Media is baffled by Bush

Bruce Bartlett

8/9/2000 12:00:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett
The liberal media are baffled by George W. Bush's extraordinary popularity among the Republican Party's right wing, despite a campaign and a convention noticeably lacking in traditional "red meat" conservative issues and rhetoric. One reason is that conservatives know better than the media to look at Bush's actions as far more meaningful than mere words. In this area, he has, so far, delivered to the satisfaction of conservatives. Nowhere is this more important than in Bush's open repudiation of those advisers responsible for his father's defeat in 1992. Chief among these is Dick Darman, Director of the Office of Management and Budget during the Bush administration. Darman is the single person most to blame for the elder Bush's defeat 8 years ago, and hence the person most responsible for the election of Bill Clinton. And George W. Bush knows this better than anyone. That is why Darman effectively has been banned from his campaign -- to the delight of conservatives and the anguish of Darman, who apparently still longs for a seat at the table, according to an Aug. 2 Wall Street Journal report. The story of how Darman talked President Bush into breaking his "no new taxes" pledge in 1990 and its major role in Bush's loss to Clinton is well known. But this was only the final scene in a play of disloyalty that dated back 2 years before, beginning during the 1988 campaign. According to an authoritative series of articles by Washington Post super-reporter Bob Woodward in October 1992, Darman strenuously opposed Bush's no new taxes pledge during the 1988 campaign, even though Bush's political advisers universally give it much of the credit for his victory. Had Bush followed Darman's advice, it is doubtful that he would have been elected president. According to Woodward, subsequently confirmed by Darman's own memoirs, Darman did everything in his power to delete the no new taxes pledge from Bush's acceptance speech to the Republican convention on Aug. 18, 1988. And as a longtime political insider, Darman knew a lot of tricks for bending policy statements to his will. But this time, he failed. Bush eventually had to put his foot down and demand that the tax pledge remain in the speech. Bush, quite reasonably, took the view, contrary to Darman, that the tax pledge was merely a more rhetorical restatement of what he had been saying publicly for years. For example, on Oct. 12, 1987, Bush told an audience in Houston, "There are those who say we must balance the budget on the backs of the workers -- and raise taxes again. But they are wrong. I am not going to raise your taxes -- period." In short, the tax pledge was like any other campaign promise, subject to subsequent revision and adjustment, depending on circumstances. Certainly, no one would have faulted Bush for raising taxes during a national emergency, for example. Nor would any conservative have faulted Bush for imposing "new taxes" as part of a tax reform bill such as the flat tax. What cemented the tax pledge into concrete, and ultimately caused Bush so much anguish, was actually Darman's Jan. 19, 1989 testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, on his nomination to be OMB director. During this testimony, Darman was repeatedly asked about the meaning of the tax pledge -- in particular, "What exactly constitutes a new tax?" Darman replied with his famous "duck" test -- if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it is probably a duck. Moreover, Darman indicated that there was no time limit for the pledge, that it was in effect "forever." Darman thus expanded the tax pledge far beyond what Bush or any of his political advisers ever envisioned for the statement. By so tightly construing all governmental actions that would technically raise revenue for any reason as a violation of the tax pledge, Darman virtually guaranteed that Bush would ultimately be forced to break the pledge. In his testimony, Darman also said, "I am not now recommending in any way to the incoming president that he violate the 'duck' test, and I do not now foresee the circumstances in which I should or would do so." There is simply no other way to characterize this statement than as an out and out lie, if Woodward's reporting is accurate. According to the Post series, at the very moment he was telling the Senate Committee that he was not recommending tax increases, he was in fact doing exactly that. He was pushing very hard to get Bush to endorse the report of the National Economic Commission, which was about to propose tax increases as part of a deficit reduction package. Bush ultimately rejected the commission's recommendations, but Darman apparently continued to view the NEC report as the framework for a grand budget deal. Further evidence of Darman's prevarication on taxes is shown by the fact that as early as June 1989, just months into the Bush administration, he was secretly supporting congressional efforts to raise taxes, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Darman's final act of disloyalty was refusing to resign in 1992, even after it was clear that he had become a lightening rod for conservative disenchantment with Bush. The other top members of Bush's economic team, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Michael Boskin, were ready to go if it would help the re-election effort, but Darman balked. In my view, that sealed Bush's fate in a campaign in which Bill Clinton correctly saw that it was "the economy, stupid." George W. Bush knows full well the damage Dick Darman did to his father and has rightly kept him as far as possible from Austin and the campaign. It is a key reason why conservatives feel they can trust him in a way they never felt about his father.