Building a Shrine to Reagan- Sacrificing Bush on the Altar

Oh, heaven it was to be a conservative in the 80’s. You had Ronnie Raygun in the White House, the Iron Lady at 10 Downing Street and John Paul II lording it over the Vatican. Ding! Ding! Ding! It was as if all three reels on a Vegas slot machine lined up just right. And for the triple-action bonus rounds, you got Alex P. Keaton on the box, Stryper on the radio and Red Dawn at the flicks. Wolverines!

It ain’t the same these days. I mean, O.K., there’s Benedict XVI making sure things don’t go to hell, but Tony Blair’s a Labour man, and look at the guy occupying 1600 Pennsylvania. To self-proclaimed real conservatives—defined by Bruce Bartlett as the upholders of small government, free trade, federalism and the original intent of the Constitution—George W. Bush is not one of the faithful. He had ’em fooled for a couple of years, but it’s becoming ever clearer that he’s a fraud or, still worse, a liberal, as Mr. Bartlett tries to show in Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy.

Basically, Mr. Bartlett’s theory is that George W. Bush is spending like a drunken Midwestern businessman trying to impress the strippers at Scores. He’s the first President since John Quincy Adams to serve a full term without vetoing a single budgetary item; the deficit is ballooning; and his fellow Republicans are guzzling pork faster than they can slaughter hogs.

To tax-cutting, Cato Institute–loving supply-sider conservatives like Mr. Bartlett, the Bush administration is threatening to bankrupt the country once the first boomers start drawing their Social Security benefits in a couple of years. The only way out of the mess will be to raise taxes, big time. And you know what that means: socialism. Things are getting so bad, even Bill Clinton is looking good. (Better impeached than impostor, it seems.) After all, Mr. Clinton ran surpluses and kept the budget more or less in check. Mr. Bartlett thinks, economically speaking, Mr. Clinton was first-rate, and believes Mr. Bush is the 21st century’s new Nixon (another President liberals assumed was a crazy-ass right-winger but who was, in fact, regarded by Republicans as a candy-ass lefty).

The most interesting thing about Impostor is what’s left unsaid. Republicanism is convulsing. The movement has long been schizophrenically torn between a populist, extrovert impulse to irradiate the masses with the happy glow of conservatism and a self-marginalizing instinct to amputate itself from the slights of a corrupt, fallen, secularized world.

The home-schooling phenomenon and the invention of exclusively conservative film festivals (see the American Film Renaissance at http://www.afrfilmfestival.com) are symptoms of the introvert tendency, as is the new The Politically Incorrect Guide series published by Regnery. There are three entries so far: American History, Islam and Science. (A new one’s coming out in April: Women, Sex, and Feminism.) Each of these assumes there’s a sinister conspiracy by the politically correct, all-powerful liberal elite to cover up the real “facts,” which our brave authors reveal to their followers. They are out to get us, we’re told; retreat to the hills, hole up there and stick to what you know.

The appearance of Mr. Bartlett’s Impostor shows that the populists are hitting back. Its most striking aspect is the beatification of Reagan—and there’s more to come, to judge by publishing trends: There are already 960 books about him, and the pace is picking up.

Reagan is being turned into the President against whom all future Republican Presidents (and politicians) will be measured. He’s safely dead, so it’s not as if he can complain, and he reigned sufficiently long ago that few can remember exactly where he stood on various issues (let alone on those that didn’t exist at the time, such as stem-cell research and the reconstruction efforts in Iraq).

Reagan was perfect in every way (especially if you discreetly forget weird stuff like Nancy and her psychic-friend network, or the most needlessly complex conspiracy in history, Iran-contra). Hey, he was the Great Communicator and the Gipper and a Christian—the Sun King of American politics. He was entertaining, he was rosy-cheeked, he was smart, he looked good on a horse—but, most importantly, he was loved by the people. Not only of them but for them, Reagan was the evangelist of popular conservatism and succeeded in converting an entire class of blue-collar Democrats to the side of righteousness. No wonder Republicans miss the old boy: He won 49— 49—states in 1984. Imagine pulling that trick off today.

After Sept. 11, Mr. Bush was solemnly crowned and hailed as “The Right Man” by the high priests and prophets of conservatism. Turns out His Majesty was just a fraudulent pretender to the throne. Hence Mr. Bartlett’s 310-page howl of despair at Mr. Bush’s betrayal of “the Reagan legacy.”

Putting on my Stephen Colbert hat—his shoes are too large to fill—it seems to me that a lot of this agitated Bush-baiting is the result of the President’s dreadful poll numbers. They rose like a rocket and have fallen like a stick. When he was striding, haughty as a warlord, across the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln a couple of years ago, conservatives somehow found it compatible with their consciences to keep mum about Mr. Bush’s spending habits, but they’re getting rather disheartened these days, and those Rove-imposed rictus grins are wearing off. In the upcoming Congressional elections, it’s looking increasingly likely there will be mild Senate losses and more substantial ones in the House, which may well leave the G.O.P. majority pretty slim.

Mr. Bartlett goes so far as to wonder whether an outright Republican electoral loss would be so bad: It would allow the new opposition party to reform itself without all the pressure that holding office brings. Well, perhaps. British Conservatives consoled themselves with the same advice just before John Major’s Tories were bludgeoned at the polls by Mr. Blair’s once-unelectable Labour Party—and look what happened: The Tories are still divided and still out of power nearly a decade later. Hard-core ideologues who pang for purity—like Bruce Bartlett—forget that the primary point of politics is not “vision,” or “morality,” or “principle,” but winning elections and holding power. All opposition parties can do is oppose; ruling parties govern.

Politicos, in other words, have to be realistic, which is where Mr. Bartlett trips up. The choice he presents—Mr. Bush’s big-government conservatism or Reagan’s budget-slashing small(er) government—is a misleading one. The latter is not on offer, one reason being that the day of the old-time supply-siders is waning. Resurrecting the Reagan 80’s is just not feasible in our age, and the more moderate conservatives have instead been more interested in Mr. Bush’s successful purge of the party’s quasi-Clintonite wing and his expansion of Republican power in the Supreme Court and Congress.

Granted, a Democrat would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the Republicans’ travails. How delicious is it that even the staunchest of Republicans are deserting the President? Yet Dems ought to be wary of Mr. Bartlett’s siren song. Yes, he fiercely attacks George Bush, the man they love to hate, but no, that doesn’t mean he’s on your side. Hankering after a Democratic victory is, to Mr. Bartlett, merely a tactical maneuver to force the G.O.P. to change. What he really wants is for the next Republican administration to be more right-wing than this one. So, if Democrats line up behind Bruce Bartlett and opportunistically quote him chapter and verse, perhaps they will succeed in undermining their current bête noire—but they may very well end up burying themselves.

Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring will be published by Bantam Dell in April.