Conservative Economist Bruce Bartlett Gets It EXACTLY Right

In regard to the “spontaneous, grassroots” teabagger movement, and conservatives in general, in The Daily Beast:

Sample quotes, then more after the jump:

Until conservatives once again hold Republicans to the same standard they hold Democrats, they will have no credibility and deserve no respect.

I think conservative anger is misplaced. To a large extent, Obama is only cleaning up messes created by Bush. This is not to say Obama hasn’t made mistakes himself, but even they can be blamed on Bush insofar as Bush’s incompetence led to the election of a Democrat….Conservative protesters should remember that the recession, which led to so many of the policies they oppose, is almost entirely the result of Bush’s policies.

Bartlett states the obvious – which will likely get him killed these days in conservative circles. It’s become fashionable amongst conservatives these days to say that they are no longer Republicans (or that they were never really Republicans to begin with), but before I believe any given teabagger or currently-self-styled “conservative, not Republican” on this issue, I’m gonna want to see some proof that they supported Ron Paul in the last election. Or, even better, that they supported someone other than Bush in the 2004 election. Because, without that, it’s nothing than an individual attempt to avoid whatever measure of responsibility for the messes of Bush that ought to be assigned to people who voted for him.

One of the dominant pieces of conventional wisdom on both sides of the political aisle in America’s long-dominant two-party system is that if you want the best chance of seeing policies you favor enacted, you vote for the lesser of two evils. Don’t worry, I’m not about to go off on a rant about how we ought to have at least one (or more) viable third parties. We should, but that’s not the focus of this post. I bring this up solely to highlight the fact that in reality (at least until it changes), we DO have only a two-party system in America. And that the vast majority of people who consider themselves politically savvy subscribe to the “lesser of two evils” theory of voting in such a system.

But one of the inescapable flaws of such a concession, such a compromise, is that by voting for a candidate with whom you are not particularly thrilled for the primary reason that he or she is less bad than the other likely candidate, you assume a share of the responsibility for that candidate’s failings. A small share, to be sure…but a share, nonetheless. And that’s especially true if the candidate you vote for as the lesser of two evils is an incumbent. When George W. Bush was elected the first time, it could be argued that the George Bush of the campaign trail didn’t much resemble the actual George Bush of 2001-4, his first term. Apologists will rush to insist (as they have since that very day) that “9/11 changed everything,” but this is bunk, of course. Every President faces challenges, most of them unexpected. 9/11 may well have been a larger-than-average surprise and challenge…but it should not have effected such a fundamental shift in the governing philosophy from candidate Bush to President Bush. The people who voted for Bush in 2000, some of them anyway, can legitimately claim that if they’d known how he was going to govern, they wouldn’t have voted for him.

But no one who voted for Bush’s re-election can do so.

No, not even the people who are now claiming that they merely voted for the lesser of two evils, and never really supported many of Bush’s biggest blunders and least-well-liked policies in the first place. I call bullroar. Too many of these people who voted for Bush AFTER getting a good look at four years worth of what he was like as a President are now merely trying to not only escape whatever small measure of personal responsibility is theirs for re-electing him, but also are fundamentally lying, in many cases, about their own beliefs and motivations. It’s hard to blame them, in one respect, since Bush was such a disastrously bad President on so many levels – and he left office with the worst sustained approval rating in United States history. It’s understandable that, like a kid who accidentally breaks the cookie jar in an empty kitchen while trying to grab a few illicit cookies after being told not to by his mom, Bush voters might like to distance themselves from the stinking corpse of the “unitary executive” theory and the torture memos and the Iraq WMD debacle and the crashing recession and other signature Bush failures.

But, just like that kid who breaks the cookie jar while trying to get illicit cookies and then blurts out that he didn’t do it when the broken jar is discovered, Bush’s 2004 voters who are now distancing themselves from his Presidency aren’t being honest. The inescapable calculus remains: we all had four long, LONG years to figure out what we were getting with George Cheney – er, I mean “Bush.” Anyone who wanted to be able to credibly claim either that “if they’d known then what they know now…” had a second chance to vote for someone else, to correct the mistake. And anyone who now wants to claim that they don’t agree with Bush’s policies, well…same argument.

Nevertheless, as Bartlett observes in the above-linked article, many of the teabaggers and other supposed “fiscal conservatives” are attempting to do just that: to have their cake-of-Shrub, and to eat it, too. Yet, during the 2004 election, the Republican party – which presumably included most who would identify as “conservatives” before they’d identify as “Republicans” were united in their push for Bush (and against Kerry) like they’d only rarely been in the past. After the debacle of the first Bush administration, it took every drop of political skill and dirty tricks Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman possessed, along with a monumentally hapless campaign by John Kerry AND every bit of party discipline the GOP organizers could muster, to defeat Kerry in 2004: Bush was re-elected by the smallest margin of any incumbent President in history. Oh, some Presidents have been voted out after only one term (Carter, Bush’s father, etc.), so it wasn’t the worst drubbing in history. But Bush’s 2004 victory was the slimmest margin of victory ever for an incumbent. He was much closer to joining Carter and his dad’s ranks in the one-term club than he was to joining Reagan or other easily-re-elected President’s lofty ranks. Every single pro-Bush vote counted. And pretty much everyone knew it was going to be that way, going into the election. Estimates varied, but I don’t remember any credible sources claiming that it was going to be a blowout either for or against Bush.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a genuine conservative like Bruce Bartlett come right out and say, in print, what’s as obvious as the nose on Lincoln’s face at Mt. Rushmore – but which very few conservatives are even admitting, and even fewer are saying: that they, and not just George W. Bush, ruined the Republican brand. And that they ought to pay a price for it and re-think some things. Lines like this are music to any sane person’s ears:

….the extremely poor economic performance of the Bush years really set the stage for the current recession. This is apparent when we compare Bush’s two terms to Bill Clinton’s eight years. Since both took office close to a business cycle trough and left office close to a cyclical peak, this is a reasonable comparison.

You bet it is. But very few conservatives are willing to admit this. Because they know, on a fundamental level, that when the chips were down in 2004, even after much of this was already known, they simply suppressed whatever internal misgivings they might have been having (and I have my doubts that many of them were experiencing many doubts at all), and they all pulled together for old team GOP. And most of them did it not only consciously but enthusiastically. Not just as “the lesser of two evils,” as they’re claiming now, but as if Bush were near the top of the pile of people who fulfilled the most of what they’d want in a President. They talked about his toughness, his real-guy-ness (whatever the heck that means when used in reference to a Connecticut-and-Maine-bred, Harvard-and-Yale-educated scion of one of the most powerful political families in American history, next to maybe the Kennedys). And they talked about how he’d been fundamentally RIGHT on so many issues. Indeed, the Dick Cheney/Karl Rove school of never giving any ground in ideological debates or arguments, never admitting fault or flaw unless there was absolutely NO way to avoid it, was often noted as one of the hallmarks not only of the Bush Presidency, but of the zeal of his supporters, too.

And now, many of these same supporters are trying to distance themselves from the retroactively radioactive Bush Presidency. Well, no dice, gang: you weren’t just along for the ride, but sitting in the back seat with nervous hesitations on the tips of your tongues. Nope, you guys were up front, sharing the whiskey bottle with Dubya as he drove drunk across the political landscape and the Constitution. And you told anyone who DID have misgivings to shut the hell up, or else leave the country. And for those who refused, you branded them “objectively pro-terrorist” or people who “want America to fail,” or – my favorite – created entire horror-movie spoofs to lampoon Democrats who suggested that perhaps the Bush tax cuts mightn’t be the best idea anymore, with so much money being spent in Iraq, Afghanistan, New Orleans and with the economy not doing well. Just repealing the enormous Bush tax cuts to restore some basic sanity to the system and stop the hemorrhaging was twisted around into a “huge tax increase.” But spending trillions in Iraq (and not even putting it in the budget) was apparently just fine.

So, no – to the extent that conservatives wanted to display their disgust of the policies they now claim to have loathed about Bush, they had their shot. And very, VERY few of them took it. Show me a Ron Paul voter in 2008, and I’ll give that person a pass. I don’t agree with their positions, but they had the courage of their convictions. But even Ron Paul voters, if they voted in 2004 to reelect one of the biggest deficit spenders since, well, Reagan (LOL), aren’t credible. There ARE fiscal conservatives in America….but you won’t find many of them in the ranks of the teabaggers or the GOP. They made their bed, now they should lie in it. As Bartlett notes:

Conservatives delude themselves that the Bush tax cuts worked and that the best medicine for America’s economic woes is more tax cuts; at a minimum, any tax increase would be economic poison. They forget that Ronald Reagan worked hard to pass one of the largest tax increases in American history in September 1982, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, even though the nation was still in a recession that didn’t end until November of that year. Indeed, one could easily argue that the enactment of that legislation was a critical prerequisite to recovery because it led to a decline in interest rates. The same could be said of Clinton’s 1993 tax increase, which many conservatives predicted would cause a recession but led to one of the biggest economic booms in history.

Yup. And it’s not even all that hard to see this stuff…but conservatives — especially self-styled “fiscal conservatives” of the libertarian/Ayn Randist bent — either are pretty myopic, or work very hard to delude not only others but also themselves about this point and several others. But people – including some very well-credentialed and significant conservatives such as Bartlett (not to mention many American people in general) aren’t buying it:

In my opinion, conservative activists, who seem to believe that the louder they shout the more correct their beliefs must be, are less angry about Obama’s policies than they are about having lost the White House in 2008. They are primarily Republican Party hacks trying to overturn the election results, not representatives of a true grassroots revolt against liberal policies. If that were the case they would have been out demonstrating against the Medicare drug benefit, the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, and all the pork-barrel spending that Bush refused to veto.

That kind of rhetorical incisiveness (and perception) would hurt any self-respecting Bush supporter, coming from anyone. But coming from a guy like Bartlett? It’s razor-wire. Only, as Bartlett repeatedly points out, the people out teabagging and shouting about deficits and fiscal responsibility and Obama’s dangerous policies lack virtually all credibility, for exactly the reasons he outlines in his article. But even that isn’t the icing on the razor-wire. Liberal blogger Steve Benen at the Washington Note had an off-line email conversation with Bartlett after the publication of this article, and – with Bartlett’s permission, reprints some of Bartlett’s comments in his column. Here’s the real kicker:

I believe that political parties should do penance for their mistakes and just losing power is not enough. Part of that involves understanding why those mistakes were made and how to prevent them from happening again. Republicans, however, have done no penance. They just pretend that they did nothing wrong. But until they do penance they don’t deserve any credibility and should be ignored until they do. That’s what my attacks on Bush are all about. I want Republicans to admit they were wrong about him, accept blame for his mistakes, and take some meaningful action to keep them from happening again. Bush should be treated as a pariah, as Richard Nixon was for many years until he rebuilt his credibility by more or less coming clean about Watergate with David Frost and writing a number of thoughtful books.

One reason this isn’t happening is because the media don’t treat Republicans as if they are discredited. On the contrary, they often seem to be treated as if they have more credibility than the administration. Just look at the silly issue of death panels. The media should have laughed it out the window, ridiculed it or at least ignored it once it was determined that there was no basis to the charge. Instead, those making the most outlandish charges are treated with deference and respect, while those that actually have credibility on the subject are treated as equals at best and often with deep skepticism, as if they are the ones with an ax to grind.

Too right, on all counts. And it’s a depressing statement on the current state of conservatism and its ability to be self-aware and honest, that I’m genuinely shocked that such insight came from a conservative.