We’re All Nixonians Now

Bruce Bartlett is a former Reagan administration official who wrote in 2002 that President Nixon had “betrayed” conservative principles by acquiescing in big-government policies. Bartlett now argues that all conservatives will have to live with big government and higher taxes. He wants them to focus on promoting economic growth and keeping tax increases as moderate as possible:

I think conservatives would better spend their diminished political capital figuring out how to finance the welfare state at the least cost to the economy and individual liberty, rather than fighting a losing battle to slash popular spending programs. But this will require them to accept the necessity of higher revenues.

It is simply unrealistic to think that tax cuts will continue to be a viable political strategy when the budget deficit exceeds $1 trillion, as it will this year. Nor is it realistic to think that taxes can be kept at 19 percent of GDP when spending is projected to grow by about 50 percent of GDP over the next generation, according to both the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office. And that’s without any new spending programs being enacted.

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I had an enjoyable exchange of e-mails with Mr. Bartlett in response to this post. I don’t have his permission to reproduce his messages, so I won’t. But in his first one, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if I accused him of flip-flopping when it came to the need to hew to conservative principles no matter what. My reply:

I wouldn’t say a flip-flop at all. Just an irony. You make clear that we are in unanticipated times and that conservatives need a new script to match. It does seem that for nearly a century they have been fighting the same improvisational and ultimately losing rear guard action against the growth of government. Depression, World War II, Cold War, war on poverty, civil rights, Vietnam, 1980s recession, Social Security crisis, war on terrorism, war on global meltdown — in response to every crisis, government has grown. I believe it was you who demonstrated somewhere that by the end of his term Ronald Reagan himself had earned the title of biggest tax increaser ever.

I hear you saying that there’s a point at which the market will cease having an incentive to recover and grow. Perhaps one sign would be the feds telling Detroit what kinds of cars to build in the teeth of a recession. (Oops! Already happened.)

As for President Nixon, whatever his pragmatic disposition, I don’t think conservative critics have appreciated how hard it was to stay in Vietnam (which he’d determined was a vital national interest) with a Democrat-dominated Congress. He couldn’t have been more conservative if he’d wanted to (which the tapes and memos show he did, at least sometimes). In California even the governor was tacking to the center. It took the 1980s for Reagan to be Reagan. In the early 1970s, I’ll bet he would’ve been Nixon.

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