"Read my lips: No new taxes," George Bush swore in 1988. Then he endorsed new taxes in 1990. Then he claimed to deeply "regret" those taxes in 1992. Now, in 1997, he pats himself on the back for them.
THE NEWEST political theory making the rounds is that former President George Bush, who breached his no-new-taxes pledge in 1990 with one of the sharpest tax hikes in US history, deserves credit for first blazing the trail that led to Washington's new balanced-budget deal.
Television pundit William Schneider lofted this thesis on CNN's "Inside Politics" show, proclaiming Bush one of the "unsung heroes" of the budget agreement. "When he was faced with a deficit crisis," Schneider declared, "President Bush delivered." CNN anchor Bernard Shaw was so delighted with Schneider's spin that he burst into applause — literally started clapping — on the air.
He isn't the only one applauding. On Friday, The New York Times labeled Bush "the man who risked the most and paid the biggest price for cutting the deficit." Robert Reischauer, who ran the Congressional Budget Office when the Democrats ran Congress, agreed: "The major heavy lifting was done by George Bush and the 101st Congress." Bush's close friend and sometime treasury secretary, Nicholas Brady, chimed in, "It started with George Bush. He's the guy who lay down on the railroad tracks."
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is revisionist nonsense. Raising taxes in 1990 not only didn't balance the budget, it triggered three years of record-high deficits. It slowed an already limping economy, helping erase more than 1 million jobs. It sent the national debt streaking upward, from $3.2 trillion in 1990 to $ 4.3 trillion in 1993. And far from curbing federal spending, Bush's budget deal accelerated it by an average of $52 billion a year.
It would be nice to report that Bush himself declines to take credit for any economic good news. But being a finger-to-the-wind politician means never having to say you're sorry. So when The New York Times asked Bush whether he deserves some of the glory for the new budget arrangement, he was quick to award himself a halo.
"I'm a great believer in letting history decide what you did right and what you did wrong," he said. "I do think history will show that we laid the groundwork for some of this. It would please me if that was recognized, because I was derided as being out of touch and having no feel for the economy."
Now it is certainly true that men of conviction and principle can hold fast to unpopular positions when they are secure in the belief that history will vindicate them. It is also true that George Bush has been running away from his 1990 tax hike virtually from the moment he signed it into law. He has called it "a mistake" that "probably wasn't worth it." He told one columnist that if there was one thing he could "do over again, I would have rescinded making a deal with the Congress." He told another, "Look, if I had to do that over, I wouldn't do it. Look at all the flak it's taking." And just in case his message wasn't getting through, he told the Atlanta Journal: "I did it and I regret it and I regret it."
In his acceptance speech at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, Bush appealed to the voters: "Who do you trust in this election? The candidate who raised taxes one time and regrets it, or the other candidate, who raised taxes and fees 128 times, and enjoyed it every time?"
Other presidents might have hung tough on an unpopular decision. (Ronald Reagan comes to mind.) But not Bush. "Two years ago," he told the Houston delegates, "I made a bad call on the Democrats' tax increase. . . . When it comes to taxes, I've learned the hard way." In New Jersey a few weeks later he was even more adamant: "We do not need to raise taxes in this country. I found out the hard way. . . . I'm not going to do it again. Never, ever."
Yet now we are to believe that all the while he serenely expected history to one day prove him right. Sure he did.
In truth, what history will say about George Bush is that he stood for almost nothing. As his speechwriter Peggy Noonan observed, he seemed to have "few beliefs that were not subject to shifts in wind, ground, and circumstance." And since he was serious about nothing, he could promise anything. He could swear "No new taxes" in 1988, then endorse new taxes in 1990, then plead deep "regret" for those taxes in 1992 — and now pat himself on the back for them in 1997.
The great irony of Bush's career is that he was fired by an electorate that had stopped believing anything he said — only to be replaced by a president who was even more phony and inconstant.
No, Bush isn't an "unsung hero" of the balanced-budget deal. But then, neither is anybody else. There is nothing heroic about this deal, and it certainly doesn't balance any budget. Instead of reining in federal outlays and eliminating the deficit now, it locks in higher spending of at least $300 billion and all but ensures five more years of deficits. It adds hundreds of pages to the Internal Revenue Code, blows a hole in last year's welfare reform, and creates yet another health-insurance entitlement scheme.
And what do taxpayers get in return? Tax cuts amounting to less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the US economy.
"History will show," Bush says, "that we laid the groundwork for some of this." For this dog's dinner, he wants some credit? One is almost tempted to say: Let him have it.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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