The Conservative Epiphany
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Bruce Bartlett, the author of "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy," is an angry man. At a recent book forum at the Cato Institute, he declared that the Bush administration is "unconscionable," "irresponsible," "vindictive" and "inept."
It's no wonder, then, that one commentator wrote of Mr. Bartlett that "if he were a cartoon character, he would probably look like Donald Duck during one of his famous tirades, with steam pouring out of his ears."
Oh, wait. That's not what somebody wrote about Mr. Bartlett. It's what Mr. Bartlett wrote about me in September 2003, when I was saying pretty much what he's saying now.
Human nature being what it is, I don't expect Mr. Bartlett to acknowledge his about-face. Nor do I expect any expressions of remorse from Andrew Sullivan, the conservative Time.com blogger who also spoke at the Cato forum. Mr. Sullivan used to specialize in denouncing the patriotism and character of anyone who dared to criticize President Bush, whom he lionized. Now he himself has become a critic, not just of Mr. Bush's policies, but of his personal qualities, too.
Never mind; better late than never. We should welcome the recent epiphanies by conservative commentators who have finally realized that the Bush administration isn't trustworthy. But we should guard against a conventional wisdom that seems to be taking hold in some quarters, which says there's something praiseworthy about having initially been taken in by Mr. Bush's deceptions, even though the administration's mendacity was obvious from the beginning.
According to this view, if you're a former Bush supporter who now says, as Mr. Bartlett did at the Cato event, that "the administration lies about budget numbers," you're a brave truth-teller. But if you've been saying that since the early days of the Bush administration, you were unpleasantly shrill.
Similarly, if you're a former worshipful admirer of George W. Bush who now says, as Mr. Sullivan did at Cato, that "the people in this administration have no principles," you're taking a courageous stand. If you said the same thing back when Mr. Bush had an 80 percent approval rating, you were blinded by Bush-hatred.
And if you're a former hawk who now concedes that the administration exaggerated the threat from Iraq, you're to be applauded for your open-mindedness. But if you warned three years ago that the administration was hyping the case for war, you were a conspiracy theorist.
The truth is that everything the new wave of Bush critics has to say was obvious long ago to any commentator who was willing to look at the facts.
Mr. Bartlett's book is mainly a critique of the Bush administration's fiscal policy. Well, the administration's pattern of fiscal dishonesty and irresponsibility was clear right from the start to anyone who understands budget arithmetic. The chicanery that took place during the selling of the 2001 tax cut — obviously fraudulent budget projections, transparently deceptive advertising about who would benefit and the use of blatant accounting gimmicks to conceal the plan's true cost — was as bad as anything that followed.
The false selling of the Iraq war was almost as easy to spot. All the supposed evidence for an Iraqi nuclear program was discredited before the war — and it was the threat of nukes, not lesser W.M.D., that stampeded Congress into authorizing Mr. Bush to go to war. The administration's nonsensical but insistent rhetorical linkage of Iraq and 9/11 was also a dead giveaway that we were being railroaded into an unnecessary war.
The point is that pundits who failed to notice the administration's mendacity a long time ago either weren't doing their homework, or deliberately turned a blind eye to the evidence.
But as I said, better late than never. Born-again Bush-bashers like Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Sullivan, however churlish, are intellectually and morally superior to the Bushist dead-enders who still insist that Saddam was allied with Al Qaeda, and will soon be claiming that we lost the war in Iraq because the liberal media stabbed the troops in the back. And reporters understandably consider it newsworthy that some conservative voices are now echoing longstanding liberal critiques of the Bush administration.
It's still fair, however, to ask people like Mr. Bartlett the obvious question: What took you so long?