Conservatives Express Displeasure with Bush Reading editorials in newspapers and magazines, many conservatives are increasingly unhappy with President Bush's performance -- and they're distancing themselves from his policies. Two conservatives tell us why.
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Conservatives Express Displeasure with Bush

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Conservatives Express Displeasure with Bush

Conservatives Express Displeasure with Bush

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, Dr. Mehmet Oz joins Neal Conan to talk about what patients can do to get better healthcare.

Now it's time for our opinion page. This past Sunday the Los Angeles Times Current section focused on the growing divide within the Republican Party. They featured several Republicans who wrote about why conservatives are increasingly unhappy with the president. We speak to two of them today. Bruce Bartlett is the former Economic Advisor to the Reagan and first Bush White House. In his piece he writes that the President spends too much to be a real conservative.

And the other is Jeffrey Hart, Senior Editor at the National Review Magazine. He wrote about how a right-wing ideologue is different from a true conservative.

Are you Republican? Do you see a growing divide among conservatives? Join the conversation. Call us at 800-989-TALK. Our email address is

In addition to being an economist, Bruce Bartlett is also author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. He joins us now from his home in Great Falls, Virginia. Welcome Bruce.

Mr. BRUCE BARTLETT (Economic Advisor, Reagan and first Bush White House): Happy to be here.

MARTIN: And Jeffrey Hart, a former Reagan speechwriter has a new book out called The Making of the American Conservative Mind. He joins us from his home in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jeffrey Hart did I pronounce that properly?

Mr. JEFFREY HART (Author, The Making of the American Conservative Mind): Hello. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Ok, thank you. Let's start off with Bruce. Your piece is titled He Spends Too Much to be One of Us. Fiscal restraint is a core conservative principal. In your eyes is this the president's biggest failing?

MR. BARTLETT: Well, it is from my point of view. I mean, I'm an economist. I'm primarily interested in economic and fiscal issues. Other people may have, you know, different emphases, whatever the word is, and I think that the one thing that it seems to me that defines every person who considers themselves to be right of center in any way whatsoever politically, is that they believe in small government--or at least the smallest possible government to do what needs to be done. And I think that this president, I mean, his own supporters call him a big government conservative. And I just think that's a contradiction in terms.

MARTIN: So is this, but is this a new revelation on your part?

MR. BARTLETT: No, but, you know, politicians say all kinds of things and do other things, and sometimes they have to do things for political reasons and it takes awhile to figure out that what somebody says that you thought perhaps was just political rhetoric really reflects what they actually believe. And I think that's what the case was with me.

Is, you know, certainly one can find evidence, and I present it in my book, that Bush has always been a big government guy. It just took me awhile to realize that he meant it. And I realized it finally when he ran the Medicare drug benefit through Congress.

MARTIN: In your piece you start off by saying that as a lifelong conservative you have to be honest with yourself, George W. Bush is not one of us, has never been. But one of the hallmarks of this presidency has been the very strong support that the president has gotten from his party and from self-identified conservatives. So, given that this is your point of view, and I would assume that it's shared by others, because the facts are what they are, why do you think that the president has enjoyed the support to this point?

MR. BARTLETT: Well, certainly the war on terror, the war in Iraq has been a major factor. All conservatives generally tend to circle the wagons around the president in times of war. I think other conservatives emphasize the importance of his judicial appointment. Many think that getting Alito and Roberts on the Court is sufficient to justify, you know, some transgressions in the area of spending.

But I think the main thing that has kept conservatives behind Bush has been the extraordinarily intense attacks upon him from Democrats and those on the left. And there's a tendency for them to think well, gees, if they hate him so much he must be doing something right, even though I can't quite see what it is.

MARTIN: So, you know, I can talk about him, but don't you talk about him.

MR. BARTLETT: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: You mentioned the Iraq war, I think this is a good time to bring in Jeffrey Hart. Jeffrey you argue that the problem with the president's version of conservatism is that he is an ideologue. And by definition you say conservatism is the politics of reality--that phrase, according to William F. Buckley.

So how do you--why do you describe President Bush as an ideologue and why do you say that that does not fit into your understanding of what conservatism should be?

JEFFREY HART (Former Reagan Speechwriter): I'd like to cite two examples, one having to do with Iraq and the other having to do with stem cell research. And they both exhibit ideology, which is in conflict with actuality.

In a speech before the American Enterprise Institute in 2003, Bush said this, and I quote from memory: Cultures may differ but all people all over the world desire the same good things in their hearts.

That is simply not true, as shown by history, by personal experience, and by current events. Mohammed Atta did not desire the same things when he flew his plane into the skyscrapers, the World Trade Center--as the people going to work that morning wanted.

Also, the Sunnis and Shiites and the Kurds don't all want the same things in their hearts. This ideology comes from Locke and Rousseau and also having and also had an exponent Woodrow Wilson who wanted to make the world safe for democracy. But to stick up for Wilson, he wasn't thinking of Mesopotamia.

Now, on stem cell research, Bush says this: It's wrong to destroy life in order to save life. Now, the word life there means two different things. Destroy life means a dozen cells that produce the stem cells--which might save life--which means an infant or an adult with a devastating and probably fatal disease.

The twelve cells do not outweigh the person who has already been born and has these devastating diseases. If you believe that a dozen cells are more important than an infant, you believe anything.

MARTIN: Jeffrey, may I ask you, Mr. Hart, if you are like Bruce in that you simply assumed that when the president laid down these themes early in his tenure and during the campaign, that he was simply doing what he needed to do to be elected and that you didn't really believe him when he said these things, that it's just over time you've come to this understanding. Because I guess that's what I'm fascinated by is why now, six years into his term?

Mr. HART: Are you asking me that?

MARTIN: Yes, Mr. Hart. Yes.

Mr. HART: Yes. Bush has a very important evangelical Christian base. And I think they fuel his position, called the right to life, on these cells, for example. But the right to life certainly doesn't evaporate at birth. If the cells have a right to life, so does the child with devastating diabetes.

I think Bush believes it. In that sense, he is an ideologue.

MARTIN: But did you not believe him when he told us who he was during the campaign? That would be my question to you because remember during the debate he was asked, who was the most important philosopher in your life. And he said Jesus Christ. I think he was making it very clear what his priorities were and where he's...

Mr. HART: He wasn't talking about stem cells nor about the right to life or that the cells outweigh a child. That's a Bushism. And, for example, John Danforth, who left the Senate to become an Episcopal minister, is for the stem cell research. He's fighting for it right now in Missouri.

And it's pure ideology. I think Bush does believe it because he behaves as if he does. And in a way it doesn't matter what a politician thinks. It's how he behaves and what he does, what he thinks is for his biographer but it's not part of politics.

MARTIN: Just a brief point of clarification, Mr. Hart. Senator Danforth was an Episcopal priest throughout his term in the Senate. He was always a serving the Eucharist throughout his term. He served every Sunday. He was a priest before he became a senator, just as a sort of point of clarification.

But let's bring a caller in, Stephanie in Lafayette, California. Stephanie, what's on your mind?

STEPHANIE (Caller): Well, I was born in, you know, I was from southern California, so Orange County Republican. And this person is not a Republican nor is he a conservative and I would say mainly because of his spending habits. He's willing to cut things that benefit the United States citizenry but spend us into oblivion over things that we cannot afford.

And he simply keeps raising, and raising, and raising our deficit. And when I grew up as a conservative, we were taught to be in our means. We were taught to spend only the money we had, and not to borrow. And he borrows, and borrows, and borrows.

And I'm also a United Methodist. And he is no United Methodist. He wants to call himself several things, that's fine. But I don't recognize what kind of Christian he is.

MARTIN: Thank you, Stephanie. Bruce Bartlett, do you think that Stephanie's anger is widespread? Do you share it? And where do you think the president should start to set things right with voters like her?

BARTLETT: Well, I think that her views are, I think they've always been there, but I think they're becoming more vocal. I think a big part of it is that we are now past the election. I think a lot of conservatives have, you know, bottled up their frustration with Bush about a wide variety of issues, not just those that bother me or Professor Hart.

But they were afraid to speak out for fear of helping the enemy, so to speak. That is, to help the democrats by criticizing their own side. And since the Democrats who were running, such as Gore and Kerry, seemed to be so far off the scales worse, from the point of view of a conservative, they felt like they had no choice but to support Bush as the lesser of evils.

But now he's in a second term. He can't run for re-election. Republican Party has to pick a new leader in 2008. Now, I think, is the time when, just in the natural cycle of things, people are going to be speaking out about these kinds of things.

MARTIN: And I want to remind our listeners that you can join the conversation by calling 1-800-989-8255. And I'd also like to ask Jeremy in South Bend, Indiana, to join the conversation. Jeremy, what's on your mind?

JEREMY (Caller): Yes, I'm listening to this conversation. I've seen Mr. Bartlett on other shows and I'm interested in his work. I do think that some of what's been said is a little bit factually incorrect that somehow most conservatives in the country were bottling up this discontent with Bush during the election.

I mean, Bush, before the election--of conservative Republicans, had well over 80 percent, and strong majority thinks--they strongly supported him. That's higher than Reagan ever got. That's higher than Nixon ever had.

And it seems to me that there's a significant divide between, on the one hand, most conservatives who, for example, supported Harriet Miers' nomination; who support the war in Iraq; who don't see a big problem with the deficit; who don't see a big problem with the prescription drug benefit; and then the beltway conservatives who--many of their points I may respect, but seem to be a very small minority of the Republican Party and somehow take it upon themselves to speak for what conservatism is, even though they're at odds with much of the country. For example, the prescription drug benefit it's extremely popular and almost necessary from the point of politics.

Mr. BARTLETT: Well, that's just factually incorrect. The polls show that the prescription drug benefit is not popular. The polls show that even the people who receive the benefit, the seniors over age 65, oppose it by a two to one majority.

And I certainly don't claim to speak for a majority of conservatives when I talk about the growing distance between Bush and conservatives. I'm really talking about the intelligentsia. And they have, because I talk to them on a daily basis, they have kept a lot of their concerns bottled up or hidden in below the mainstream media's radar in places like blogs.

But now I think that they're coming out and publicly saying and putting their names on things of criticism of the president that they wouldn't have done, say, two years ago.

MARTIN: Jeremy, would you like to add a point? But before you do...

JEREMY: Yes...

MARTIN: ...sorry, Jeremy. Hold on. I just need to take a short break to say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News.

JEREMY: I know that this particular incarnation of the prescription drug benefit is quite unpopular. But before Bush, before it was ever passed, the whole idea of a prescription drug benefit was absolutely popular and seemed indispensable for both parties.

And the point about the intelligentsia, which I'm glad you make that distinction because I think it's quite important. Although, I mean, I've read, for example, George Will, over the last five years making very many criticisms.

And many of the criticisms I don't really think are from that much of a conservative perspective. The idea that there's not principle behind the foreign policy. The idea that he passes off on massive pork barrel spending.

That's in Will, but you can see that just as much in stuff like Paul Krugman and many other critics of Bush that aren't necessarily conservative. And yet conservatives want to come out and say this is the conservative critique when it seems to me it could be made from any number of perspectives.

MARTIN: Thank you, Jeremy. Jeffrey Hart, what about Jeremy's point that there is a conservative intelligentsia, which is disillusioned, but that the grass roots still supports the president, as in Harriet Miers' example, which was in fact true that the survey showed that the republican voters, the Republican voters in the main were willing to take the president's word that she was the right choice.

Mr. HART: There's two points to be made here. The first is that Bruce, of course, is right. And I think the disillusion among the intellectuals came first. But now Bush stands at 34 percent approval rating in the polls, and that includes Republicans and...

MARTIN: The end of show?

Mr. HART: ...Dick Cheney is down to 18 percent. That's approaching the statistical era range. Jay Leno actually...

MARTIN: Do we have time for one more call?

Mr. HART: Eighteen percent, yes. And Jay Leno joked that it's not 18 percent, it's 18 people.

MARTIN: We have time for one more comment. OK. Bruce Bartlett, what about you? Do you think that--well, actually no. Let me go in a different direction here because we only have a couple of seconds left.

What would you want to see from the president at this point in his term to set things right with conservatives or to return to a path? Do you think that that's possible for the president to, in your estimation, to return to a more conservative course in the time he has left, given the political commitments he's already made, given the spending that he would need, that needs to continue to fulfill his commitments in Iraq, for example, as well as the domestic policy agenda that he's laid out.

What can he do to set things right with you?

Mr. BARTLETT: It may not be impossible but it would certainly be very difficult. He simply doesn't have enough time left in his presidency to do anything really significant like, say, tax reform or social security reform that might, you know, win him some points with conservatives.

I think the best he can do is at least start to veto some legislation and try to get the budget under control.

MARTIN: Well, I want to thank both of our guests for very stimulating conversation. Bruce Bartlett is former economic advisor to the Reagan and the First Bush White House and the author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. He joined us by phone from his home in Great Falls, Virginia.

And Jeffrey Hart, senior editor at the National Review magazine and author of The Making of the American Conservative Mind. He joined us from his home in Lyme, New Hampshire.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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