At 89, former President George H.W. Bush is enjoying a belated season of victory, as praise pours in for a seminal budget agreement he negotiated with a Democratic Congress nearly a quarter century ago. He's even set to receive a Profile in Courage award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation next month.
This new wave of adoration centers on Bush's famous declaration in his 1988 convention speech — "Read my lips: No new taxes" — and subsequent signing two years later of a budget deal that raised taxes. Though he was pilloried at the time, many analysts today believe Bush deserves credit, even awards, for breaking his vow.
But we shouldn't forget that his pledge was one of political expedience from a moderate Republican who once dismissed supply-side economics as "voodoo economics." Nor should we overlook its significance today. The perceived betrayal continues to reverberate in a party that learned all the wrong lessons from it.
Bush's decision to put the nation's fiscal health above his political pledge should have served as a cautionary tale against absolutism and the folly of painting yourself into a political corner. That's how Bush sees it now.
But today's Republicans have learned the opposite lesson. They've dug in deeper, and there's no mystery why. "Let's be honest, serious budgeting is hell on politicians' careers and, of course, presidents," Republican William Hoagland, a former Senate Budget Committee aide, said Friday at an anniversary event celebrating the budget agreement and other achievements of Bush 41's one-term presidency.
Almost all GOP members of the House and Senate have signed the no-tax pledge created by Americans for Tax Reform. Bush's own son proved his fealty to the cause with two mammoth tax cuts that cost $1.8 trillion and, under the fiscal cliff deal signed by President Obama last year, will cost $3.3 trillion over the next decade.
If real-world results outweighed politics and ideology, the GOP would become the party of grand bargains. The 1990 budget agreement — a mix of spending cuts, tax increases and pay-as-you-go requirements — was indeed hell on Bush. His reversal weakened him in the 1992 campaign, strengthened bids by primary challenger Pat Buchanan and independent third-party candidate Ross Perot, and helped Bill Clinton win. At the same time, however, Bush's tax concession was a major reason Clinton was able to tame the deficit and produce budget surpluses.
Over the last two decades, Republicans have ignored the policy lessons of 1990 but learned the political ones all too well. In the agreement signed by Bush, the ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes was about 2 to 1. More than 20 years later, in July 2011, Republicans rejected an Obama proposal that included three times as much in spending cuts as in new taxes. A month after that, every GOP presidential candidate onstage at a debate in Iowa rejected a hypothetical deal with a 10-to-1 ratio of cuts to taxes. And so it goes.
Ronald Reagan turned himself into an icon and set his party's course for decades with all his talk about small government and lower taxes. Yet when his tax cuts led to soaring deficits, he corrected course. Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, the Republican co-chairman of the 2010 deficit commission that proposed a doomed grand bargain, likes to point out that Reagan raised taxes 11 times over eight years for a total of $132 billion. "And why?" Simpson asked governors at a 2010 meeting in Boston. "To make the government run."
This is the disconnect between moderate Republican policy that works and conservative politics that work. Today's Republicans continue to spout Reagan's rhetoric while largely bypassing his practical streak, and those who don't can expect pushback. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, potential 2016 White House hopefuls, were among the critics when fellow prospect Jeb Bush said he would have taken the 10-to-1 cuts-to-taxes deal rejected by the 2012 candidates. Americans for Tax Reform last month jumped on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's 2015 budget proposal to tax e-cigarettes and online purchases and praised Walker for "historic" tax cuts. Budget plans from Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul slash both taxes and the federal government.
Paul, who is far more reluctant than most of his fellow Republicans to intervene overseas, recently made a bracing case against distortions of Reagan's foreign policy legacy. "Too often people make him into something he wasn't in order to serve their own political purposes," he wrote. That's even more true when it comes to economic policy. Reagan is entrenched in political mythology as a president who said no to taxes — even though he said yes 11 times.
Jon Huntsman declined to sign the no-tax pledge during the 2012 presidential campaign, and didn't get far. It may take collusion to get past this orthodoxy — a collective decision by a group of viable White House candidates to test-drive the notion of fiscal flexibility through the primary process. If and when that happens, odds are the nomination will still go to someone who swears before party and country to never, ever raise taxes.
But the losers would be real contenders for a Profile in Courage award.
Jill Lawrence is an award-winning reporter and columnist. She has written for the National Journal, USA Today, The Associated Press, Al Jazeera America, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among other publications.
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