Principle over Politics? The Domestic Policy of the George H. W. Bush Presidency

By Richard Himelfarb; Rosanna Perotti | Go to book overview

Discussant: James W. Cicconi

I think this is obviously a painful subject for most of us who worked in the White House, because I think it was probably the most internally divisive issue, and just as much inside the White House as it seemed to be in our party and in the country at large. There were very intense discussions and disagreements, and they persist, I must say, over whether or not we took the right course. I do believe that one thing is indisputable, and that is that this was a political tragedy for George Bush. I think, absent his action on the 1990 budget deal, that three months ago he would have concluded his second term as president. I think the consequences of the decision were damaged personal credibility and ability to lead the country, a split in the Republican Party on this issue—a fairly immediate split. That split, in turn, begat Pat Buchanan’s challenge to the president in the primaries, and Buchanan in turn begat Perot, which was at least the proximate cause of his defeat in 1992. President Bush himself has said on a number of occasions that this was the biggest mistake of his presidency.

Why did this occur? I believe that George Bush was convinced at the time that the economic health of the United States made a budget agreement imperative in 1990 so imperative that it justified going back on his “read my lips” pledge. I think the unfortunate fact is that this strategy was flawed at the time, both politically and substantively. I think it was based on a number of false assumptions that many of us believed at the time in good faith. One of them was an assumption that the Democrats, in the 1990 election year, and facing the president with approval ratings of 74 percent—which is, I believe, where George Bush’s numbers were in March or April of 1990–that these Democrats would be willing, in an election year, to set aside partisan politics and conclude such an agreement. In 1989, which was not an election year, they had been incapable of doing this on capital gains. In fact, with majorities in both the House and the Senate supporting a capital gains tax reduction, nonetheless partisan politics prevailed. And I might add, as an aside, that if we had succeeded in obtaining that in 1989,1 think it might well have avoided the recession that followed.

We also threw away, I believe, in our strategy the three main points of leverage that we had, and I think we really only had three. The first was the president’s high popularity ratings, and I think we threw away that advantage up front by abandoning the pledge. The second point of leverage was the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law. This isn’t talked about very much right now, but the Gramm-Rudman process was in place; sequestrations were due to occur if the budget targets were not met, and I believe that the target was a deficit of $60 billion in that fiscal year. This process placed a political burden on the Democratic Congress, because if you were to avoid the mandated sequestrations, the Congress had to put in place its own cuts—or its own tax increases. But it placed the burden on the Congress, the politi

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