But perhaps the most persistent — and thought-provoking — conservative critic of the party has been Bruce Bartlett. Mr. Bartlett has worked for Jack Kemp and Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He has been a fellow at the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. He wants the estate tax to be reduced, and he thinks that President Obama should not have taken on health reform or climate change this year.
Above all, however, he thinks that the Republican Party no longer has a credible economic policy. It continues to advocate tax cuts even though the recent Bush tax cuts led to only mediocre economic growth and huge deficits. (Numbers from the Congressional Budget Office show that Mr. Bush’s policies are responsible for far more of the projected deficits than Mr. Obama’s.)
On the spending side, Republican leaders criticize Mr. Obama, yet offer no serious spending cuts of their own. Indeed, when the White House has proposed cuts — to parts of Medicare, to an outdated fighter jet program and to subsidies for banks and agribusiness — most Republicans have opposed them.
How, Mr. Bartlett asks, is this conservative? How is it in keeping with a party that once prided itself on fiscal responsibility — the party of President Dwight Eisenhower (who refused to cut taxes because the budget wasn’t balanced) or of the first President Bush (whose tax increase helped create the 1990s surpluses)?
“So much of what passes for conservatism today is just pure partisan opposition,” Mr. Bartlett says. “It’s not conservative at all.”
The best parts of supply-side economics have been “completely integrated into mainstream economics,” Mr. Bartlett writes. “What remains is a caricature — that there is no problem that more and bigger tax cuts won’t solve.”
His conservatism starts with the idea that high taxes are no longer the problem, even if complaining about them still makes for good politics. This year, federal taxes are on pace to equal just 15 percent of gross domestic product. It is the lowest share since 1950.
As the economy recovers, taxes will naturally return to about 18 percent of G.D.P., and Mr. Obama’s proposed rate increase on the affluent would take the level closer to 20 percent. But some basic arithmetic — the Medicare budget, projected to soar in coming decades — suggests taxes need to rise further, and history suggests that’s O.K.
For one thing, past tax increases have not choked off economic growth. The 1980s boom didn’t immediately follow the 1981 Reagan tax cut; it followed his 1982 tax increase to reduce the deficit. The 1990s boom followed the 1993 Clinton tax increase. Tax rates matter, but they’re nowhere near the main force affecting growth.