George H.W. Bush: Breaking a pledge, doing the right thing on taxes

This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham, author of “Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush,” spoke to Yahoo News about Bush’s defining moment of presidential leadership: the costly decision to defy his Republican base and break his “no new taxes” pledge to bring the federal budget deficit under control.


The biggest speech of George H.W. Bush’s life was his 1988 acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination. It was his moment to actually step out of Ronald Reagan’s shadow and become his own man.

There was still such conservative skepticism about Bush that he felt compelled to make the ‘no new taxes’ pledge in as vivid a way as possible.

So he said the famous line: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

And it worked. Bush won the presidency.

In the cycles of American politics, 1988 should have been a Democratic year. Bush himself understood that that pledge had been vital to his victory, but there was this bifurcation in his mind. He saw campaigning as one set of rules — and then governing was when the grownups showed up.

Deficits had been rising under President Reagan; federal spending itself had been rising.

Bush believed that he could hold the line for a year or two. But he was an economics graduate from Yale, so he knew that the budget was not balancing. He suspected he would have to break his pledge.

By now, Newt Gingrich had begun a campaign of permanent attacks on Democrats. He would use the C-Span cameras late at night. He would write memos telling other candidates to call the Democrats sickos, and pathetic, and weak.

To Gingrich and his allies, victory, particularly winning the Congress back, was the central goal — more so, in many ways, than the fiscal health of the country. Bush saw sound governance as the art of compromise; this rising Republican force saw politics as total warfare.

And those two forces met in conflict in the early summer of 1990 over the question of whether taxes should be raised to lower the federal deficit.

Bush knew that the Republicans were going to kill him, but he still had this old-fashioned sense that he was their president; maybe they would recognize his sound governance, as opposed to their idealism.

So he decided to break the pledge in exchange for rules that would control the deficit going forward.

The president knew in real time that this would probably cost him reelection. And sure enough, the base exploded. They were saying, “See, we told you — this guy couldn’t be trusted.” Meanwhile, there weren’t enough moderate Republicans to secure his political salvation.

It was one of the great political mistakes of Bush’s career, and he paid for it [with his presidency].

Bush believed that he’d done the right thing for America. He knew he might lose, but he was willing to take that risk.

And in the end, history proved Bush right. Bill Clinton will tell you, at some length, that the pay-go budget rules Bush got in exchange for the tax increases in 1990 helped set the stage for the prosperity of the following decade.

Politicians have to decide: Are they going to be mirrors of who we are, or are they going to be molders? And the politicians we remember, the ones whose portraits hang on our walls, the ones who are on Rushmore or our currency, are the ones who decide to mold the country rather than simply reflect it.

George H.W. Bush, believed that he was not a Republican president — he was a president. And there’s something very old-fashioned about that.

He was just in a different world. But that was a better world in many ways.


Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.

Cover thumbnail photo: President George H. W. Bush speaks of dropping his no-new-taxes campaign pledge in 1990. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Dennis Cook/AP, Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)