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March 8, 2006
Libertarian Forum Steps Out From The Pack

Dana Milbank writes about the animosity within the Cato Institute's form on public policy that featured Bruce Bartlett and Andrew Sullivan. Both speakers have long been critics of the Bush administration, with the latter eventually endorsing John Kerry in the last presidential election. Milbank sounds somewhat surprised by the lack of rhetorical defenders on display at Cato:

If the ancient political wisdom is correct that a charge unanswered is a charge agreed to, the Bush White House pleaded guilty yesterday at the Cato Institute to some extraordinary allegations.

"We did ask a few members of the Bush economic team to come," explained David Boaz, the think tank's executive vice president, as he moderated a discussion between two prominent conservatives about President Bush. "We didn't get that."

Now why would the administration pass up such an invitation?

Well, it could have been because of the first speaker, former Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett. Author of the new book "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy," Bartlett called the administration "unconscionable," "irresponsible," "vindictive" and "inept."

It might also have had something to do with speaker No. 2, conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan. Author of the forthcoming "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It; How to Get It Back," Sullivan called Bush "reckless" and "a socialist," and accused him of betraying "almost every principle conservatism has ever stood for."

I'm not sure why Milbank expresses such surprise -- nor do I understand why the Post headlines this event as a "conservative forum". The Cato Institute has always focused on a brand of respectable and rational libertarianism rather than a partisan Republican or generic conservatism. Milbank himseld notes that in the seventh paragraph as well as the fact that its constituency has always found itself on the outside looking in during this administration. Six years into the Bush administration, and Milbank is shocked that Cato criticizes the President, and that few of its members offer a defense?

People forget that George Bush has never cast himself as a hardline conservative and especially not as a libertarian. He has shown himself politically tougher than his father, but tough does not equal conservative. He added Dick Cheney to his ticket in order to soothe conservatives in the GOP, who at the time preferred John McCain -- myself among them. He has frustrated conservatives with his profligate spending, without a doubt. However, he has delivered on American security and on federal court appointments, which are the reasons he continues to get support from the hard right.

Now, however, since Bush will not face another election, conservatives have stepped out on their own to remind people about their values and their programs. That is not only natural, but since the GOP has no natural frontrunner in 2008 at this time, it's necessary to get the issues on the table so that the party can decide on its direction before then. The national races this year will give the GOP the opportunity to see what captures the voters' imagination -- old-school conservatism, Cato-style libertarianism, or the centrist outlook that might carry Rudy Giuliani or (ironically) John McCain to the nomination.

After six years of providing big-tent support for the Bush White House, it's time for the party to debate its direction. It is far better to have that debate now than in 2008, and the Cato Institute will be an important forum in that process.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 8, 2006 6:54 AM

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