Bartlett, Bruce. Impostor. New York: Doubleday, 2006. ISBN 0-385-51827-7.
This book is a relentless, uncompromising, and principled attack on the administration of George W. Bush by an author whose conservative credentials are impeccable and whose knowledge of economics and public finance is authoritative; he was executive director of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress during the Reagan administration and later served in the Reagan White House and in the Treasury Department under the first president Bush. For the last ten years he was a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, which fired him in 2005 for writing this book.

Bartlett's primary interest is economics, and he focuses almost exclusively on the Bush administration's spending and tax policies here, with foreign policy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, social policy, civil liberties, and other contentious issues discussed only to the extent they affect the budget. The first chapter, titled “I Know Conservatives, and George W. Bush Is No Conservative” states the central thesis, which is documented by detailed analysis of the collapse of the policy-making process in Washington, the expensive and largely ineffective tax cuts, the ruinous Medicare prescription drug program (and the shameful way in which its known costs were covered up while the bill was rammed through Congress), the abandonment of free trade whenever there were votes to be bought, the explosion in regulation, and the pork-packed spending frenzy in the Republican controlled House and Senate which Bush has done nothing to restrain (he is the first president since John Quincy Adams to serve a full four year term and never veto a single piece of legislation). All of this is documented in almost 80 pages of notes and source references.

Bartlett is a “process” person as well as a policy wonk, and he diagnoses the roots of many of the problems as due to the Bush White House's resembling a third and fourth Nixon administration. There is the same desire for secrecy, the intense value placed on personal loyalty, the suppression of active debate in favour of a unified line, isolation from outside information and opinion, an attempt to run everything out of the White House, bypassing the policy shops and resources in the executive departments, and the paranoia induced by uniformly hostile press coverage and detestation by intellectual elites. Also Nixonesque is the free-spending attempt to buy the votes, at whatever the cost or long-term consequences, of members of groups who are unlikely in the extreme to reward Republicans for their largesse because they believe they'll always get a better deal from the Democrats.

The author concludes that the inevitable economic legacy of the Bush presidency will be large tax increases in the future, perhaps not on Bush's watch, but correctly identified as the consequences of his irresponsibility when they do come to pass. He argues that the adoption of a European-style value-added tax (VAT) is the “least bad” way to pay the bill when it comes due. The long-term damage done to conservatism and the Republican party are assessed, along with prospects for the post-Bush era.

While Bartlett was one of the first prominent conservatives to speak out against Bush, he is hardly alone today, with disgruntlement on the right seemingly restrained mostly due to lack of alternatives. And that raises a question on which this book is silent: if Bush has governed (at least in domestic economic policy) irresponsibly, incompetently, and at variance with conservative principles, what other potential candidate could have been elected instead who would have been the true heir of the Reagan legacy? Al Gore? John Kerry? John McCain? Steve Forbes? What plausible candidate in either party seems inclined and capable of turning things around instead of making them even worse? The irony, and a fundamental flaw of Empire seems to be that empires don't produce the kind of leaders which built them, or are required to avert their decline. It's fundamentally a matter of crunchiness and sogginess, and it's why empires don't last forever.

June 2006 Permalink