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

By Richard Himelfarb; Rosanna Perotti | Go to book overview

Discussant: Thomas S. Foley

I’m very pleased to be here and to have a chance to comment on these very interesting papers. First of all, Professor Sloan’s comments about President Bush’s situation in the context of Ronald Reagan’s role as a conviction politician: I think I agree with much of what he said. Certainly, having lived and worked through the Reagan years, it was impressive to me that President Reagan was able to take some actions which, if taken by others, would have resulted in bitter condemnation from conservatives and Republicans generally. President Reagan could take those same actions without a ripple of protest. The principal tax increase of the last generation was not the Clinton budget of 1993; it was not the budget adopted as a result of the budget compromise of 1990; it was the Tax Equity and Fiscal Reform Act which was passed during the Reagan years, in 1982. President Reagan, seeing the necessity, or being impressed with the necessity, to increase taxes proposed the legislation, and both Republicans and Democrats in the Congress supported it. The present majority leader of the Senate, Trent Lott, and I were whips together. We had the difficult task of getting the majority support in the House of Representatives for President Reagan’s tax-increase proposal, which was contrary to the rhetoric of the 1994 election, the largest tax increase in history, judged by current dollars.

Republicans didn’t want to vote for it; Democrats were fearful that, if they voted for it, the Republicans would not vote for it and they would be attacked in the subsequent election as having been tax increasers, which the public is soft to believe. So we worked hard together and finally got the necessary majorities in the House and the Senate, a majority of both parties. But the point is, President Reagan didn’t suffer any consequence of that. He was truly, as Pat Schroeder has said, the “Teflon president.”

So President Bush’s decision, after he had promised in the convention of 1988, “Read my lips: I will not raise taxes,” to raise taxes was, in my judgment, the single greatest act of political courage of his administration. I say that because the suggestion that he was waffling on various issues, from civil rights to abortion to taxes, has to be judged in, again, the context of the time. Nobody, I’m sure, at the White House had the slightest doubt that the president would suffer politically for the decision to agree to a budget scheme which included the raising of taxes. It is inconceivable that anybody would have thought that that would be a political plus for him, as I think all the speakers have indicated here. Why did he do it?

He did it because it was his conviction that it was necessary to do it; that the deficit had to be reduced; that the possibility to reduce the deficit without reducing entitlements was slight, and the necessity to have some kind of tax increase as a balance for entitlement reduction was a political necessity of the time. So I think the president’s action was heroic. Whatever anybody might think in terms of the economic consequences of it—and I will defend the economic consequences of

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