As Gov. Chris Gregoire prepares to enter the gravest budget battle of her career, it is instructive to look back with admiration on the actions of former President Bush during a similar crisis.
Oh… not George W. Bush… he was a total moron and dickwad whose irresponsible domestic and foreign policies largely left us in our current economic shithole, and who history will rightly remember as one of our worst presidents ever. No, I’m talking about his father, George H.W. Bush, a rather middling president, but one who was at least well-trained and prepared for the position, and who when push came to shove ultimately sacrificed a huge chunk of political capital (and perhaps his reelection) by abandoning his famous campaign pledge and agreeing to substantial tax increases in the 1990 budget.
Throughout 1988, then Vice-President Bush consistently campaigned on a no-new-tax pledge, and it is safe to say that the most memorable and oft-quoted moment of his Republican nomination speech came in the form of the Peggy Noonan scribed line, “Read my lips: no new taxes!” It was a profoundly irresponsible promise, but it no doubt helped him win the election against an opponent Republicans smeared as “the Governor from Taxachusetts.”
The pledge had been made under the rosy assumption that the fast growth of the late 198o’s would continue indefinitely, but when the economy stumbled and tax revenues fell far short of projections, the nation was faced with a yawning budget deficit… the largest in peacetime history. So in 1990 President Bush did what had to be done; he went back on his word and agreed to a budget that amongst other things, levied a 10% surtax on the income of the wealthiest Americans. The New York Post mocked President Bush for making a mockery of his convention pledge, printing the headline, “Read my Lips: I Lied.”
But it was the pledge that had proven foolish and irresponsible, not the breaking of it, and Bush 41 has always deserved credit for putting governance ahead of politics, at least in that particular situation. The 1990 budget agreement was the first step toward getting our ballooning federal deficits under control, laying the groundwork for a Clinton budget that ultimately led to surpluses by the end of the decade. Given the economic circumstances, raising taxes was the right thing to do, however unpopular and at whatever the political cost.
Gov. Gregoire faces a similar situation, a recent no-new-tax pledge coming back to haunt her as she struggles with a revenue shortfall more than twice as large as even the most pessimistic projections only a few months back. And like Bush 41 before, the press is already preparing to mock her should she ultimately go back on her word.
But unlike Bush, Gregoire’s no-new-tax pledge was never the centerpiece of her campaign, and she never used it to draw a stark ideological distinction with her opponent. Besides, voters simply don’t elect Democrats to hold the line on taxes—it goes against type—so if this really was a top issue for the majority of voters last November, the vocally anti-tax Dino Rossi wouldn’t have lost by 6.5 percentage points.
Gov. Gregoire’s unfortunate acquiescence in ruling out tax increases was ill-advised and ultimately unnecessary, but it was not nearly as forceful or irresponsible as H.W’s signature soundbite. So if a Republican president, facing a revolt from within the ranks of his own party, could swallow his famous words for the good of the nation, then Gregoire, with a Democratic legislature at her back, could certainly do similar for the good of our state.
Facing a record $9 billion projected shortfall and demand for public services at an all time high, the only responsible course is to use all the budgetary tools at our disposal: cuts, deficit spending and tax increases. As President George H.W. Bush proved in 1990, going back on your word can sometimes constitute an extraordinary act of political courage. Here’s hoping Gov. Gregoire proves just as courageous.