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June 22, 2006
George Bush, Nonessential Conservative
Joseph J. Thorndike

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George Bush, Nonessential Conservative

Joseph J. Thorndike is a contributing editor with Tax Analysts. E-mail:

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Is George W. Bush a real conservative? It's a simple question, but not an easy one. For years, true believers on the right have challenged W's conservative bona fides, pointing to his predilection for big government (with Medicare drug coverage leading the litany of complaints).

More recently, Bush's plunging popularity has emboldened conservative critics, and several have tried to read him out of the movement. Even worse, they have compared him with the archetypal conservative apostate: Richard Nixon. As Jonah Goldberg observed recently in the National Review:

    Bush is certainly to the right of Nixon on many issues. But at the philosophical level, he shares the Nixonians' supreme confidence in the power of the state. Bush rejects limited government and many of the philosophical assumptions that underlie that position. He favors instead strong government. He believes, as he said in 2003, that when "somebody hurts, government has got to move." His compassionate conservatism shares with Nixon's moderate Republicanism a core faith that not only can the government love you, but it should spend money to prove its love.

Some Kind of Conservative

Liberals have rebuffed this campaign to banish Bush from the ideological island, insisting that the president is, in fact, a true- blue conservative (if that phrase can survive its oxymoronic quality in this era of the red state-blue state trope). "Bush's right- wing corporatism may not reflect the kind of conservatism that most right-leaning activists prefer," Jonathan Chait has written in The New Republic, "but it is a kind of conservatism, and certainly not liberalism or moderation."

Indeed, liberals are determined to pin a scarlet W on every Republican running for office. Bush's failures are best explained as a product of conservative ideology, not by some ostensible repudiation of it. The conservative commitment to limited government has doomed Republican governance to failure. As Boston University Prof. Alan Wolfe has wryly commented: "Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well."

All this debate over Bush's standing as a conservative presupposes some sort of definition for conservatism itself. But is there such a thing? Political labels like "liberal" and "conservative" are notoriously malleable, their meaning fluid across time and place. Until the 1930s, for instance, few Democrats would have called themselves liberals -- a term that was reserved for Republicans, including Herbert Hoover. Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers appropriated the label to help advance their statist response to the Great Depression.

Indeed, political anthropologists (and the historians who revere them) have long scorned efforts to discretely define protean concepts like conservatism. Such a project is misguided, a form of "essentialism" that ignores the messy give-and-take of real- world politics. Conservatism, like any other idea, is a social construct. And like every construct, it is constantly in flux, with different versions of conservatism vying for dominance. What lies at the core of modern conservatism, after all? A devotion to limited government? Property rights? Unilateralist, muscular foreign policy? Traditional values (with "tradition" itself being a slippery and contested notion)?

Essential Conservatism

All those ideas have a place in modern conservatism, but trying to tease them apart is a fool's errand. But let's be foolish, at least for a while. Essentialism may be a cardinal sin, but it's also a handy heuristic device. And while it may not stand close scrutiny, it has some powerful, intuitive appeal. There is something at the core of modern conservatism, and we all know what it is. It is a means to an end that has become an end in itself: cutting taxes.

In his recent article for the Washington Monthly, Wolfe located the heart of modern conservatism in its commitment to limited government. That seems plausible enough; amid all the swirling and often contradictory elements of conservative ideology, this one seems more dominant than most.

More to the point, however, Wolfe identifies tax cuts as the chosen vehicle for advancing that goal. "One thought, and one thought only, guided Bush and his Republican allies since they assumed power in the wake of Bush vs. Gore: taxes must be cut, and the more they are cut -- especially in ways benefiting the rich -- the better," he wrote. That is an overstatement, of course, tuned to the polemical pitch of a liberal political journal. But Wolfe is close to the mark. If small government has been the goal, tax cuts have been the means for pursuing it.

But of course, cutting taxes doesn't shrink government, at least not by itself. Spending is a better barometer of government activism than taxing, and tax cuts without spending cuts can actually increase the size and intrusiveness of the state. Which brings us back to the conservative critique of the Bush administration and to one disgruntled libertarian in particular.

In February economist Bruce Bartlett published Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. The book has met with wide acclaim, at least on the left. Bartlett has become every liberal's favorite conservative, his libertarian and supply-side convictions forgivable in the context of his stinging and compelling indictment of the Bush administration.

Bartlett pulls no punches, joining the Bush-as-Nixon bandwagon and casting W from the land of true conservatism. He acknowledges that the president "has used government to pursue a 'conservative' agenda as he sees it." But it's not a form of conservatism worthy of the name. Bush's ideology, implicit in his governance if not his rhetoric, embraces the notion of big government. As such, it "runs totally contrary to the restraints and limits of power inherent in the very nature of traditional conservatism," Bartlett maintains. That is no small sin. In fact, it vitiates any claim that Bush may have to the mantle of conservatism.

"In short," Bartlett declares, "he is an impostor, a pretend conservative."

Conservative Tax Increases

Those are strong words, and they have made Bartlett a pariah in some Republican circles. But he argues passionately and cogently that Bush has done great violence to modern conservatism. While vowing to shrink the size of government, he has dramatically expanded it. And by undermining the nation's long-term fiscal health, he has ensured even greater violence to come.

When it comes to taxes, Bartlett has some solid conservative street cred. He is, by inclination and education, a tax cutter and a tax reformer. Left to his own devices, he would shift the tax base to consumption, keep rates low, and eliminate the estate tax. But he would also balance the books. Cutting taxes without also cutting spending makes no sense, he argues -- not for conservatives and not for anyone else.

Throughout his presidency, Bush has made tax cuts the centerpiece of his domestic policy. But the administration's certain legacy will be a huge tax increase, Bartlett predicts: "It may not come on his watch, but it is inevitable and will be the direct result of Bush's policies."

Generally speaking, Bartlett considers the Bush tax cuts to be poor policy, designed to serve political rather than economic ends. "The bulk of the Bush tax cuts were simply giveaways, little different, economically, from government spending," he contends. He reserves special scorn for the various "rebates" that seem popular among GOP policymakers, as well as most tax credits. Taken as a whole, tax policy in the Bush years has been marked by the triumph of expedience over efficiency. The administration has done little to advance the cause of limited government.

To be sure, Republicans have conjured up a conservative rationale for their tax cuts, offering a "starve the beast" theory of federal finance. That idea found its clearest expression in the words of the Great Communicator: "Well, you know, we can lecture our children about extravagance until we run out of voice and breath," declared Ronald Reagan in 1981. "Or we can cure their extravagance by simply reducing their allowance." In other words, tax cuts would force lawmakers to cut spending, lest they drown in a sea of red ink.

As it happened, lawmakers discovered that they rather liked a nice, deep shade of red, and rising deficits have done nothing to reduce federal spending or even slow it. Bartlett cites research by William Niskanen of the Cato Institute indicating that tax cuts have often produced more government spending, not less.

But most Republicans have ignored that hard fact, Bartlett says, happily cutting taxes without any commensurate reduction in spending. And as a result, the size of government has actually been growing -- hardly a triumph for conservative ideology. And as entitlement spending continues to grow, this problem will get much, much worse.

For Bartlett, as for many other conservatives, Bush's Medicare drug program was the final straw. "Passage of the drug bill convinced me that there was no longer any hope that Republicans would even hold the line on spending, let alone cut it," he recalls. Bartlett resigned himself to the notion that government was big and getting bigger.

Given that reality, the only responsible course for a good conservative like Bartlett was to swallow hard and find some way to pay the bills. Bartlett supports a value added tax, arguing that a broad-based consumption levy would improve incentives and might even reduce the total economic burden of taxation, even as the tax burden itself continues to rise. He's not exactly happy about the prospect, describing it as the "least bad way" of paying for big government. But it's better than the alternatives: unchecked debt or higher income taxes.

"Even if no new programs are enacted and discretionary programs are cut to the bone, entitlement programs will grow beyond the ability to fund them without higher revenues," Bartlett concludes. "We can raise those revenues in a smart way or we can raise them in a stupid way."

Many of Bartlett's conservative colleagues complain that he has thrown in the towel, and in a sense, he has. But so, too, have many of those very same colleagues; they're just prudent enough to keep their opinions to themselves.

Let's be grateful that Bartlett is more reckless. He has convincingly refuted the notion that tax cuts are the mark of modern conservatism, or at least the mark of meaningful conservatism. Cutting taxes doesn't make someone a conservative, any more than raising taxes makes them a liberal. Tax policy is a means to an end, but for many Republicans -- and George Bush in particular -- they have become the end itself. The tail has been wagging the dog.

If conservatives want to banish Bush from the fold, who can blame them. If we think labels like conservatism have any sort of meaning, George Bush is no conservative. He just plays one on TV.