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Is Bush Betraying the Reagan Legacy?

This is a partial transcript from "The Journal Editorial Report," February 25, 2006, that was edited for clarity.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: When President Bush was elected, many in the conservative movement saw him as the heir apparent to the Reagan legacy of fiscal conservatism and smaller government. But my guest this week says George W. Bush has turned out to be no Ronald Reagan.

Bruce Bartlett was a domestic policy aide under President Reagan, and a deputy assistant treasury secretary under the first President Bush. He's author of the new book "Imposter: How George W. Bush bankrupted America and betrayed the Reagan Legacy."

Bruce, welcome to the program.

BRUCE BARTLETT, AUTHOR AND FORMER REAGAN AIDE: I'm happy to be here.

GIGOT: Imposter, betrayed, strong words. What's your complaint with the way President Bush has governed?

BARTLETT: Well, you said in your opening that he's no Ronald Reagan. Well, in the book I say he's not even a Bill Clinton, I'm afraid.

At least on the budget, Bill Clinton was a heck of a lot better. He actually cut spending. He reduced deficits.

This president finds no spending program worthy of a veto. And I think it's just appalling that he's five plus years into his term, into his presidency, and has never vetoed a single, solitary bill.

GIGOT: But, Bruce, one of those reasons is defense. We had a big event, here, called 9/11.

BARTLETT: That's right.

GIGOT: And Bill Clinton reduced spending, in part, because he could cut defense spending from about 5 percent of the economy to 3 percent. President Bush had to take that up. Wasn't some of this spending inevitable and even responsible given the change in the circumstances?

BARTLETT: Oh, sure. When I criticize him on spending, I leave aside defense and homeland security.

The motivation for me to write the book, in fact, was the Medicare Drug Bill, which I just think is still appalling. And a bit tongue-in-cheek, I call it the worst legislation in history.

GIGOT: There's a lot of those.

BARTLETT: Well, George Will pointed out that, well, the fugitive slave law was pretty bad too. And maybe the income tax law of 1913.

But I was just appalled by his massive support for that legislation, to ram it through the House of Representatives, against principle conservative opposition. And we know the story about Nick Smith, who was virtually bribed.

And I think that this is just going to cost us so much down the road that it's going to lead to a massive tax increase.

GIGOT: Nick Smith was a congressman from...

BARTLETT: Michigan.

GIGOT: ... Michigan. Is there any silver lining in the Medicare bill? A lot of conservatives argue that it was very expensive. We opposed it. But you got health savings accounts out of it, which have the potential to create an individual market for healthcare.

BARTLETT: Well, I think we could have gotten that anyway without spending $18 trillion to get it.

Here's a statistic. The unfunded liability of the Medicare Drug Benefit, alone, is $18 trillion in perpetuity, according to the Medicare trustees. The unfunded liability of Social Security, which the president rightly talked about the need to reform, is only $11 trillion.

We could repeal the Drug Benefit, keep Social Security exactly as it is forever without ever raising taxes or cutting benefits, and still cut $7 trillion off of our national indebtedness, just by getting rid of the Drug Benefit.

GIGOT: OK, that's spending. But you also criticize the president on taxes. And you say that the tax cut that he passed and got through Congress, first in 2001, and 2003, had no economic rationale.

BARTLETT: Yes.

GIGOT: And yet, you've had really strong economic performance since 2003, almost, you know, 10, 11 quarters of really strong growth, 4.7 percent unemployment. Weren't those a success?

BARTLETT: Well, I think that the tax cuts did help a little bit. But I think you have to differentiate between what would have happened under the normal cyclical upturn of the economy.

If you compare the upturn that we've had in this business cycle with the one after the 1991 recession, they're not that much different, and we raised taxes twice in that upturn.

So, I think, my own personal opinion is that taxes don't really effect the cyclical ups and downs of the economy. They do affect the long-term trend rate of growth. They have a lot to do with things like productivity. But that's very much in the long run.

And I think it's a mistake to look at current economic statistics and say, you know, this proves some point. I think we need to wait to see.

GIGOT: But you had it — particularly, after the stock market bubble burst and after 9/11, you had a real downturn in business investment and business confidence. And those tax cuts of 2003 were directly aimed at restoring that business confidence and business cash flow through the capital gains and dividends cuts.

That's a supply side tax cut, isn't it, Bruce?

BARTLETT: No, now don't get me wrong. I mean, I wrote columns praising those parts of the tax bill. But I think there's an awful lot of other stuff, including the tax rebate program in 2001, the kiddie credits.

There's been an awful lot of stuff that was loaded onto all those tax bills that, even you would agree, have no economic benefit whatsoever. They're the tax equivalent of pork barrel spending.

And what my real indictment of the president is, on tax policy, is, if he had had a vision of what he was trying to do when he came into office, I think a lot more could have been accomplished with the votes that were there, with the revenue that was there.

We could have virtually totally reformed the tax system and, instead, we're still talking about tax reform.

If the president had known what he was doing, or had a plan, we wouldn't be doing that.

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