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Second, Third and Fourth Thoughts about the President
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Second, Third and Fourth Thoughts about the President

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  • Eric Alterman
Part of a Series

Think Again: Second, Third and Fourth Thoughts about the President

The past few months have seen the excommunication of a couple big-ticket conservative pundits from the ranks of the Right-wing faith and each offers its own lessons. The first, and perhaps least surprising was the intellectual Francis Fukuyama, who, while a supporter of the neocon agenda for years, had been struggling with the Bush administration's handling of Iraq for some time, and who had published several critical pieces on the war in recent years, even calling neoconservatives "strangely disconnected from reality" in an essay in the National Interest last fall.

In Fukuyama’s New York Times Magazine essay, "After Neoconservatism," the author washes his hands of the movement once and for all, proclaiming that "Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support." His departure from the circle of fellow travelers has been evolving since the war in Iraq began in 2003, as he told Robert Boynton in an American Prospect profile back in October. Fukuyama said that until he had traveled Europe promoting a book in 2002, he had "accepted the neoconservative line, which is, 'OK, we're hegemons, but we're benevolent hegemons.' But when I was in Europe, the reality of what non-Americans thought hit me more forcefully than it had before. Even the editor of the Financial Times, which is a pretty conservative paper, was absolutely livid about the way the Bush administration was dealing with the U.K. and Europe."

Since that time, he has been building his case against the war and the way the Bush administration has been waging it, though a series of op-eds and essays in scholarly journals, in earning the enmity of true believers, including most prominently, Charles Krauthammer, who, taking a page from David Brooks’ book, has accused him, naturally, of anti-Semitism.

The Fukuyama rejection of the Bush doctrine and the neoconservative movement that spawned it appears similar at first to the case of Bruce Bartlett, former policy analyst in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations. Bartlett, who worked for the conservative think tank National Center for Policy Analysis until last October when he was fired due to his criticisms of the Bush administration, has become a major critic of the president's fiscal policy. His new book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy charges that Geroge W. Bush is "a pretend conservative [who] has more in common with liberals, who see no limits to state power as long as it is used to advance what they think is right."

Speaking to the Texas Observer, who chronicled his firing in detail, Bartlett explained, "[The NCPA] had warned me prior to my starting the book that the things that I was writing in my columns and newspaper interviews and things like that were too critical of George Bush and that it was hurting their fund raising…I was more or less warned that if I didn't stop, I was going to be fired. So I knew I was going to have trouble once I started writing the book."

As Kevin Drum points out in this month's Washington Monthly, Bartlett slams Bush for his lack of conservative principles, charging the administration with "reckless spending increases, out-of-control deficits, relentless pandering to business interests, and a deliberate and willful contempt for policy analysis. The Bush White House…judges legislation not by whether it's conservative or liberal, but solely by whether it will gain the Republican Party a couple of percentage points of support among some voting bloc or other. Principle is nothing. Politics is everything."

But don't confuse Bartlett with a man who has ‘seen the light’ and is fleeing leftward. He's criticizing the administration for failing to be not conservative enough — a point some critics might lose in their likely adulation of the book. The honest conservative’s disgust with this administration is an old story — as is his (or her) excommunication. It began with Penn professor John DiIulio, who left the White House within the year and publicly criticized the very program that he had been asked to lead, telling Esquire’s Ron Siskind that the White House “winked at the most far-right House Republicans, who in turn drafted a so-called faith bill that (or so they thought) satisfied certain fundamentalist leaders and Beltway libertarians but bore few marks of compassionate conservatism. . . . Not only that, but it reflected neither the president’s own previous rhetoric on the idea nor any of the actual empirical evidence.” Upon leaving he added “There is a virtual absence as of yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded nonpartisan, count as flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism,” and has had “no precedent in any modern White House.” Finally, he concluded, “What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.” (Dilulio was forced to recount his words in language that reminded historians of the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s.)

Salon addressed this phenomenon two weeks ago, interviewing Richard Viguerie, the direct mail wizard who made is name working on Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign. Viguerie himself is coming out with a book, called The Betrayal of Conservatives," later this year. He told the magazine that "It seems to me that early on Bush and Rove decided on a one-word strategy to govern and for reelection in 2004. That one-word strategy was 'bribery'." He also said that among conservatives, "When there are no microphones around, when it is just us there, people are really, really ticked and frustrated."

Fukuyama, Bartlett, Dilulio and Viguerie wanted to believe in their president, and did their utmost to carry his water. But the burden eventually became too heavy. Unlike say, John McCain, they allowed their principles to dictate their politics rather than the other way around. It may not be the road to success in the modern conservative movement, and as Bartlett’s case demonstrates, it might likely cost you your job. But it ought to earn the respect of even those of us who fundamentally disagree with their respective analyses, as well as the admiration of all honest men and women.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin.

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