History Podcasts

Read My Lips: No New Taxes

Read My Lips: No New Taxes

George H. Bush's infamous promise delivered during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on August 18, 1988, became the campaign pledge that may have helped win him the election.


Why Not Call It a Rose?

There are many well-known quotes about taxes and their inevitability. Benjamin Franklin referred to the well-known axiom in 1789, 7 but its appearance is documented as early as 1716 in The Cobbler of Preston by Christopher Bullock — “Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes.” But, even if inevitable, the respect for taxes in modern day society appears to have suffered something of a setback from when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas v. Collector of Internal Revenue, 275 U.S. 87, 100 (1927) that:

It is true . . . that every exaction of money for an act is a discouragement to the extent of the payment required, but that which in its immediacy is a discouragement may be part of an encouragement when seen in its organic connection with the whole. Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, including the chance to insure. 8

And his was merely one in a long line of prior similar statements during the 1800s and well into the 1900s. 9 Holmes, indeed, according to Justice Felix Frankfurter, stated even more pithily, “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.” 10

For the last few decades, however, the role of taxes and their claim for necessity has become more controversial. George H.W. Bush’s campaign promise: “Read my lips no new taxes” is perhaps the clearest articulated antipathy to taxes. 11 Yet, as a practical matter, all governments are charged with undertaking certain minimum functions while providing for the health, safety, and welfare of their constituencies, and virtually all of those obligations come at a cost. While one may differ as to how to define those “minimums,” it is clear that at least some taxes will need to be assessed and collected.

But, in light of those sensitivities as to how raising funds will be perceived by voters, recent discussions often seek to describe money generation in terms other than “taxes.” In some cases, this is meant to signify a substantive difference i.e., that one is not imposing involuntary “taxes,” but rather purportedly only charging voluntary “user fees.” For example, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, seeking to raise some $380 million through charges on the sale of tobacco products, said “I believe this is a user fee. Some people are going to say it’s a tax. I’m going to say it’s a compromise and a solution to move Minnesota forward.” 12 An elegant side-stepping of the question, but —as will be shown — this pretty clearly is a tax.

As another example, in South Carolina, legislators proposing an increase in gasoline costs, differentiated between generally available tax revenue versus costs imposed for a specific purpose, contending that “[w]e are not going to raise anybody one penny in taxes . . . . The difference between a fee and a tax . . . is that a fee is revenue generated for a specific purpose. If that purpose goes 100 percent to fix the roads, then it is a fee. It is not a tax.” 13 As will be shown below, this isn’t really correct either.

And, as Thomas Donohue, former president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted in calling for an increase in the federal gasoline tax, “The right kind of tax reform will turbocharge our growth, create jobs and generate more revenues for government at all levels,” but “[a] lot of people in the Chamber get a little squishy because a lot of people on [Capitol] Hill don’t like anything that sounds like a tax. . . . It’s not a tax, it’s a user fee. And if you don’t want to ride on the roads you don’t have to pay for it.” 14

In the non-bankruptcy world, it may not make much difference what one chooses to call a source of revenue, even if some attempts to avoid calling something a “tax” probably don’t pass the “I know it when I see it” test. 15 So, if one calls a payment a fee and, thereby obtains its passage, it rarely will make much difference. But, in bankruptcy cases, in particular, the category into which a payment obligation is deemed to fall can have immense real world consequences. And, as government lawyers, it’s your job to try to end up on the right side of those consequences, including by correctly analyzing the nature of the charge and arguing for it to be a tax if the claim can be fairly made.


What Does "Read My Lips" Mean? (with pictures)

The English idiom "read my lips" is an imperative statement demanding or requesting that listeners pay attention to the meaning of the words that the speaker is saying. The phrase is most commonly used on its own, where somebody who says “read my lips,” really wants to drive home a point to an audience. The phrase is commonly followed up with a clear, short statement that aptly demonstrates the speaker’s main point.

As one of the more concrete idioms of English language, the phrase, “read my lips,” uses a fairly literal meaning. When someone reads someone’s lips, they are looking at the way that the mouth moves to figure out what words are being said. This is a primary way for those who are deaf to understand way speakers say.

The underlying meaning for the phrase, “read my lips,” as it is said to those who can hear, goes this way: by simultaneously hearing the words and reading the person slips, the listener will assumedly get the information twice as well. This is why people use the phrase to ask someone to follow what they’re saying closely. The use of this phrase is often seen as somewhat imperial or condescending, since it implies that the listener is not paying careful enough attention. It can also be taken as a promise, where the speaker is assuring the listener that he or she really means what he or she is saying.

In recent times, this old idiomatic phrase was revived by American Pres. George Herbert Walker Bush in a campaign speech regarding taxation. This full use of the phrase was, “read my lips: no new taxes.” The phrase was subsequently taken up as a mantle by antitax activists, and also treated with derision by others. According to media reports, the president later did raise some taxes, which delegitimized his use of the phrase.

The English lexicon includes several phrases that have a similar meaning as “read my lips.” Another way to say this would be, “Let’s make this clear,” or “Get this straight.” In general, the word “straight” refers to clarity of expression, where English speakers may talk about getting an issue “straight” or commonly understanding the fact involved in a matter. Alternately, an English speaker might say, “I really mean it,” or use some other more concrete expression of assurance.


Broken Promises/Broken Presidencies

When Vice President George H.W. Bush accepted the GOP nomination for president in New Orleans in 1988, he memorably said: "Read my lips, no new taxes." Too memorably, as things turned out. He won that election handily, carrying 40 states against the hapless Michael Dukakis and 53 percent of the vote. It was the last comfortable victory the Republicans have seen.

By 1990, however, President Bush was in a bind. He had an army in Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield and he had a solidly Democratic Congress determined to force him to break his tax pledge. His OMB Director, the late Dick Darman, urged him to make a deal with the Hill and get on with the business of governing. When more savvy political advisers protested, citing the "Read my Lips, no new taxes" pledge to the American people, Darman reportedly replied that those were just words some speechwriter put in front of the president.

That may be. But the president's lips pronounced those words. And his breaking of his over-the-top promise to Americans doomed the Bush presidency. Arguably, the Bush fracturing splintered Ronald Reagan's winning coalition, a solid majority that Republicans have not been able to reassemble since. Despite a stratospheric 91 percent approval rating following his lightning victory over Saddam Hussein's forces in the first Gulf War, Bush's standing sagged for two years. His broken promise fueled grassroots rage and the Perot challenge. Bush 41 fell to Bill Clinton in the 1992 election, gaining an abysmal 37 percent of the popular vote. Columnist George Will said he had made a sow's ear of the Reagan silk purse. Even Barbara Bush piled on. Commenting on his retirement sport of skydiving, she puckishly said she hadn't seen her George take such a plunge since the '92 campaign.

Today, we see millions, yes, millions of Americans, losing their health care coverage. These are the folks who were promised over and over by President Obama "if you like your doctor, you can keep him or her if you like your health care plan, you can keep it." Well, it turns out that millions of Americans cannot keep their doctors or their plans. They have been betrayed. They are outraged. They should be.

Many of these rejected and dejected millions are Obama voters. As the New York Times' Ross Douthat has noted, these are folks whose household incomes -- in the $50-80,000 range -- are too high for subsidies but are too low to easily absorb a doubling of their health care premiums. Moreover, as Douthat wisely points out, these are the folks who chose policies with high deductibles, who were in truth doing the most to keep health care costs down.

These are the folks who work hard and play by the rules. These are the new victims of ObamaCare. These are people whom any administration can ill afford to lose. They are the middle of Middle America.

Now comes news that the entire HealthCare.gov website may have to be rebuilt. Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) says "the way the system is designed, it is not secure." For those few Americans who have succeeded in getting through the thicket of HealthCare.gov's intrusive questions and actually registered, Mike Rogers' words must be chilling. They are probably feeling like German Chancellor Angela Merkel texting her husband: "I wonder if the Obama people reading this text?"

Not to worry, we are assured. Just as Chancellor Merkel is a good friend and ally, the Obama people would never abuse the information that comes into HealthCare.gov, right? That's why they chose the simon-pure IRS to be the enforcers of ObamaCare. No one could imagine the IRS abusing its authority, right?

The catastrophic rollout of ObamaCare on October 1 has been lampooned left and right. President Obama has good cause for concern when even Jon Stewart shows his contempt for such incompetence. Legend has it Lyndon Johnson knew his Vietnam War strategy had failed when CBS Anchor Walter Cronkite came out against it. "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost Middle America," he said glumly.

Jon Stewart holds a different status in today's fragmented media marketplace. Jon Stewart doesn't tell the nation "that's the way it is," as Cronkite pompously pronounced each evening. Instead, Stewart is the King of what's Cool. His audience is heavily weighted toward the 18-34 demographic. These are not the folks who contribute to political campaigns, perhaps, and even their voting record is spotty. But these are very much the young bloods whom Mr. Obama needs desperately to sign up and sign on. He needs them to rush the website like shoppers at Walmart on Black Friday. He needs them to sign up for ObamaCare so he can afford to pay out the generous subsidies that his health care plan will require. That's why the defection of Jon Stewart and the raspberries the president's signature achievement has gotten from the crew at Saturday Night Live are so important.

We don't share the view of the cynical Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken. He famously said that democracy is the idea the people should get what they want -- and get it good and hard. Nonetheless, the people are getting what they voted for good and hard.

But they voted for Barack Obama based on his pledged word: If you like your plan, you can keep it. As the rollout proceeds -- as the November 30 "fix-it" deadline approaches menacingly -- millions more will learn to their sorrow that they cannot keep their plans. And they will be bitter about being deceived.

President Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize in October, 2009, five months before passage of ObamaCare. He won it for his efforts to bring peace to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, and Syria and other global hotspots. President George H.W. Bush guided U.S. policy through the peaceful reunification of Germany, the mostly non-violent breakup of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe, and the bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union. Bush 41, of course, did not win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Unlike President Bush's breaking of his "No new taxes" pledge, President Obama never has to face the voters again. As he told Vladimir Putin, he would have "more flexibility" after he was re-elected. He will need a lot more flexibility to recover from Americans' outrage at having been deceived about keeping their health plans.


Read Obama's Lying Lips

We all know what ensued after he became President. It was one of the classic broken campaign promises in history.

While this remains etched in the memories of many Americans as a prime example of a President not honoring a clear promise that ended up having an adverse impact on the average American&rsquos taxpayer, it does not begin to approach what President Obama has done with respect to Iran.

Starting back in June 2008, then candidate Obama began touting the importance of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons when he said, &ldquothe danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.&rdquo On October 7 in &lsquo08 he said, &ldquowe cannot allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and I will do everything that&rsquos required to prevent it.&rdquo

On November 4, 2008 Barack Obama was elected President in what many considered a landslide victory, winning the popular vote by 8 million votes. One of his campaign slogans was &ldquochange we can believe in.&rdquo

Let&rsquos take a look at what he said after being elected. Here are some examples of his statements regarding Iran.

On July 1, 2010 he said, &ldquothe United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.&rdquo In the 2012 State of the Union address he again made his views clear by stating emphatically, &ldquoAmerica is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.&rdquo

Then on March 5 2012 when some suggested he was shifting his efforts from prevention to containment he said, &ldquomy policy here is not going to be one of containment, my policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.&rdquo

He repeated this vow when he spoke to the UN on Sept. 25 2012.

On October 22, 2012 during the election campaign while debating Mitt Romney, these were his words- &ldquoas long as I&rsquom President of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.&rdquo

He was re-elected President on November 6, 2012. His 2013 State of the Union address offered a repeat of his vow against Iran.

Altogether there have been at least 28 separate occasions when Barak Obama assured America and the world Iran would not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. For a list of his quotations, click here.

Correct me if I am wrong, but when the President of the United States takes the oath of office, he swears that he will &ldquopreserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.&rdquo What exactly does this mean in layman terminology? I submit that in part it strongly suggests that as President he is committed to preserve, protect and defend the security and best interests of the United States.

By swearing on the Holy Bible, he is also making a commitment to the American people that he is a man of his word, who can be trusted, and will not knowingly break any promises or openly lie.

When individuals rise to positions of authority and influence, such as lawyers, judges, educators, doctors, religious leaders, etc. should we not expect them to live by example? In other words is it reasonable to expect they should be exemplary in how they live and what they say?

If the answer to this is yes, then what other position carries a greater responsibility to emulate the highest and most noble values than that of President of the United States?

On April 2 President Obama announced an agreement had been reached with Iran regarding nuclear weapons. Did the agreement reflect his repeated commitments to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons? The simple answer is no. He did not honor the numerous promises he made for the past 7 years. After seven years of telling the entire world what he would prevent, he looked all of us in the eye and all but said, &ldquoRead my lips, I lied to you!&rdquo

He then revealed in an interview on April 6 that at the end of the agreement (which allows Iran to develop its nuclear program, which while in effect includes a breakout period of roughly one year) their breakout periods are much shorter.

In essence, what the President has done is he has proven he is not a man of his word. He has lied to America and the entire world.

Someone once said when a private citizen swears to be truthful in front of a judge and is caught lying, it&rsquos a criminal offense which by law requires punishment. However, when a politician swears to be truthful and is caught lying, it&rsquos considered politics.

Not only has President Obama lied, he&rsquos placed America, Israel and the entire world in serious jeopardy by allowing the most untrustworthy nation, responsible for funding terrorism throughout the world, the green light to develop a weapon which has the capacity to destroy its enemies. The safety and security of the world has now been placed in the hands of fundamentalist ayatollahs that have openly called for the destruction of Israel, and repeatedly stated, &ldquoDeath to America!&rdquo

Mr. President, normally I would say &ldquowith all due respect,&rdquo however by breaking your word, and bowing to apocalyptic religious fanatics bent on destruction of the civilized world, my respect is something you do not deserve.

Dan Calic is a writer, history student and speaker. See additional articles on his Facebook page

During his speech On August 18, 1988 after being selected as the Republican nominee for President George Bush Sr. said &ldquoread my lips, no new taxes.&rdquo

We all know what ensued after he became President. It was one of the classic broken campaign promises in history.

While this remains etched in the memories of many Americans as a prime example of a President not honoring a clear promise that ended up having an adverse impact on the average American&rsquos taxpayer, it does not begin to approach what President Obama has done with respect to Iran.

Starting back in June 2008, then candidate Obama began touting the importance of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons when he said, &ldquothe danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.&rdquo On October 7 in &lsquo08 he said, &ldquowe cannot allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and I will do everything that&rsquos required to prevent it.&rdquo

On November 4, 2008 Barack Obama was elected President in what many considered a landslide victory, winning the popular vote by 8 million votes. One of his campaign slogans was &ldquochange we can believe in.&rdquo

Let&rsquos take a look at what he said after being elected. Here are some examples of his statements regarding Iran.

On July 1, 2010 he said, &ldquothe United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.&rdquo In the 2012 State of the Union address he again made his views clear by stating emphatically, &ldquoAmerica is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.&rdquo

Then on March 5 2012 when some suggested he was shifting his efforts from prevention to containment he said, &ldquomy policy here is not going to be one of containment, my policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.&rdquo

He repeated this vow when he spoke to the UN on Sept. 25 2012.

On October 22, 2012 during the election campaign while debating Mitt Romney, these were his words- &ldquoas long as I&rsquom President of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.&rdquo

He was re-elected President on November 6, 2012. His 2013 State of the Union address offered a repeat of his vow against Iran.

Altogether there have been at least 28 separate occasions when Barak Obama assured America and the world Iran would not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. For a list of his quotations, click here.

Correct me if I am wrong, but when the President of the United States takes the oath of office, he swears that he will &ldquopreserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.&rdquo What exactly does this mean in layman terminology? I submit that in part it strongly suggests that as President he is committed to preserve, protect and defend the security and best interests of the United States.

By swearing on the Holy Bible, he is also making a commitment to the American people that he is a man of his word, who can be trusted, and will not knowingly break any promises or openly lie.

When individuals rise to positions of authority and influence, such as lawyers, judges, educators, doctors, religious leaders, etc. should we not expect them to live by example? In other words is it reasonable to expect they should be exemplary in how they live and what they say?

If the answer to this is yes, then what other position carries a greater responsibility to emulate the highest and most noble values than that of President of the United States?

On April 2 President Obama announced an agreement had been reached with Iran regarding nuclear weapons. Did the agreement reflect his repeated commitments to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons? The simple answer is no. He did not honor the numerous promises he made for the past 7 years. After seven years of telling the entire world what he would prevent, he looked all of us in the eye and all but said, &ldquoRead my lips, I lied to you!&rdquo

He then revealed in an interview on April 6 that at the end of the agreement (which allows Iran to develop its nuclear program, which while in effect includes a breakout period of roughly one year) their breakout periods are much shorter.

In essence, what the President has done is he has proven he is not a man of his word. He has lied to America and the entire world.

Someone once said when a private citizen swears to be truthful in front of a judge and is caught lying, it&rsquos a criminal offense which by law requires punishment. However, when a politician swears to be truthful and is caught lying, it&rsquos considered politics.

Not only has President Obama lied, he&rsquos placed America, Israel and the entire world in serious jeopardy by allowing the most untrustworthy nation, responsible for funding terrorism throughout the world, the green light to develop a weapon which has the capacity to destroy its enemies. The safety and security of the world has now been placed in the hands of fundamentalist ayatollahs that have openly called for the destruction of Israel, and repeatedly stated, &ldquoDeath to America!&rdquo

Mr. President, normally I would say &ldquowith all due respect,&rdquo however by breaking your word, and bowing to apocalyptic religious fanatics bent on destruction of the civilized world, my respect is something you do not deserve.

Dan Calic is a writer, history student and speaker. See additional articles on his Facebook page


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Labour has made similar, though more limited guarantees, and it has not given them the added backing of a promise of the law.

It has, in the past though, when Alistair Darling, as Chancellor, promised a Budget Responsibility Act in 2009. It's interesting now to read what George Osborne said then about that.

He said: "No other chancellor in the long history of the office has felt the need to pass a law in order to convince people that he has the political will to implement his own Budget.

"As one commentator observed this week, there are only two conclusions.

"Either the chancellor has lost confidence in himself to stick to his resolution, and is, so to speak, asking the police to help him, or he fears that everyone else has lost confidence in his ability to keep his word, but hopes that they might believe in the statute book if not in him. Neither is much of a recommendation for the chancellor of the day."

What's more, when William Hague made a similar pledge as party leader in 2000 he later abandoned it in order to reassure people that if the economy crashed he wouldn't cut health spending simply to deliver his tax promise.

These pledges, along with the repeated political cross-dressing we've seen are symptoms of a lack of trust in politicians and a weakening in the strength of the two main political brands.

They are also a symptom too, though, of voters not demanding that politicians are more honest about the limits of what they can promise and deliver given the unpredictability of the world.


Today's Tax Tip

5 tests a child must meet to be your tax dependent — Children can add a lot to your life. Love. Pride. Expenses. That last child-related factor can be substantial, but the tax code can help. There are several tax breaks for parents or guardians of youngsters. The key for all is that the youth is an eligible dependent. In some cases, the requirements are tweaked a bit the latest example is the 2021 tax year changes to the Child Tax Credit. In general, however, a youngster must meet five requirements to be a taxpayer's dependent. (June 24, 2021)


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Read My Lips: "Now! New Taxes!"

Posted By David Safier on Tue, Jun 23, 2015 at 3:15 PM

This post is about an article that appeared in Monday's Star: "Republicans can't stick to no-new-tax pledge" (I can't find the Star online link, so here's the original article on Bloomberg Politics). But first, a digression to something I remember from a Reagan campaign stop in California when he was first running for president. What happened, or what I remember happening since I'll never find a reference to it anywhere (but it's indelibly etched in my memory), is this.

Reagan was talking about changing the federal funding that goes to states into a block grant rather than earmarking the money for specific purposes. He didn't want to mention that he planned to cut the total amount going to the states, but a reporter asked him the question, which went something like, "Your plan would give less money to the states. How do you expect them to pay for all those programs?" His answer was a classic of Reagan-style, earnest flimflammery. He shrugged his shoulders and said, "They can raise taxes." The reporter who asked the question looked stunned, dumbfounded. He didn't ask a follow-up because, what could he possibly ask?

Reagan, of course, went on to raise taxes when he was president. So did George Herbert Walker "Read-my-lips-no-new-taxes" Bush. And Governor Ducey is acting like Reagan when he was on the campaign trail, expecting cities and counties to raise taxes to make up for the shortfalls in the current state budget. Republicans are situationally anti-tax. When push comes to shove, when there's a hole that absolutely has to be filled, they know someone has to fill it.

Which brings us to the article in Monday's Star.

Republican leaders who control U.S. states are confronting the consequences of no-new-tax pledges as they face shortfalls and try to preserve education and infrastructure.

Nevada, Kansas and Alabama have enacted or are debating increases in taxes on sales, tobacco, corporate income and other items, and six others have passed higher fuel levies despite a small-government dogma. In Louisiana, Republican lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal are engaged in a near-theological debate about what constitutes a tax increase as they seek to close a $1.6 billion budget gap.

Governors and legislators are down on their knees begging Grover Norquist, who has a big ol' stack of No-tax pledges from them sitting on his desk, to please, please grant them special dispensation, just this once. Norquist has no actual power over them, of course. He can't sue them for breaking their promise. But he can make their lives a political hell come next election, and they know it.


Read their lips: For the origins of today’s deficit fight, look to 1990

A scorching summer. A struggling economy. A stalemate in budget talks. A Republican leader reluctant to break his anti-tax pledge. Democrats balking at spending cuts. A proposal for a balanced budget amendment.

It was 1990, the year Congress passed one of the biggest deficit-reduction packages in American history. But before it was cemented into law, the country endured months of bickering and brinksmanship. Sound familiar?

By some measures, the 1990 budget deal was a success: It helped shrink the deficit, then at 5 percent of gross domestic product, by $492 billion — $850 billion in today’s dollars — over just five years. And it passed with support from both parties.

But in other ways, the 1990 budget deal set the stage for today’s fiscal deadlock. At the center of it all was the Dirty Harry-style pledge that President George H.W. Bush had issued during his 1988 presidential campaign — “Read my lips: No new taxes.” Although an agreement was eventually reached that raised taxes and cut spending, many Republican lawmakers thought the deal and its aftermath proved the folly of compromise.

“The 1990 budget agreement was real bloodshed. It was a civil war within the party,” says John Feehery, who worked for Republican former congressmen Tom DeLay (Tex.),J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Robert H. Michel (Ill.), who was at the center of the 1990 dealmaking.“We’re still living in the world of that agreement. That’s when it became really radioactive to vote for tax increases.”

The budget saga became a tale of how to get Bush to gracefully break his pledge — except there was no graceful way to do it. When he realized he might need to back away from his vow, Bush searched for some new lines. In mid-1990, he sent, as a memento, a copy of one of his radio addresses to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), whom he was promoting for reelection. In the text, which still hangs in Upton’s office, Bush had crossed out the phrase “no new taxes” and scribbled in the words “limiting taxes.”

All summer in 1990, as the Oct. 1 deadline for a budget neared, negotiators tried to avoid bold steps and looked for what some called an “immaculate conception” — a package that would raise taxes yet help them escape blame for new taxes.

Bush’s budget director, Richard G. Darman, told Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine)that a tax increase would somehow “just emerge” from a meeting of Republican and Democratic leaders. Mitchell later said he was “very suspicious” because White House Chief of Staff John Sununu said he would seek to blame the Democrats for making a pitch for higher taxes.

Many of the same games being played today were played back then, too. Certain taxes were labeled “fees” or “revenue enhancers.” The administration talked about higher tax “revenues” rather than higher tax rates.

Ultimately, the government shut down for three days before a deal passed in a 21-hour, all-night House session. Higher tax rates and revenue accounted for 28 percent of the total deficit reductions. Democrats accepted trims in Medicare and constraints on the growth of domestic discretionary spending. The top income tax rate was raised from 28 percent to 31 percent, though a proposed increase in the gasoline tax was rejected.

Neither side liked the deal, and it tore the Republican Party apart. Richard Viguerie, a conservative activist, later told a PBS documentary that Bush had “betrayed the Reagan revolution” by breaking his tax pledge. It would be “one of his legacies that he will have to carry always, that he lied and betrayed, because he didn’t raise taxes kicking and screaming.”

Bush tried to appease the right wing, to no avail. Though he urged passage of the agreement, he also said that “there are some things in it I had to gag and digest.” House Minority Leader Michel, a moderate, cited Alexander Hamilton’s defense of the imperfect Constitution and said the deal was “the best the present views and circumstances of the country will permit.” He also noted that “the American people would rather have imperfect progress than perfect paralysis.”

It was a tepid defense of an ambitious effort to control the federal deficit, and it didn’t fly with the party. House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) had led a revolt against Michel and the Bush White House so that in the end, only 47 of the 176 House Republicans voted for the package. Though he came to the White House for the bill-signing ceremony, Gingrich refused to appear in the Rose Garden with other GOP leaders.

Within four years, Gingrich was House speaker and Michel was cast aside. Meanwhile, Bush had lost the White House. He failed to get credit for tackling the deficit, and he suffered blame for caving on his tax pledge.

President Obama is living in the shadow of the 1990 deal, a chief executive once again seeking to strike a compromise with a balkanized Congress. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) must look over his shoulder at Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) the way Michel did at Gingrich. And the overwhelming majority of Republican lawmakers — many of whom have taken a no-new-taxes pledge created by activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform — cringe at the possible consequences of embracing a tax increase.

Conservatives who worry that Boehner will cut a deal with the White House have compared the current speaker to Michel, now 88 and retired from Congress. In 2009, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh called Michel the “most compliant loser on the face of the Earth,” and Boehner has been decried as “Bob Michel in Wolf’s Clothing” on the conservative blog Ricochet. The blogger blasted Michel as “a perpetual compromiser” who “had no stomach for confrontation.”

Norquist thinks a 1990 redux is impossible. “This is a fantasy on the part of the liberal Democrats that the Republicans would be stupid enough to repeat 1990 and throw away a winning hand politically,” he said recently. “Why would you elect a Republican Senate if they just sat down with Obama and raised everyone’s taxes?”

But it may be time to reconsider the history of the 1990 budget deal. As long as any increase in taxes is equated to political suicide, managing America’s finances will prove difficult.

“There was a period when the highest goal for Republicans was getting a balanced budget, and if you had to raise taxes, you would do that,” says Feehery, the former GOP congressional aide, who is now director of government affairs at the communications and lobbying firm Quinn Gillespie. He defends the legacy of compromise embodied by Michel, who as House minority leader helped shepherd Reagan’s agenda through Congress in the 1980s.

It is also too simplistic to blame Bush’s failed reelection bid on his broken tax pledge. After the budget deal, his approval rating spiked to 90 percent following the Persian Gulf War. The lingering effects of the savings-and-loan debacle and a tight monetary policy by Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve weakened the economy, contributing to his defeat. Moreover, disaffected Republicans disliked his support for civil rights initiatives and the Clean Air Act.

Darman, who died in 2008, had advised the 1988 Bush campaign against making the tax pledge in the first place, arguing presciently that it would tie Bush’s hands as president. “For me and for President Bush, the line was to prove as haunting as it was memorable,” he wrote later in his book “Who’s in Control?”

But Darman, a Republican centrist reviled by many conservatives, also argued in his book that Bush could have broken his pledge without catastrophic political results. He said much of the public expected the president to break his promise. Moreover, he added, Ronald Reagan won a resounding reelection in 1984, two years after he signed the biggest tax increase in history, rolling back some of the excesses of a 1981 tax cut.

Noting that Bush’s rivals in 1992 — Bill Clinton and Ross Perot — both favored even higher taxes and collected 62 percent of the vote between them, Darman said, “It seems hard to defend the proposition that the vote against President Bush was a vote against taxes.”

He also said that Bush would have paid a smaller political price for breaking the pledge if he had not seemed to be gagging on it. “It would have been far more understandable and acceptable if the public could have seen clearly that the price was paid in order to achieve things that were good for the country,” Darman wrote.

That spirit of pragmatism seems almost quaint and naive in our new, uncompromising era. Now, the bulk of the Republican Party has chosen to treat current tax rates — themselves the result of a process of give and take and lobbying as chaotic as the debt negotiations — as though they were engraved on tablets of stone. And to avoid an unholy budget deal like the one in 1990, they have cast Norquist in the role of Moses at Sinai, coming down to rally his restive followers. The danger is that the economy will end up getting tossed onto a burning bush.


Watch the video: 1988 Flashback: George. Bush Says, Read My lips: No New Taxes. NBC News (December 2021).