You may have thought that George W. Bush was the most conservative president of the last 100 years, whose doubling of the national debt, instigation of the worst recession since the Great Depression and other epic failures put the final nail in the coffin of the Republican Party's supply-side, anti-government ideology.
Not so, says New York Times conservative David Brooks. In fact, he says, George Bush is only the latest in a long line of gullible Republicans who've bought into the promises of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt welfare state now being challenged by a new breed of Republican "reformers" who've seen the light and are determined to dismantle this New Deal "governing model" no matter how often they are called "extremist" by defenders of the status quo.
That's Brooks' story and he's sticking to it. It's also the narrative Republicans are embracing to explain how they intend to take us into the future by repeating the failures of the recent past now that Republicans have decided they want George W. Bush's Wall Street-friendly policies, just not the disastrous consequences that went with them or too close association with Bush himself. Republicans, in other words, are eager to pawn off responsibility for George W. onto Democrats. And for that they need willing sycophants -- like David Brooks.
This is the same David Brooks who issued his own declaration of independence from the Republican Party last July 4th when he called the GOP "an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation."
It was last year around this time, if you remember, that the nation was beginning its downhill slide toward the edge of an abyss whose bottom would not be known until Republicans carried out their threat to let the nation default on its bills by refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless they got their way on spending cuts.
Republicans were holding a loaded gun to the nation's head. And Brooks' outburst against them was ignited by the adamant refusal of Republicans to accept any offer from Democrats to end the standoff short of unconditional Democratic surrender.
That experience caused Brooks to pen an impassioned rant that Republicans "do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms;" that they "do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities;" that they "have no sense of moral decency;" and that they "have no economic theory worthy of the name."
It was a devastating indictment. But smart shoppers were waiting to see how long it would be before pressures from within the conservative movement caused Brooks to revoke everything he'd just said.
Last week we got our answer: About a year. In his last column, Brooks aims to rehabilitate these very same Republicans by redefining their bad behavior as manifestations of the perfectly legitimate "viewpoint" that the "welfare-state model is in its death throes." What others might call extremism, says Brooks, is merely the Republican Party's conviction that America's "governing model is obsolete and needs replacing."
Whatever else you think of the Republican Party's belief we need a whole different kind of country, it certainly puts in perspective their partys' slander that President Obama is some raving "socialist." For when you are a party like the GOP that aims for the wholesale repeal of the 20th century then by definition a mainstream, almost conservative, defender of the gains of that century is likely to be impugned as a "radical."
And it's the radical ambitions of the Republican Party that also serve to put ideological meat on the nakedly partisan bones of Mitch McConnell's stated top priority of making Barack Obama a one term president.
But it's not so much Republican ideas that liberals find so extreme, necessarily. It's the extremes to which Republicans are willing to go to achieve them, using such expedients as: bringing governing to a halt with the filibuster, holding the full faith and credit of the United States hostage to get their way, and weakening the threads of civility and comity between antagonists without which a nation is impossible.
But even on its own terms, Brooks' assertion that Republican radicalism is just another legitimate "viewpoint" is disingenuous.
In contrast to the welfare state model going back to the New Deal that he says provides "neither security nor dynamism," Brooks says Republicans "envision comprehensive systemic change." Mitt Romney would effect such structural change by "moving" toward more market-based health care, by "simplifying" the tax code, by "reversing" 30 years of education policy, by "decentralizing" power, by "increasing" parental choice and by "laying the groundwork for an economic revival."
It's vague as fog as Brooks admits, and the reason for its non-specificity is that all this reform talk about "pro-growth" initiatives that "move" or "simplify" or "reverse" or "decentralize" America's "obsolete governing model" is just a euphemism for the same old right wing agenda we've had all along for the last 30 years: tax cuts for the rich and more deregulation for predatory bankers.
Republicans want to have their cake and eat it too. They want the supply-side economic policies that serve their interests just not the baggage that goes with them. The Romney campaign wants to portray itself and the GOP as the party of "reform" but hopes we don't notice that the "reforms" they embrace are identical to the policies of a George W. Bush whose company Republicans are less than eager to keep.
That is why, as the Washington Monthly's Ed Kilgore points out, Mitt Romney intends "to go to extraordinary lengths to talk about anything other than the actual agenda" he's been forced to embrace by the GOP's conservative base.
Romney, says Kilgore, is not about to point out "that 90% of his economic talking points are identical to those of George W. Bush" or that on the other 10% he's to the right of Bush. Neither is he going to wrap himself in a Ryan Budget or be honest about its contents and consequences until Republicans are safely in control of the White House and Congress and so able to implement Ryan's draconian particulars without paying the electoral cost for doing so.
In general, says Kilgore, Romney is going to avoid as much as possible repeating anything he said during the primaries "other than his alleged hatred of ObamaCare."
Show us the Car Fax Mr. Romney, for it's this need for stealth which explains why the New York Times the other day said Romney is attempting to win the White House with a campaign built "on a foundation of short, utterly false sound bites."
Romney says Obama's stimulus failed -- when in fact it has created three million jobs, says the Times. Romney says the auto rescue was a mistake -- when it preserved another million jobs instead. Romney says that government spending is out of control -- when in fact the really big additions were put there by Republicans themselves who increased annual federal spending by 40% in just eight years while growth under Obama is lower than under all modern Republicans.
These are just a few of the whoppers Romney tells repeatedly on the campaign trail as he wages exactly what senior aide Eric Ferhnstrom said he would: An Etch-a-Sketch campaign.
Elections are about the future not the past, sniff Republicans whenever President Obama tries to remind Americans how we got in our present fix and who it was who put us here. But the truth is that it's Mitt Romney, not President Obama, who wants to take the country Back to the Future so that we can re-live the horrors of the Bush administration all over again.
"If you want to give the polices of the last decade another try," said President Obama in Cleveland last week, "then you should vote for Mr. Romney. "You should take them at their word, and they will take America down this path."
No wonder conservatives are so anxious to rewrite history.
The origins of what David Brooks calls the competing Republican "viewpoint" that social democracy is obsolete and must be replaced by a radically new one based on principles of austerity and the free market, begins with the Republican Party's repudiation of its own history.
It's a history that starts in the 1950s when Brooks says Dwight Eisenhower "reconciled Republicans to the 20th-century welfare state." It concludes with the end of George W. Bush's eight disastrous years when Republicans may have cut taxes but "basically accepted" the welfare state model by sustaining it with even more lavish funding than Democrats. And in between nothing much remains of GOP history except the mythologized, idealized legend of Ronald Wilson Reagan -- minus the 11 tax hikes and record deficits which have been carefully airbrushed away.
But it's imperative that David Brooks shoe-horn the right wing George W. Bush into a historical narrative that also includes the moderate Dwight Eisenhower so that the epic failures of the Bush Administration can be laid at the feet of New Deal liberalism instead of where they rightfully belong -- with the conservative movement's own supply-side, deregulatory, anti-government "viewpoint" whose calamitous consequences America has been struggling to overcome ever since Ronald Reagan first introduced it in 1980.
The effort to blame liberals for Bush was crude three years ago when Newt Gingrich first tried to distance right wing conservatism from the wreckage of the Bush administration with his short-lived rhetorical falsehood of a "Bush/Obama Big Government" consensus.
The effort is only slightly more nimble in the hands of David Brooks. But once Brooks runs the numbers we can see why re-writing the history of the Bush years to pawn him off on Democrats is so critical for Mitt Romney and his campaign.
In the decades after World War II when America was governed by the liberal New Deal consensus, the US economy grew by well over 3 percent a year on average, Brooks concedes.
But because America "failed to keep pace with changing realities," says Brooks, average growth between 2000 and 2009 was a "paltry" 1.7 percent annually. These were years, it should not be necessary to point out, that coincided with Republican control of both the White House and Congress.
Average GDP during the great recession that followed has been 0.6 percent, as Brooks says wages have failed to keep up with productivity and family net worth is back at the same level it was at 20 years ago. They were also years, which Brooks does not mention, when Republicans have tried every legislative trick in the book to stall, if not stalemate, the President's economic stimulus agenda by maintaining George Bush's failed policies until the next Republican administration could cement them in place.
David Brooks, as he usually does, gives the Republican Party (and himself) far too much credit for having a coherent "viewpoint" of the world when in fact all Republicans really have is a cynical rationalization for hamstringing the government and short-changing the economy in order to help Republicans regain power.
It's an utterly unprincipled two-part strategy that seeks to pull off the extraordinary feat of embracing and repudiating George W. Bush at the very same time.
In the coming election, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party have cast themselves as reformers who intend to show us the way forward by putting back in place virtually all of those Bush-era policies that got us into this mess in the first place.
Then, in case anyone notices, Republicans will throw George W. Bush and his failures unceremoniously under the bus, labeling him just one more New Deal, welfare-state loving RINO socialist who was not a tax-cutting, regulation-slashing, government-hating "Real Conservative" after all.