Reading This Bush's Lips

The legacy of President George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father, is marked by an infamous reversal on taxes.

At the 1988 Republican National Convention, the senior Bush made a memorable pledge: "(T)he Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say to them, read my lips, no new taxes."

But when a Democratic Congress pushed in 1990, the senior Bush said, "Yes." He signed a sweeping tax increase. Two years later, voters threw him out of office — even though he had led the United States to victory against Saddam’s Iraq in the Persian Gulf War.

The senior Bush won just 38% in his failed re-election bid.

Today, according to RealClearPolitics, the average approval rating for President George W. Bush is 36.7%. So, is that the nadir achievable by a Republican president? Or can W. drop further?

Unfortunately, I believe he can — especially if he follows his father’s footsteps and raises taxes.

There are disturbing hints he could do just that.

It’s worth remembering that this Bush made his own "No New Taxes" pledge. On Jan. 5, 2002, he said that Democrats in Congress would like to raise taxes, but he would not allow it. "Not over my dead body will they raise your taxes," he said.

To date, he’s been good to his word. Better yet, he has compiled an exemplary record on taxes.

In 2001, Bush signed a law that phased in lower income tax rates, increased the tax credit for dependent children and phased out the estate tax over 10 years. In 2003, he signed another law lowering tax rates on dividends and capital gains, and accelerating the earlier enacted income tax cuts.

Buoyed by these tax cuts, the nation emerged from a recession even in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. The economy has grown in every quarter after those attacks, and unemployment has dropped to 4.5 percent. Proving again the supply side premise, federal revenues have been increasing despite the lower tax rates — so much so that the deficit is now declining despite a lack of discipline in federal spending. In October, the Congressional Budget Office reported that federal revenues increased by 14.5% in 2005 and 11.8% in 2006, the two highest percentage increases since 1981.

But two things could reverse this success. A Democratic Congress could allow the Bush tax cuts to lapse after 2010, when they are set to expire under current law. Or Bush himself could agree to a tax increase.

On November 2, White House spokesman Tony Snow appeared on CNBC’s "Kudlow and Company." Host Larry Kudlow asked him: "There are rumors now that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson … might be willing to accept an increase in the top personal tax rate and maybe an increase in the taxable wage base in order to get an entitlement compromise. Can you squash those rumors?"

"No, I can’t," said Snow.

On November 22, Paulson told The Washington Post there were "no preconditions" on his discussions with members of Congress about Social Security reform.

At a White House press briefing on December 8, my colleague John Gizzi, political editor of Human Events, asked Snow: "It’s been reported that Secretary Paulson has not closed the door on raising taxes in his discussions with Democratic congressional leaders. Does the president rule out raising taxes, including lifting the income tax cap on payroll taxes and lifting the marginal income tax rates?"

Snow tried to evade the question, but Gizzi persisted: "So you are ruling out a tax increase? Or you’re not?"

"No, I’m not," said Snow. "I’m not commenting either way. I’m not ruling it up, and I’m not ruling it down, because you know what, as you and I have seen in the past, definitions of these things can be very squirrelly."

The Washington Post last week asked Bush himself about the possibility of raising taxes as part of a Social Security reform deal. "I don’t see how you can move forward without people feeling comfortable about putting ideas on the table," Bush said. "I have made it clear that I have a way forward that can do it (without raising taxes), and I want to hear other people’s opinions."

President Bush may be tempted to believe that cutting a Social Security deal with a Democratic Congress — even if it requires a tax increase — would improve his current standing as well as his long-term legacy. If so, he is wrong on both counts. Such a deal would cut deeply into his remaining support, and history would remember him as another Bush who reversed course on taxes.