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

By Richard Himelfarb; Rosanna Perotti | Go to book overview

Questions and Answers

Neil D. Levin: In the remaining time, which is short, let me see if we can zip through several questions here which can hopefully tie together a number of comments which were made today. Let me just throw out a question for Jim or Roger with regard to the “no new tax” pledge. The question being, should the pledge have been made in the first place? Was it a case of, basically, for political gains up front paying a price down the road—pay now, pay later—a decision made to get the gains up front? Looking back, is that a decision, do you think, that should have been made during the campaign?

James W. Cicconi: I think it was a matter of political necessity for George Bush in the 1988 campaign. I think, first of all, if you consider the situation he faced in 1988 in New Hampshire, this became a highly charged issue which he used to secure the nomination. And ironically, it was John Sununu—probably one of the three people, in addition to Jim Baker and Lee Atwater, most responsible for making George Bush president of the United States—who sensitized him to the tax issue and the importance of making a categorical statement on taxes. A lot of people feel that “Read my lips” was really the first iteration of it. It wasn’t. It was taking the tax pledge in New Hampshire and using that against Bob Dole.

Levin: Let me throw out another question here for—Roger, do you want to comment on that?

Roger B. Porter: I share Jim’s view that making the pledge during the 1988 campaign bordered on the necessary with respect to his political fortunes. He was trying to define himself in ways that would be attractive to the set of people who vote in primaries (which is a different set of people than vote in general elections). He was trying to reassure a group of people who had been through repeated exercises in which taxes had been increased and were very unhappy about that, as are most Americans. We have been taxing ourselves at 19 percent of GDP for roughly the last twenty-five years. It’s fluctuated a little, but most Americans are very uncomfortable with giving the federal government more than about 19 percent of the pie. Most of us like to be reassured by those whom we are electing to office that they are not going to raise taxes. And I think there was a very strong, powerful political incentive to do so.

There is, however, as anyone who has been in public life recognizes, great danger in making categorical statements because circumstances can change, and then one is left with having to explain why you are pursuing a course different than you had suggested you would. It is almost impossible for anyone to anticipate all the things that are going to happen in the next four years. This is a problem for every candidate in virtually every election. And the more categorical statements one makes, which often are required politically, the greater the difficulties in the future

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