Promise Made

On a cold February 1988 day in New Hampshire, Vice President George Bush pledged not to raise taxes if he were elected to the nation’s highest office. Much about the background and intention of the pledge remains obscure, but its utterance could not be clearer—"Read my lips: No New Taxes!" And the press, eager for short, simple, dramatic declarations, featured the pledge. The quoted words formed bold headlines in newspapers across the nation and every network displayed at least one instance of Bush uttering the pledge. Thus encouraged, the candidate repeated it in a variety of settings and at different times, so that intellectuals came to regard it as one of the few continuous, sharply defined issues in a presidential campaign that they considered to be disappointingly muddled. [Anthony King & Giles Alston. 1991. "Good Government and the Politics of High Exposure," in The Bush Presidency: First Appraisals, eds. C. Campbell & B. Rockman. Chatham House, p. 277]








Promise Kept


Once elected, President Bush continued to insist on his opposition to new taxes. His 1989 and 1990 budget proposals not only embodied the pledge but went beyond it to offer a capital gains tax cut. [Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, Feb. 11, 1989. 47/6:251; Jan. 27, 1990, 48/4:218-20] The Congress that Bush faced was, however, very different from the one that Reagan succeeded in pushing along this general direction 7-8 years earlier. First, the number of Republicans in Congress after 1988 was smaller, despite Bush’s respectable 54% victory. Even more importantly, Congressional Democrats were not only more numerous but more united, better organized and better led than in the season of malaise and disappointment with President Carter. Then, Ronald Reagan, as a bearer of national hope and direction, was able to enter Washington with a personal force that had enormous impact on Congress and made the opposition reluctant to act. By contrast, President Bush was a Washington insider, a known player in the vast game of beltway politics, and checking his initiatives was but the first round in a long process of give and take. [Barbara Sinclair. 1991. "Bush and the 101st Congress," in The Bush Presidency: First Appraisals, eds. C. Campbell & B. Rockman. Chatham House, pp. 157-158]

Senate Democrats slammed the new president almost immediately by turning down the high-profile nomination of former Senator John Tower for Bush’s new Secretary of Defense, but the White House, and especially Richard Darman, was preoccupied with a budgetary "deal of the century." [CQWR, March 18,1989. 47/11:566-70] While memories of the election campaign were still fresh, Darman and other presidential advisers were determined not to be trapped in a stalemate with Democrats over budget deficits. Bush’s re-election in 1992 would thus be endangered, they thought, if deficits drove up inflation, provoked the Fed to tighten monetary policy, and the economy slid toward recession. Shrugging off the check, Bush sent Tower back to Texas, replaced him with Dick Cheney, who proved to be highly capable if initially less well known, and focused on the play for a budget deal. [CQWR, March 11, 1989. 47/10:530-531]

In a dramatic gesture, the President made a personal visit to Capital Hill, a rare event in DC annals. He visited the offices of leading Congressional Democrats in each chamber and reviewed with them his commitment to making advances in policy areas, like education, childcare, and air quality, which were traditional Democratic concerns. The White House mailroom was awash in hand-written thank-you notes flowing out of the Oval Office and into the boxes of even the most obscure beltway Democrats. [CQWR, March 18, 1989. 47/11:566-70] But an "attack Bush" wing among Congressional Democrats refused to acknowledge the value of bipartisan goodwill in budgetary negotiations and no substantial agreement was reached as the first year slipped past. [CQWR, April 7, 1989. 47/17:984; Sept. 23, 1989. 47/38:2441-43; Dec. 30, 1989. 47/53:3540-50]


















Promise Broken?















The second year seemed to begin as a replay of the first. The pledge not to raise taxes was repeated in Bush’s 1990 State of the Union message, but pressure on the President for some progress toward an agreement was beginning to mount. Economic news in May 1990 suggested trouble ahead and, in the absence of an agreement, the size of the anticipated deficit mandated automatic, across the board spending cuts on a truly draconian scale. [CQWR, January 27, 1990. 48/4:218-20] The "head-on" attack faction in Congress felt itself on the verge of a major triumph and Congressional leaders reported to the President that they had failed to get enough support even to propose a plan for deficit reduction. [CQWR, May 12, 1990. 48/19:1457-58] In early May, they called on Bush to mount a proverbial "bully pulpit" and convince the public that sacrifices were necessary. A plan for increasing revenue and avoiding drastic cuts in popular government programs was entirely up to him. Initially, Bush held firm, apparently hoping to extract commitments of support in exchange for such a plan. "Who’s got the obligation under the Constitution to raise revenue?" the President asked on May 19th. Nothing but silence came from leaders at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Finally, on June 26, 1990, President Bush issued a statement that reads in part: "It is clear to me that both the size of the deficit problem and the need for a package that can be enacted require all of the following: entitlement . . . reform; tax revenue increases; . . . discretionary spending reductions; . . ." [CQWR, June 30, 1990. 48/26:2029-30] 

The media defined the story in familiar terms. Pledge made. Pledge broken. President lies. Even the Houston Post, which spoke for Bush’s home town, was only slightly more generous than most other media comments when it asked: "Was he lying or did he just not understand the situation." [cited by Barbara Sinclair, 1991. "Bush and the 101st Congress," in The Bush Presidency: First Appraisals, eds. Colin Campbell & Bert Rockman. Chatham House. P. 176]. Even today, in the political vernacular of California, "bushlips" refers to the quivering regard for truth that politicians often seem to display. [Washington Times Weekly Edition, October 12, 1997, pp. 23, 28]

How seriously must we take such censure of President Bush?