Former Reagan Advisor angry Bush 'bankrupted America'
Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett accused President Bush of "bankrupting" America and betraying the Reagan legacy in an interview on PBS's Tavis Smiley Show on Tuesday.
A domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan and a treasury official under President George H.W. Bush, Bartlett assailed Bush's "big government conservatism" and said he was surprised at Bush's policies, despite his campaign pledge to be a "compassionate conservative."
"In 2000 I thought that was election year rhetoric," said Bartlett. "I didn't think it meant anything. I learned the hard way as a lot of us did what he really meant it when he talked about compassionate conservatism."
When asked how the current President Bush compared to his father, Bartlett responded, "If I didn't know with a certainty they were related, I wouldn't think that they were."
Bartlett also argued that current conservative fiscal rhetoric regarding supply-side economics is outdated. "We have a completely different economic situation, completely different fiscal and tax situation and I think people are still using rhetoric that was appropriate at one time for a situation that in which it is no longer appropriate."
Bartlett was also not optimistic about the remainer of Bush's term.
"I think we are on automatic pilot," said Bartlett. "Very few administrations do much of anything the last year and a half in office. I think the best thing we can hope for is a new president who will take America in a different direction."
TAVIS SMILEY: Bruce Bartlett is a columnist who served as economic policy advisor to Ronald Reagan and later Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Department under the first President Bush. The most recent book is "Imposter: How George W. Bush bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy." Nice to have you on.
BRUCE BARTLETT: Happy to be here.
TAVIS SMILEY: Did George W. Bush do all of that?
BRUCE BARTLETT: Bankrupt America? Yes, I think that we have had something like a $20 trillion increase in the national debt under this president's watch and I think that one of these days, I don't know when, but one of these days, the chickens are going to come home to roost.
TAVIS SMILEY: When he ran for office the first time around, persons like you and other conservatives rallied around this guy as the guy you wanted in the White House now you call him, six years later, an impostor?
BRUCE BARTLETT: Well I think you are entitled to judge candidates on the basis of what they say they are going to do and then judge them later on the basis of what they do. I don't think there were very many people that anticipated that he would turn out to be the kind of president that he is.
TAVIS SMILEY: Tell me what you think happened. Where economic policies concerned, since you thought you were backing the right horse, what happened?
BRUCE BARTLETT: Well, obviously 9/11 changed a lot of things. But I think that the main thing is that it appears in retrospect this president didn't really have any clear economic plan. A lot of things were done in an ad hoc basis or based solely on political considerations without much thought as to how all the pieces fit together. And I think that led to a lot of mistakes.
TAVIS SMILEY: With all due respect to the president you slid past 9/11 and I would be the last person on earth defending George W. Bush and his economic policies but to his credit you can't just slide past 9/11. I wonder whether you are being a little bit too harsh on the president given your perspective on these matters, any president would have had a difficult time trying to keep the country on track when something like 9/11 happened out of the blue.
BRUCE BARTLETT: Obviously that's the case. But one wonders about the linkage to the Iraq war and other things of that sort. We still don't really know whether there was any connection between Iraq and 9/11 and when I said 9/11 I meant that as shorthand for all of the terror-related issues we have had to deal with the last seven years.
TAVIS SMILEY: Give me some concrete examples of what the president, two or three examples of what the president has done on fiscal policy or not done as it were that has fiscal conservatives like yourself so upset with him.
BRUCE BARTLETT: The first thing that bothered me a lot and the reason I wrote the book was because of the Medicare drug benefit, which I thought was a really bad policy because we couldn't afford it. The Medicare system was already broken and to add an enormous new entitlement on top of it without any way of funding it, I thought, was irresponsible. Secondly, I think a lot of the tax cuts were not well designed to help with economic growth and were really just the tax equivalent of pork barrel spending, just special deals for special groups. And as a consequence I don't think we have really gotten the economic benefits of the tax cuts the way we would have if they had been more targeted, made permanent in the first place instead of expiring and things of that sort.
TAVIS SMILEY: Talk to me more specifically, educate me about your point of view and view of others where these tax cuts are concerned. Because I ask that against the backdrop that I suspect most Americans, certainly those on the left, are a bit taken aback when they hear a conservative complaining about a tax cut. I can hear clearly Democrats and liberal complaining about a tax cut but why are conservatives complaining about tax cuts?
BRUCE BARTLETT: For one thing they are all expiring.
TAVIS SMILEY: Now, that makes sense to me. I get that part.
BRUCE BARTLETT: As an economist, you look at tax cuts, different kinds of tax cuts they have different effects on the economy. Some have very positive effects, some have virtually no effect at all. Some might have negative effects. If you look at the whole menu of all the different kinds of tax cuts that this president enacted, only some of them were really very helpful to economic growth and a lot of the others were not. They were just revenue that was lost to no purpose of any kind whatsoever. That's what I was getting at when I say there was not really a logic or plan in place at the beginning to tell us exactly what we should have been doing. We could have completely reformed the tax system if we had wanted to, have had a flat rate tax or any number of other things that were opportunities lost.
TAVIS SMILEY: Tell me more specifically how you think he betrayed the Reagan legacy on these matters.
BRUCE BARTLETT: The main thing is that he himself, he calls himself a big government conservative and I think that is just a contradiction in terms. Ronald Reagan was a small government conservative. I think that virtually all conservatives are small government conservatives and I think that in many ways this president is one of the biggest government presidents we have had in a long time.
TAVIS SMILEY: But again back to six years ago when he ran and you all embraced him he told you he was a different kind of conservative, he coined the phrase "compassionate conservative." What did you take that to mean?
BRUCE BARTLETT: In 2000 I thought that was election year rhetoric. I didn't think it meant anything. I learned the hard way as a lot of us did what he really meant it when he talked about compassionate conservatism. But at the time I thought it was just throw-away rhetoric that all candidates use on the campaign trail to win votes.
TAVIS SMILEY: That sounds, respectfully, a bit naive to me. If a guy is telling you upfront I'm a different kind of conservative, I have a certain level of compassion, I believe there is a role that government ought to play, government can't do everything, government ought to play a role in our lives, may it's not that he's an impostor. Maybe you just misread the entire situation.
BRUCE BARTLETT: Well, that's quite possible. I plead guilty. But an awful lot of other people were just as taken down the wrong path. I mean, I didn't know that much about George Bush except that he was the son of the former president and had been middlingly successful Governor of Texas. We have learned a great deal about this man that we know today that we didn't know in 2000.
TAVIS SMILEY: You have drawn clear distinctions between George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Since you worked for his father, how does he compare and contrast with his father on these policies?
BRUCE BARTLETT: If I didn't know with a certainty they were related, I wouldn't think that they were. I mean the father, as we recall, what got the father in trouble politically was that he had a big budget deal in 1990 that he raised taxes and what a lot of budget experts think that was one of the most important budget deals in American history. This president doesn't care one whit about the fiscal situation, doesn't worry at all about deficits or debt. His father did and his father paid a heavy political price for it. So I really think there's almost nothing -- there's nothing between the two of them in terms of fiscal policy.
TAVIS SMILEY: Finally and respectfully, you are the expert, not me, but it wasn't the supply side economics of the Reagan area in retrospect a bit overrated anyway?
TAVIS SMILEY: No, I don't think so. I think the problem is that you had a good idea that was appropriate for a certain time and place and a certain set of circumstances, and it has been carried too far. It is now -- we have a completely different economic situation, completely different fiscal and tax situation and I think people are still using rhetoric that was appropriate at one time for a situation that in which it is no longer appropriate.
TAVIS SMILEY: About 20 seconds, anything the president can do over the next two years to make Bruce Bartlett happy?
BRUCE BARTLETT: No, I don't really think so. I think we are on automatic pilot. Very few administrations do much of anything the last year and a half in office. I think the best thing we can hope for is a new president who will take America in a different direction.
TAVIS SMILEY: The new book by or latest book by Bruce Bartlett "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy." Nice to have you on program.
BRUCE BARTLETT: Thank you.