“The single word most frequently associated with George W. Bush today is ‘incompetent,’ and close behind are two other increasingly mentioned descriptors: ‘idiot’ and ‘liar.’ ” So says the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, whose most recent poll found that only 33 percent of the public approves of the job President Bush is doing.
Mr. Bush, of course, bears primary responsibility for the state of his presidency. But there’s more going on here than his personal inadequacy; we’re looking at the failure of a movement as well as a man. As evidence, consider the fact that most of the conservatives now rushing to distance themselves from Mr. Bush still can’t bring themselves to criticize his actual policies. Instead, they accuse him of policy sins — in particular, of being a big spender on domestic programs — that he has not, in fact, committed.
Before I get to the bogus issue of domestic spending, let’s look at the policies the new wave of conservative Bush bashers refuses to criticize.
Mr. Bush’s new conservative critics don’t say much about the issue that most disturbs the public, the quagmire in Iraq. That’s not surprising. Commentators who acted as cheerleaders in the run-up to war, and in many cases questioned the patriotism of those of us who were skeptical, can’t criticize the decision to start this war without facing up to their own complicity in that decision.
Nor, after years of insisting that things were going well in Iraq and denouncing anyone who said otherwise, is it easy for them to criticize Mr. Bush’s almost surreal bungling of the war. (William Kristol of The Weekly Standard is the exception; he says that we never made a “serious effort” in Iraq, which will come as news to the soldiers.)
Meanwhile, the continuing allegiance of conservatives to tax cuts as the universal policy elixir prevents them from saying anything about the real sources of the federal budget deficit, in particular Mr. Bush’s unprecedented decision to cut taxes in the middle of a war. (My colleague Bob Herbert points out that the Iraq hawks chose to fight a war with other people’s children. They chose to fight it with other people’s money, too.)
They can’t even criticize Mr. Bush for the systematic dishonesty of his budgets. For one thing, that dishonesty has been apparent for five years. More than that, some prominent conservative commentators actually celebrated the administration’s dishonesty. In 2001 Time.com blogger Andrew Sullivan, writing in The New Republic, conceded that Mr. Bush wasn’t truthful about his economic policies. But Mr. Sullivan approved of the deception: “Bush has to obfuscate his real goals of reducing spending with the smokescreen of ‘compassionate conservatism.’ ” As Berkeley’s Brad DeLong puts it on his blog, conservatives knew that Mr. Bush was lying about the budget, but they thought they were in on the con.
So what’s left? Well, it’s safe for conservatives to criticize Mr. Bush for presiding over runaway growth in domestic spending, because that implies that he betrayed his conservative supporters. There’s only one problem with this criticism: it’s not true.
It’s true that federal spending as a percentage of G.D.P. rose between 2001 and 2005. But the great bulk of this increase was accounted for by increased spending on defense and homeland security, including the costs of the Iraq war, and by rising health care costs.
Conservatives aren’t criticizing Mr. Bush for his defense spending. Since the Medicare drug program didn’t start until 2006, the Bush administration can’t be blamed for the rise in health care costs before then. Whatever other fiscal excesses took place weren’t large enough to play more than a marginal role in spending growth.
So where does the notion of Bush the big spender come from? In a direct sense it comes largely from Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation, who issued a report last fall alleging that government spending was out of control. Mr. Riedl is very good at his job; his report shifts artfully back and forth among various measures of spending (nominal, real, total, domestic, discretionary, domestic discretionary), managing to convey the false impression that soaring spending on domestic social programs is a major cause of the federal budget deficit without literally lying.
But the reason conservatives fall for the Heritage spin is that it suits their purposes. They need to repudiate George W. Bush, but they can’t admit that when Mr. Bush made his key mistakes — starting an unnecessary war, and using dishonest numbers to justify tax cuts — they were cheering him on.