Tax Analysts Blog

George H.W. Bush’s Profile in Pragmatism

Posted on May 15, 2014

Former President George H.W. Bush is famous for many things, including (in no particular order) his pedigree, diplomacy, and a well-established aversion to broccoli. But he’s also remembered – and sometimes pilloried – for his fiscal policy.

Earlier this month, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum honored Bush with its Profile in Courage Award, citing “the political courage he demonstrated as President when he agreed to a 1990 budget compromise which reversed his 1988 campaign pledge not to raise taxes and put his re-election prospects at risk.”

The Kennedy library has it right: Bush’s decision to accept a tax hike was certainly fraught with peril. But while every tax hike is risky for the politicians who support it, Bush made this one even more dangerous by promising during the 1988 campaign to never, ever raise taxes. (Time.com cited Bush’s “Read my lips” pledge as one of the 10 most unfortunate political one-liners of all time.)

But if Bush helped create the danger, he still proved willing to face it, and for that alone, he deserves some sort of prize. But at the risk of diminishing his valor, I think he’s best suited for what should be called the Profile in Pragmatism award.

Honestly, this is not such a small thing, especially when viewed in the context of our current political morass. We could use a lot more pragmatism in Washington, especially on Capitol Hill. (I’m fairly certain that President Obama considers himself a consummate pragmatist already, though he generally seems to confuse pragmatism with poor negotiating tactics.)

By the time he ran for president in 1988, Bush was already a noted pragmatist. Like every vice president, he had been forced to subordinate his own ideas to those of his ticket-mate. But in Bush’s case, this effort required some notable contortions (it isn’t easy to walk back a phrase like "voodoo economics").

Still, Bush’s pragmatic approach to the 1990 budget negotiations was impressive. It was not, however, especially heroic. It’s not as though Bush sized up the fiscal situation and charged ahead with his own unpopular proposal for a tax increase, politics be damned. In fact, the tax hike was forced on him by Democrats, who wouldn’t agree to a budget deal without some significant increase in revenues.

Bush, of course, could have simply refused to negotiate. But as Bruce Bartlett has recounted, Bush was desperate to jump-start the sluggish economy through looser monetary policy, and Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan had made clear that deficit reduction was a necessary precondition for that sort of policy shift.

In other words, Bush agreed to a tax hike, but only under duress. I suppose involuntary heroism might still qualify as heroism, especially when viewed against the backdrop of our current politics. In an era when elected officials seem oblivious to the long-term costs of gridlock and inertia, Bush-style pragmatism seems deeply admirable.

And deeply conservative. Words like liberal and conservative don’t have any sort of timeless meaning; they morph and evolve in every political era. But it wasn’t so long ago that fiscal responsibility was a bedrock tenet of Republican conservatism.

In theory it still is. But in practice, balanced budgets were long ago supplanted by tax cuts in the GOP pantheon of policy goals. As Dick Cheney famously observed, modern Republicans are convinced that “deficits don’t matter.”

Maybe not. But conservatives used to believe they mattered. And George Bush, more than most, was willing to act on that belief. Even if he had to be forced into it.

Read Comments (3)

edmund dantesMay 14, 2014

Raising taxes is a prerequisite for a "Profile in Courage" award. Another
prominent recipient was Lowell Weicker, who was given the award for bring the
income tax to Connecticut. Apparently the maximum display of courage in America
today is bravely spending other people's money.

And that's the real problem here. The Bush tax increase allowed an explosion
of new spending, as did the Weicker tax increase. The tax hikes did not reduce
the debt. Worse, the steady flow of income tax dollars allowed CT to go on a
borrowing binge, so that we today have among the highest levels of per capita
state debt.

In any event, your account differs from my memory. Bush didn't agree to the
tax hike to get a looser monetary policy, he did it to get the Congressional OK
for his invasion of Kuwait. The Democrats were dead set on getting Bush to
repudiate "read my lips" because they knew it would destroy his chance for
re-election. They held the Kuwait resolution hostage until he relented. The
fact that he caved under such modest pressure does not match my definition of
courage.

John K.May 15, 2014

At a C-Span aired discussion by participants in that budget deal, which
included the late Speaker Foley, it was suggested the deal laid the groundwork
for the budget success of President Clinton.

travis rechMay 15, 2014

"he did it to get the Congressional OK
for his invasion of Kuwait."

Remember the good old days when Presidents needed congressional approval to
launch invasions?

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