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."
Bartlett certainly thought so. He began by predicting a big tax increase "to finance the inevitable growth of government that is in the pipeline that President Bush is largely responsible for." He also said many fellow conservatives don't know about the "quite dreadful" traits of the administration, such as the absence of "anybody who does any serious analysis" on policy issues.
Boaz assured the audience that he told the White House that "if there's a rebuttal to what Bruce has said, please come and provide it."
Instead, Sullivan was on hand to second the critique. "This is a big-government agenda," he said. "It is fueled by a new ideology, the ideology of Christian fundamentalism." The bearded pundit offered his own indictment of Bush: "complete contempt" for democratic processes, torture of detainees, ignoring habeas corpus and a "vast expansion of the federal government." The notion, he said, that the "Thatcher-Reagan legacy that many of us grew up to love and support would end this way is an astonishing paradox and a great tragedy."
The question period gave the two a chance to come up with new insults.
"If Bush were running today against Bill Clinton, I'd vote for Clinton," Bartlett served.
"You have to understand the people in this administration have no principles," Sullivan volleyed. "Any principles that get in the way of the electoral map have to be dispensed with."
Boaz renewed his plea. "Any Bush economists hiding in the audience?"
There was, in fact, one Bush Treasury official on the attendance roster, but he did not surface. The only man who came close to defending Bush, environmental conservative Fred Singer, said he was "willing to overlook" the faults because of the president's Supreme Court nominations. Even Richard Walker, representing the think tank that fired Bartlett, declined to argue. "I agree with most of it," he said later.
Unchallenged, the Bartlett-Sullivan tag team continued. "The entire intellectual game has been given away by the Republican president," said Sullivan. "He's a socialist in so many respects, a Christian socialist."
Bartlett argued that Richard Nixon "is the model for everything Bush is doing."
Sullivan said Karl Rove's political strategy is "pathetic."
Bartlett said that "the administration lies about budget numbers."
"He is not a responsible human being; he is a phenomenally reckless human being," Sullivan proclaimed. "There is a level of recklessness involved that is beyond any ideology."
"Gosh," Boaz interjected. "I wish we had a senior White House aide up here."