Here’s How George HW Bush’s ‘No New Taxes’ Pledge Changed American Economic Policy & Cross-Party Politics

Former President of the United States George H.W. Bush looks on during opening ceremonies prior to the start of The Presidents Cup at The Royal Montreal Golf Club on September 26, 2007 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

George H.W. Bush made history when he uttered the now-infamous words, “read my lips: no new taxes.” But just a few years after rocketing the phrase into the American lexicon, he worked with the Democrat-controlled Congress to do the exact opposite. Philip Klein at the Washington Examiner took a look at how the former president’s broken promise altered politics in the United States.

Bush was struggling to defeat opponent Michael Dukakis in the election, so he worked to convince voters that the Massachusettes politician was a tax-and-spend liberal and to appeal to anti-government conservatives by denouncing big government. His tactic worked and he won the election. At the time, Congress was controlled by Democrats, who wanted to protect earned benefits and services. After two years, Bush came to a compromise with progressives and accepted a tax increase that raised taxes while cutting spending.

Bush was punished for what people saw as a flip-flop, but economists argue that the compromise, along with another deal under President Bill Clinton in the 90s, produced an economic boom and a budget surplus by the end of the decade.

Still, Bush suffered for his decision when it came time for re-election, both in the party’s primary and in his run against Clinton. Conservatives Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist blamed what they saw as Bush’s broken promise for his loss.

According to Klein, then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich seized on a conservative rebellion against Bush’s capitulation and used it to rise to power. When Republicans took the House four years later, he was elected the Speaker of the House.

Norquist and Limbaugh used the tax increase to rally Republicans and asked candidates in the party to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t vote for a tax increase in office. Many elected officials believed that the topic of a tax increase was politically toxic after Bush’s defeat. Even today, Norquist uses the argument that if people want higher taxes, they will vote Democrat, but when they vote Republican, it is because they want lower taxes. He says that Bush’s removal from office is evidence of that.

“Republican elected officials who vote for tax increases are rat heads in the Coke bottle. They damage the brand for everybody else,” Norquist once said.

Klein argues that by 1994 when Republicans retook Congress, lawmakers were convinced that compromise is what had done Bush in, and they took a hard-line position. That led to budget standoffs and several government shutdowns, and even influenced the decisions that his son, George W. Bush, made as president.

He further points out that the stain on Bush’s legacy had an impact under President Obama. Republicans famously refused to work with Obama on any deal that would raise taxes.

That leads us to where we are today, with a president who worked to cut taxes, at least temporarily, for many Americans, without addressing the deficit. We are also faced with a system that is “paralyzed,” according to Klein, with Republicans unwilling to raise taxes and Democrats unwilling to cut spending on earned benefits.