likely that Republicans will suffer significant losses. The main reason is that the conservative base of the party is dispirited by Bush’s “Big Government” policies. With the Democratic base likely to be energized by Iraq and Republican political corruption, epitomized by the Abramoff scandal, Democrats will probably do very well and pick up seats in both the House and Senate.
Why is the virtue of gridlock the most powerful argument that a Democratic presidential candidate will have in 2008 election?
I don’t think the American people trust either party to completely run all branches of government. They are happy with gridlock, putting each party in a position to veto the other’s excesses, thus ensuring that only policies with broad support are enacted into law. I believe that gridlock after 1994, when Republicans took control of Congress, is a key reason for the emergence of budget surpluses in the 1990s