Tax in the cradle

With his tax cut pledge Thursday night, Bush has tried to step away from his father's "no new taxes" broken promise.

Published January 7, 2000 10:46AM (EST)

In a moment of soundtrack selection that can most charitably be described as unfortunate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush strode to the podium for a news conference Friday to the tune of "Cat's in the Cradle," Harry Chapin's bittersweet ode to the strained relationship between a father and son.

Whoever selected the campaign soundtrack couldn't have picked a more disconcerting tune, unless he had picked Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines (Don't Do It)." Because on Friday in New Hampshire, the memory of Bush's father -- or, more precisely, his father's "No new taxes" 1988 campaign pledge, which he infamously broke -- loomed large. The night before, at the first GOP debate of the year, Bush had been pressed by a reporter to repeat his father's most notorious contribution to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

"So this is 'No new taxes, so help me God'?" John DiStaso of the Manchester Union Leader asked.

"This is not only 'No new taxes,'" Bush glibbed, "it's 'Tax cuts, so help me God.'"

It took less than 12 hours for publisher Steve Forbes to pounce, as he unveiled a 30-second TV ad featuring a Houston anti-tax activist blasting the Texas governor for breaking a no new taxes pledge before.

"In 1994, he [Bush] signed a pledge with my organization that he would not support sales tax or business tax increases," Mary Williams of Taxpayers for Accountability says in the ad. "In 1997, unfortunately, he broke this pledge. He proposed an increase in the business tax and sales taxes. Gov. Bush wants people to examine his record to see how he will perform as president. And his record as far as taxes are concerned is a record of broken promises."

At Friday's news conference, a testy Bush was grilled by reporters about the pledge Williams accused him of breaking. In his own defense, Bush accurately argued that his record in Texas is of providing net tax decreases. The bill he signed in 1997 provided a $1 billion tax decrease. Another measure he signed in 1999 provided $2.8 billion in tax cuts, mostly targeted at the business community.

But what Bush didn't go into is the true history of the 1997 fight -- and how it makes him vulnerable to charges that he has been willing to support some tax increases, and how it can be accurately argued that he has broken tax promises just like his daddy.

In 1997, Bush introduced a tax bill that went nowhere. The Democratic-controlled Texas Legislature introduced a new bill, one that included plans to raise 73 different taxes -- including state sales taxes -- in a bill that still provided a net tax decrease. Bush supported this bill, despite the fact that as a candidate for governor in 1994, he had signed a Taxpayers for Accountability pledge that begins, "I oppose establishing a state personal income tax or increasing the state sales tax."

The bill was eventually scuttled by the Republican-controlled Texas Senate. And the bill that ended up passing contained no tax increases. Yet, indisputably, Bush at one point supported a sales tax increase -- against his pledge -- as part of a package that provided a new tax decrease by providing property tax relief.

In the past, Bush tried to worm his way out of the pledge by claiming that a clueless staffer had signed the document with an auto-pen. But that argument apparently proved such a loser in Texas, he didn't even try it Friday with the national press corps.

Bush tried to slough off Forbes' charges. Bush's media advisor, Mark McKinnon, called the ad "ludicrous," though it is accurate in asserting that Bush supported a sales tax increase, even if the ad is misleading and incomplete about the final bill that Bush actually ended up signing thanks to the conservative Texas Senate.

"It was a tax cut on day one, and a tax cut on the final day," Bush said of the process.

Bush said that Forbes was resorting to attack ads because his campaign is getting desperate. "There's a tendency in politics when things aren't going well in the positive side, to resort to the negative," Bush said. McKinnon said that the Bush campaign had anticipated Forbes' attack, and had already cut ads to respond, though a decision won't be made on whether or not to run the ads for a couple days.

What was most telling at the press conference, held in a conference room at Cabletron Systems, wasn't just Bush's lack of forthrightness about his past willingness to support some tax increases. After all, by now it should be pretty clear that the man is evasive and doesn't feel like he has to answer legitimate questions, even ones that are not cocaine related. What was most fascinating was the fact that, as "Cat's in the cradle" faded out, Bush displayed an incomprehension that anyone would even question the previous night's pledge, despite the fact that his father is the most notorious tax-pledge breaker in history.

"I'm committed to the plan," an indignant Bush said. "That's why I said last night, when I was asked about my tax cut, that this is a pledge. I'm amazed that anybody would even wonder why somebody running for office doesn't intend to do what they say they're going to do in a campaign. I guess people are used to broken promises out of Washington, D.C."

When a reporter noted the pedigree of one of Washington, D.C.'s most infamous "broken promises," Bush said, "My dad will go down in history as a really good president. And his record can stand for itself. I'm the person running for president."

You could almost hear the Chapin song taking on new lyrics.

"... and the tax in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy Dub ..."

The subject of taxes was first raised by Bush, who has forsaken his campaign's previous emphasis on education in favor of tax cuts in an attempt to contrast himself with Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Bush has proposed a five-year, $483 billion tax cut, to be paid for by the current budget surplus as well as projected future surpluses. Those in the highest income tax bracket would see their tax rate reduced from 39.6 percent to 33 percent. Middle-income earners would see their 31 percent rate reduced to 25 percent; the lowest income individuals would see their rate drop from 15 percent to 10 percent. Bush calls this "smashing the toll booths on the road to the middle class."

McCain favors using the budget surplus to shore up Social Security and Medicare, to pay down the debt, as well as to offer a modicum of tax relief to those in lower three-fifths of the income scale. "John McCain focuses his tax cuts on working families," a McCain press release said, while Bush "would use 60 percent of surplus for top 10 percent of wage earners, like most of his top contributors."

Bush and his surrogates have intimated that McCain's plan and his criticisms of Bush's recall the rhetoric of Vice President Al Gore.

"If he says I'm like Al Gore, then he's spinning like Bill Clinton," McCain countered after Thursday night's debate.

According to an analysis by Richard Keil of Bloomberg Business News, both men are right. "In terms of actual money," Keil says, "McCain is right in saying that 60 percent of the money goes to the top 10 percent of taxpayers. Whereas Bush is right in saying -- on a percentage basis -- that most of the cuts go to lower-middle class people. Both are being more or less honest in their claims."

Honest or not, Bush at Friday's news conference was nothing short of irritable. What he thought would be a home-run issue for his campaign has become mired, at least temporarily, in a round of quibbling. Instead of talking about his plans for the future, reporters were more interested in discussing the past. And not just his past, either.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz. Republican Party