Tax Analysts Blog

Jeb Bush, Grover Norquist, and the Decline of the Pledge

Posted on Mar 3, 2015

On March 1 the spokeswoman for former Florida governor and 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush said that Bush would not sign Grover Norquist's antitax pledge. Norquist subsequently tweeted that those who didn't sign the pledge almost always raised taxes when pushed by "spenders." Does Bush's refusal signal that the antitax pledge, which as recently as 2010 seemed enshrined as a third rail of Republican politics, is losing relevance?

Bush is an interesting 2016 candidate. He will almost certainly be the best-funded contender in the Republican field. He is frequently touted as the front-runner by those who are salivating over yet another Bush-Clinton matchup or those who want to paint such a contest as representing the staleness of American politics. But he isn't doing all that well in early polling. He is hopelessly behind in Iowa surveys, and over the weekend he got only 8 percent in the overrated CPAC straw poll (which Rand Paul won with over 25 percent of the votes). So maybe Bush is just the Jon Huntsman of 2016 and his refusal to sign on to Norquist's pledge isn't all that important.

If Bush wanted to help shed his moderate image, reflexively signing the antitax pledge would seem an easy way to do it. After all, he would just be joining virtually every elected Republican at the federal and state level. Bush's refusal to sign the pledge might be seen as a sign that, like Huntsman, he actually relishes his moderate image.

Or maybe, as a former governor, he recognizes the inflexibility of the pledge. He wouldn't be the only GOP leader from the states to scorn a promise that is very difficult to reconcile with both balanced budget requirements and states' needs to keep roads and schools well funded. Unlike lawmakers in Congress, state governors must actually govern. People might look on their representatives in Washington as a bunch of distant bumblers, but they certainly notice when teachers go on strike or roads and bridges disintegrate. Many states have balanced budget requirements that usually require a governor and state legislature to have some ability to mix and match spending cuts and tax increases to comply with the law. Attempts to circumvent those balanced budget laws end up looking gimmicky or only postponing disaster (remember Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota in 2012).

Regardless of where he is polling now, Bush will be a serious contender for the 2016 nomination, barring something unforeseen. That makes Bush's refusal to sign Norquist's pledge extremely significant. If the former Florida governor ends up being the nominee and hasn't signed the pledge, it might give other center-right candidates more of an option to disregard a rigid pledge to never raise any taxes. And that would be a major development in conservative tax policy.

Read Comments (4)

robert goulderMar 2, 2015

I wouldn't be surprised if the pledge fades regardless of what Jeb does. People
are learning to see through it.

Recently Jeb was asked if he'd accept a deficit reduction 'grand bargain' in
which there were $10 of federal spending cuts for every $1 of tax hikes. He
responded that he'd jump on that deal in a heartbeat, or words to that effect.

Many people would view that kind of 10:1 budget package as good governance and
a win-win for conservatives. Predictably, Grover took Jeb task. He labelled him
a tax-raiser just his father ('read my lips').

For pledge-takers that budget deal needs to be $10 dollars of spending cuts +
$0 dollars of tax hikes. That's where the pledge loses me. Sorry people, this
orthodoxy is not realistic.

I appreciate low tax burdens as much as the next person, but what good is the
pledge if it prevents GOP leaders from making a deal that brings us a healthy
dose of fiscal responsibility?

If ATR were serious about starving the beast, wouldn't they have made the
pledge about spending rather than taxing? Instead they premise their policy on
the herculean assumption that by never raising taxes you introduce a spending
brake. It seems that recent history proves that wrong. Congress just spends
money it doesn't have. That was even true during the 108th and 109th Congresses
when the GOP held the House, the Senate, plus the White House.

This makes me miss the days when the GOP was the party of deficit hawks. Seems
we've traded tax-&-spend liberalism for don't-tax-&-continue-to-spend
conservatism. And I worry about where that leaves us in the long run.

edmund dantesMar 3, 2015

"Bush is an interesting 2016 candidate."

No, he isn't. Bush is the candidate of the Washington Republican
establishment. He seems also to be the preferred Republican candidate of the
press. Among actual voters, there is very little interest in yet another Bush
in the White House, if not active hostility. The country is moving decisively
to the right, a reaction to Obama similar to the reaction to Carter in 1980.
Bush is not a conservative, he probably would be more comfortable as a Democrat.

Bush's stance on taxes is as out of step with ordinary Republicans as is his
stance on amnesty for illegal immigrants or the Common Core. The "something
unforeseen" that will happen to Bush is that he won't finish higher than 3rd
place in any primary or caucus, despite his funding.

Remember when Ronald Reagan accepted the $3 of spending cuts for $1 of tax
increases in TEFRA? We've seen that movie already. You get the tax increases,
and permanently, but somehow you never get the spending cuts. Spending went up
dramatically throughout Reagan's presidency, because he failed to restrain a
Congress that never gave a second thought to spending cuts once the ink on
TEFRA dried. What's more, the tax hike scored to raise $1 usually raises $5
after enactment.

Conservatives now know the "spending cuts for tax increases" is always a con
game, so they are not falling for it any more. The deficit hawks are focused
now on increasing their ranks, not compromising their principles.

bubba shawnMar 3, 2015

Governor Jeb Bush cut taxes every year of his two terms in office. He doesn't
need to sign Norquist's antitax pledge. That is because he will continue to
cut taxes if he comes President.

David BrunoriMar 5, 2015

Interesting and timely post. Governor Bentley in Alabama recently (like this
past week) proposed significant tax increases. Bentley signed the pledge never
to raise taxes. The NYT says he is the 16th most conservative governor in the
nation. He wants to raise cigarette taxes and adopt combined reporting to raise
revenue. The former is an awful idea; the latter won't amount to much.
Apparently, breaking his promise never to raise taxes does not trouble him
much.

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