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At Conservative Forum on Bush, Everybody's a Critic

Bruce Bartlett, left, a frequent critic of the president, called the administration
Bruce Bartlett, left, a frequent critic of the president, called the administration "unconscionable" and "inept." (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

If the ancient political wisdom is correct that a charge unanswered is a charge agreed to, the Bush White House pleaded guilty yesterday at the Cato Institute to some extraordinary allegations.

"We did ask a few members of the Bush economic team to come," explained David Boaz, the think tank's executive vice president, as he moderated a discussion between two prominent conservatives about President Bush. "We didn't get that."

Now why would the administration pass up such an invitation?

Well, it could have been because of the first speaker, former Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett. Author of the new book "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy," Bartlett called the administration "unconscionable," "irresponsible," "vindictive" and "inept."

It might also have had something to do with speaker No. 2, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan. Author of the forthcoming "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It; How to Get It Back," Sullivan called Bush "reckless" and "a socialist," and accused him of betraying "almost every principle conservatism has ever stood for."

Nor was moderator Boaz a voice of moderation. He blamed Bush for "a 48 percent increase in spending in just six years," a "federalization of public schools" and "the biggest entitlement since LBJ."

True, the small-government libertarians represented by Cato have always been the odd men out of the Bush coalition. But the standing-room-only forum yesterday, where just a single questioner offered even a tepid defense of the president, underscored some deep disillusionment among conservatives over Bush's big-spending answer to Medicare and Hurricane Katrina, his vast claims of executive power, and his handling of postwar Iraq.

Bartlett, who lost his job at the free-market National Center for Policy Analysis because of his book, said that if conservatives were honest, more would join his complaint. "They're reticent to address the issues that I've raised for fear that they might have to agree with them," he told the group. "And a lot of Washington think tanks and groups of that sort, they know that this White House is very vindictive."

Waiting for the talk to start, some in the audience expressed their ambivalence.

"It's gonna hit the [bestseller] lists, I'm sure," said Cato's legal expert, Roger Pilon.

"Typical Bruce," replied John Taylor of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy.

Admitted Pilon: "He's got a lot of material to work with."


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