Bush 41: See, I told you so

The Republican who raised taxes claims vindication in a new film – years after repudiating his own deal

Topics: War Room,

Bush 41: See, I told you soGeorge H.W. Bush in 1990. (Credit: Reuters/Gary Cameron)

“41,” a new documentary about George H.W. Bush set to debut on HBO Thursday night, is a political film that isn’t very political. It’s the story of the former president’s life, told only in his words, without much context and with no critical commentary.

We see, for instance, that he ran for president in 1980, but we’re never reminded that he did so as a pro-choice moderate who ridiculed Ronald Reagan’s supply-side agenda as “voodoo economics.”  Nor is it mentioned that he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 during his first campaign, that his pick of a vice president prompted widespread ridicule and raised concerns about his judgment, and that he won the White House in 1988 with an ugly campaign that challenged his opponent’s patriotism and featured its share of race-baiting.

For the most part, this isn’t a problem. There is much to admire about Bush the man and much to respect about his presidency, and the film isn’t trying to create a definitive historical record; it’s simply offering viewers a chance to watch a public man not known for his introspection reflect at length on his 88 years of living. It’s well worth a viewing.

But Bush does make an observation that is very relevant to the historical record and to today’s paralysis in Washington. It involves the most consequential domestic action of his presidency: the 1990 budget agreement.

As a candidate in ’88, Bush had made a show of promising to resist any effort by Democrats in Congress to increase revenues. “They’ll push and I’ll say ‘No,’” he’d said, “and they’ll push again and I’ll say to them, ‘Read my lips: No new taxes.’” Confronted with the reality of lingering Reagan-era deficits as president, though, Bush recognized the need to go back on his word. But in so doing, he undermined his credibility with voters and prompted a full-fledged revolt from conservatives (who were led by an ambitious and ruthless House minority whip named Newt Gingrich) and a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan in 1992.

In “41,” Bush is asked by an off-camera voice if he regretted any of it. “Nope,” he replies. “It was right.”

History smiles on this assessment. Along with Bill Clinton’s 1993 budget, the deal that Bush struck in 1990 established new tax rates that, once the economy revived in the middle and later years of the decade, produced a revenue windfall. By the time Clinton left office, the country was running surpluses and the elimination of the entire national debt was within sight.

But Bush hasn’t always been this proud of what he did. Rather than standing by his actions, when he ran for reelection in 1992, he actually repudiated the ’90 budget, telling Americans that he’d made a mistake and regretted ever doing it.

“I should have held out for a better deal that would have protected the taxpayer and not ended up doing what we had to do — or what I thought at the time would help,” he said during one of the ’92 debates. “So I made a mistake. I — you know, the difference, I think, is that I knew at the time I was going to take a lot of political flak, I knew we’d have somebody out there yelling, ‘Read my lips.’ And I did it because I thought it was right — and I made a mistake.”

Whether Bush actually believed this at the time is unclear, but it’s worth remembering that the unanimous consensus on the right in ‘92 was that the ’90 budget had failed, since deficits were still soaring. There actually was a reason for this: The economic downturn of the early ‘90s had reduced overall tax revenue, spoiling the deficit reduction projections that had been envisioned. But Bush didn’t try to make this case during the campaign. Any American listening to him would have believed that his effort to arrest deficits with a tax increase had failed.

There was a serious consequence to this, because it allowed the anti-tax absolutists in the GOP to claim vindication. The idea that taxes should never be raised for any reason became popular in the GOP in the late 1970s and ‘80s, but it was only after the ’90 saga that it became an article of faith. As a result, when Clinton proposed his tax hike/spending cut deficit reduction plan in ’93, not a single Republican was willing to vote for it, nor have any Republicans been willing to compromise on the issue since.

You can draw a direct line from ‘90 to today, as congressional Republicans refuse to even consider raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans in the face of a $15 trillion debt. Their adamance has made any substantial compromise between the executive and legislative branches impossible these past two years, and threatens to do the same next year if divided government is still the rule.

When Bush called the tax deal a mistake during that ’92 debate, Bill Clinton jumped in to correct him. “The mistake,” Clinton said, “that was made was making the ‘Read my lips’ promise in the first place, just to get elected, knowing what the size of the deficit was.” As he lives out his political retirement, Bush is more than justified in expressing pride in what he did in 1990. But he would have been equally justified in doing so at the time – and it might have mattered more if he did.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>