Bruce Bartlett, Keynesian conservative? Really?

Paul Krugman today writes in praise of Bruce Bartlett as a mensch—someone who has the moral courage to stand up and admit he has been wrong. Krugman is responding to an autobiographical essay Bartlett just published detailing the long narrative of his experience as a conservative Republican: present as the birth of Reaganomics, in-demand writer of conservative political analysis, longtime adviser and staffer in Republican administrations, but finally disillusioned and openly critical of George W. Bush and the hard-right turn of the party in the last decade.

Recalling the work of writing his 2006 book—Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy—Bartlett tells how he came to loath Bush and the damage he caused:

…my utter disdain for Bush grew, as I recalled forgotten screw-ups and researched topics that hadn’t crossed my radar screen. I grew to totally despise the man for his stupidity, cockiness, arrogance, ignorance, and general cluelessness. I also lost any respect for conservatives who continued to glorify Bush as the second coming of Ronald Reagan and as a man they would gladly follow to the gates of hell. This was either gross, willful ignorance or total insanity, I thought.

Then, in 2007, researching a book on economic theory, Bartlett is surprised by his own conclusion that Keynes was “100 percent right” on what to do about the economic collapse of the 1930s. In 2008, he publishes an op-ed in the New York Times recommending a Keynesian policy solution for the fiscal crisis—just when Paul Krugman (hated enemy of the right) is recommending the same thing in the same newspaper.

Bartlett is an interesting figure, one of a handful of post-Republican conservatives, like David Frum and Andrew Sullivan, who are struggling to reform the party from within or revive core conservative principles—what the American Conservative magazine (publisher of Bartlett’s essay) lists as “fiscal restraint, civil liberties, and a prudent foreign policy,” principles thrown overboard by George W. Bush and his administration, and by most Republicans in Congress today.

Bartlett now represents a political understanding that progressives might actually have a conversation with. But make no mistake, Bartlett insists he is “not a liberal or a Democrat.” Still, the phenomenon of a Keynesian conservative active in the world is a hopeful sign.

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