Told You So

Bruce Bartlett takes a tiny bit of pleasure – after years of grief – at being proven right about the GOP's suicidal trajectory since the early Bush-Cheney years. But what's striking to me about the piece, published in the best conservative magazine in America, The American Conservative, is his account of what generally happens to intellectual honesty in today's polarized Washington.

It is actively punished.

Bruce had three intellectual crises, as he calls them. He was shocked, as I was, by the Bush administration's shameless bribery of the voters and utter contempt for fiscal balance or CBPPpublicdebtparliamentary procedure, as Medicare D proved. He was shocked when two costly- incompetently run wars were not even budgeted. He was shocked again when he observed that not only were criticisms of such recklessness not allowed, they were not even heard because the right had created its own media chamber, which kept any dissidence or intellectual challenge firmly out of earshot. So Bruce wrote a book, explaining Bush's attack on core conservative principles: balanced budgets, just wars, individual liberty and states' rights. The result?  He was swiftly fired from his think-tank job, banned from Fox News, and turned into a non-person like an airbrushed-out member of an intellectual Politburo. (Bush tools, mediocrities and war criminals, on the other hand, were gladly ushered into AEI and the op-ed pages of the Washington Post.)

I endured the same kind of thing, although I was much less polite than Bruce and had an independent platform. But it's still remarkable to me that I have not been invited on Fox for a decade – even to discuss or debate my book on, er, conservatism and fundamentalism. My book, The Conservative Soul, was not reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, and given a formal excommunication/evisceration by National Review's Jonah Goldberg. Compare this with my first book, Virtually Normal, which was reviewed positively in the Wall Street Journal and got a review in National Review that any writer would die for by a distinguished professor of political theory, Kenneth Minogue. So a radically conservative book about homosexuality was admissible, even welcome, in conservative media in 1995, but a critique of modern conservatism's decline was verboten in 2006. No links to this blog were allowed at National Review's Corner. No mention of my name ever crossed the lips of a Republican loyalist.

What Bruce and I shared was a belief that the conservatism of the 1980s, while defensible in its time with a few obvious exceptions, was irrelevant for the world that Reaganism had created. He puts it this way:

I had written an op-ed for the New York Times in 2007 suggesting that it was time to retire "supply-side economics" as a school of thought. Having been deeply involved in its development, I felt that everything important the supply-siders had to say had now been fully incorporated into mainstream economics. All that was left was nutty stuff like the Laffer Curve that alienated academic economists who were otherwise sympathetic to the supply-side view. I said the supply-siders should declare victory and go home.

That was also my theory about tax rates and the more socially liberal society that economic freedom had helped accelerate. Taxes were way lower than they had historically been, and conservatives should be glad about this but vigilant about debt and spending – not eager to cut taxes even more, especially in wartime. America was more multicultural, and one minority, gay citizens, was actively seeking greater responsibility and inclusion. But by the new millennium, low taxes were unbreakable theological truths on the right and gays were Biblically repellent and had to be re-ostracized – by amending the federal constitution no less. Then came the crash of 2008 and a whole set of ideas about self-regulating markets and risk had to be re-thought (as intellectually honest libertarians like Alan Greenspan and Richard Posner conceded). Facing this reality, Bartlett rediscovered Keynes as he actually was and recognized the salience of Keynesianism for a new crisis that was an almost textbook case for government intervention:

Annoyingly, I found myself joined at the hip to Paul Krugman, whose analysis was identical to my own. I had previously viewed Krugman as an intellectual enemy and attacked him rather colorfully in an old column that he still remembers. For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman. The blind hatred for him on the right simply pushed me further away from my old allies and comrades… The economy continues to conform to textbook Keynesianism. We still need more aggregate demand, and the Republican idea that tax cuts for the rich will save us becomes more ridiculous by the day.

We can easily become cynical about Washington. It contains a hundred times more schmoozers and social climbers and lobbyists and parasites than it does individuals genuinely committed to the common good in different ways. And of those earnest individuals, only a few are ballsy enough to follow their own reason doggedly enough to suffer social ostracism, removal from all conservative media outlets, and loss of a job – because their mind is not for sale or rent.

Bruce Bartlett is that kind of guy. We need so many more. But I'm thankful for one. And a legacy and example that will live on.

(Chart from TPM)