So-called "principled" conservatives -- the faux libertarian voices of the Big Business elite that's always been the real base of the Republican Party -- are in full flight from the flaming wreck the Bush administration has become.
Former Bush I and Reagan official Bruce Bartlett lambasted the administration earlier this year with his book "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy," which was soon followed by longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie's "Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause." There are a dozen of them churning out columns and op-eds condemning Bush's profligate spending and pillorying his "compassionate," "Big Government" conservatism. Even former congressman Joe Scarborough -- MSNBC's cut-rate version of Bill O'Reilly -- got into the act, devoting a segment of his show to the fundamental question, "Is Bush an idiot?" and writing that he'd prefer "an assortment of Bourbon Street hookers running the Southern Baptist Convention to having this lot of Republicans controlling America's checkbook for the next two years."
And Christopher Buckley -- son of William F. and probably the funniest right-winger alive -- recently called Bush's governing philosophy "incontinent conservatism," and asked:
Who knew, in 2000, that "compassionate conservatism" meant bigger government, unrestricted government spending, government intrusion in personal matters, government ineptitude, and cronyism in disaster relief?
These "rebels" are enjoying a symbiotic relationship with the national media; writers love the intra-party feud -- usually the stuff of Democratic politics -- and the rogue conservatives get to brandish their "principles" and portray themselves as tip-toeing above the gutter of petty partisan politics in which the rest of us wallow.
But make no mistake: Underlying their dissent lies a massive deceit. Read between the lines, and you'll find that what really motivates them is a desperate attempt to save modern "conservatism" itself from going down with this administration. All of the libertarian rhetoric about limited government has always been a grand fraud; truly limited government is an anachronism. Perhaps it was appropriate in a time when small stakeholders toiled away in an agricultural economy, but it's simply impossible to govern a complex, modern, populous society like ours without a lot of staff.
Everybody knows it. The real question isn't about the size of government but whose interests it advances. Just consider that 43 of the 55 senators in the party of "limited government" voted for the bloated prescription drug bill that's now projected to cost $720 billion over the next ten years. It's a crappy, liberal-looking entitlement that was always just a giveaway to insurance companies and Big Pharma.
Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, says on his website that he's proud to have promoted "responsible federal spending" during his tenure, but after voting to increase the country's debt ceiling to $9 trillion, he said sheepishly: "It's hard to understand what a trillion is. I don't know what it is."
Political scientists have known for a long time that while people respond positively to the idea of limited government in the abstract, when it comes to specifics people love big government and most, if not all of what it does. They want a government that will educate their children and put out forest fires and pay for their million-dollar cancer treatments and make sure that big chemical companies aren't poisoning their water and keep them from having to eat cat food after they've busted their asses working for 50 years. They expect cheap student loans and meat inspections and smooth highways, and even the lowest of "low information" voters know they're not going to get that stuff from the private sector.
Much more importantly, most people won't vote for politicians who honestly endorse a scorched earth, slash-and-burn libertarianism. Just ask Congress's loneliest (and most frustrated) man, Ron Paul, R-Texas, the Republican Party's only real libertarian.
And, contra the limited government types' spin, people aren't afraid of paying taxes to get government to do the things they expect it to. Take health care. The results of an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken during Bush's first term found results that are pretty typical: by a 2-1 margin Americans favored a universal health care system "modeled on Medicare." The nightmare for anti-tax activists was that eight in ten said it was "more important to provide health care coverage for all Americans, even if it means raising taxes, than to hold down taxes but leave some people uncovered."
For decades, Republicans have dealt with this reality with bullshit social issues, flag-waving demonstrations of patriotism that give even the worst of their economic victims a sense of self-respect and, most of all, by facing the American people squarely and just lying to their faces.
The Big Lie -- the deceit that's won them so many elections -- is that they can offer government that's just as big, but Americans won't ever have to pay for it. All the services you want and half the taxes! Eat ice-cream all day long and never put on a pound! Who wouldn't vote for such a utopian crock?
It's a series of boldfaced economic lies, actually, based on the carefully crafted separation of spending and taxes. The rebel conservatives' favorite statistic is that under Clinton, the government grew by 3.4 percent annually, and under Bush it's "exploded" -- a word that's ubiquitous to the genre -- to an average of over 10 percent each year (for some reason, they never mention that government spending increased by 9.75 percent annually under Saint Reagan).
But they never discuss his tax cuts. They've enriched a tiny über-wealthy minority enormously, without doing anything to stimulate the economy. The cost, of course, is a tab the kids will have to pay -- massive deficits that legendary former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan called "unsustainable."
The idea that Americans can have their big government cake and eat their tax cuts too is nothing more than a scam on a huge scale that's been perpetrated for forty years. It's left voters dizzy. Public opinion about budgets and taxes at Pollster.com is a tangled mess of contradictions. By 66-31 Americans think reducing the deficit is more important than getting tax breaks and by 2-1 they think the Bush tax cuts haven't done anything to help their own families, but by 58-30 they approve of the cuts anyway and by a margin of 50-35 they want them extended. It's psychotic.
But psychosis can be treated. And that's why so many "principled" paleoconservatives are running away from Bush like the Roadrunner from Wiley Coyote: His excesses threaten to expose the fact that the whole ideology's a sham -- that the wizard's dead and there's a little man behind that curtain.
Bush, a fake cowboy from a billion-dollar Connecticut family, has spent six years telling Americans that his voodoo economics will "unleash capital" and create a "torrent of new growth." Don't worry, he promises with his trademark smirk, we'll just "grow our way" out of the deficits. But his own comptroller, David Walker, told an audience earlier this year that "anyone who says we can grow our way out of the problem wouldn't pass Economics 101 or basic math." And the General Accounting Office says of Bushenomics: "Today's fiscal policy remains unsustainable" and adds, for clarity, "what is unsustainable will not be sustained."
Bush, the former frat boy, is a president whose excesses go across the board, and that's not the way it's supposed to be done. His father was Big Business's handmaiden, but he took governing seriously. This Bush's administration thinks government's a joke, and has elevated cronyism and corruption to an artform. Reagan was a hypernationalist, yes, but he fought proxy wars and picked off some easy meat in Grenada. When he found his Marines in the middle of a civil war in the Middle East, he cut-and-run with the best of them. Twenty years later Bush's adventure in Iraq threatens to give militarism a bad name. And while Saint Reagan was a homophobe who paid lip service to the religious right, Bush went to the mattresses for a brain-dead woman in Florida, even as his staff referred to his Christianist base as "insane," "ridiculous," "nuts." That threatens to expose the whole hypocritical game of footsie the GOP's played with the religious right for decades.
Make no mistake: Those "principled" conservatives don't hate Bush for his spending, they hate him because he is them -- the only kind of conservative who can win an election, a Republican peddling big government and low taxes without blinking. And if Americans get a clue that modern conservatism is nothing but a bunch of economic lies gilded with some bogus "family values" and softened with a bit of morphine for the terror junkies, he can bring the whole fetid house of cards down with him.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.