The six words that changed the presidency of George H.W. Bush

It became the most famous broken promise in modern political history.

George H.W. Bush made it inside the New Orleans Superdome on Aug. 18, 1988. He was there to accept the Republican presidential nomination and to launch his fall campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis.

"My opponent won't rule out raising taxes, but I will," Bush said. "And the 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!'"

By channeling Dirty Harry, Bush hoped to put to rest once and for all two of the biggest doubts about his candidacy. From the right, there remained deep skepticism about his commitment to the conservative cause; and, among the public at large, there remained a stubborn image problem — "the wimp factor," as a Newsweek cover had memorably put it a few months earlier.

In the short term, it succeeded brilliantly.

The no taxes line brought down the house in New Orleans and the Bush team went to work reducing Dukakis to a caricature of liberal feebleness (with, Democrats grumbled, able assistance from Dukakis himself). In November, Bush carried 40 states and 426 electoral votes — coast-to-coast dominance that no Republican candidate since has even begun to approach.

But two years later, President Bush found himself in a budgetary jam. The boom economy of the Reagan years was slowing, interest rates were climbing and annual deficits, already up dramatically over the last decade, were exploding. Just as Bush had predicted in his speech, Congress, with its big Democratic majorities, pressed him to raise taxes. But there was no climactic staredown. Instead, Bush said he'd go along with the demand.

It kicked off what was known as the budget summit, months of negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders from both parties. This was the way, generally speaking, of Bush's generation of leaders, compromise over confrontation.

The grand bargain was announced in the Rose Garden on the last of September 1990: Democrats would get hikes in the gas tax and other excise taxes and Republicans would get spending cuts, including a chunk from Medicare — a big, bipartisan deal that would, supposedly, slash deficits and steady the economy.

"Sometimes," Bush said, "you don't get it just the way you want, and this is such a time for me, and I expect it's such a time for everybody standing here."

The top-ranking Republicans on Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and House Minority Leader Robert Michel, stood with Bush at the ceremony. But there were others in the GOP, more than Bush had ever realized, who saw this as a betrayal by the president — not just of his own promise but of everything their party had come to stand for.

The Republican Party of the old days had prioritized balancing the budget, even if it meant higher taxes, but Ronald Reagan's revolution had upended all of that. In his 1980 campaign, Reagan embraced the new concept of supply-side economics, which claimed that tax cuts, by unleashing economic growth, could actually produce more government revenue.

The idea was ridiculed as "voodoo economics" by Reagan's chief opponent in the '80 GOP race, a moderate named George Bush, whose strong showing in the primaries landed him the V.P. slot on Reagan's ticket. Bush spent the next eight years refashioning himself as a Reagan loyalist and making peace with the ascendant conservative wing, but the right remained on guard — hence the "Read my lips!" pledge.

By breaking that promise, Bush was validating all of those old suspicions. In a different era, this might not have mattered, with the combined force of the White House, Dole and Michel prevailing on GOP members to fall into line. But by 1990, there was an equalizing force: Newt Gingrich, who'd recently claimed the No. 2 slot in the House GOP leadership. To Gingrich, taxes were central when it came to differentiating Republicans from Democrats — a "conservative opportunity society" vs. a "liberal welfare state" was the choice Gingrich wanted Americans to see between the parties.

The next thing Bush knew, a full-scale revolt broke out, and when the House voted in the wee hours of Oct. 5, a majority of Republicans sided with Gingrich and broke with their own president. The deal died, and the final tally wasn't even close. The blow was humiliating for Bush, who then cut a new deal, this time slanted even more heavily to Democrats' demands. Finally, with Gingrich and much of the GOP still up in arms, the package passed and Bush signed it.

It was a turning point in many ways. For Bush, it helped to fuel a primary challenge in 1992 from Pat Buchanan, who shocked the political world with a strong showing in New Hampshire. Alarmed, Bush then tried to renounce his own tax hike. "Listen, if I had it to do over, I wouldn't do it again for a lot of reasons, including political reasons," he said.

Bush survived the Buchanan challenge, but when he sought to paint his general election opponent, Bill Clinton, as just another tax-and-spend liberal, the rebuttal practically wrote itself. "He is the person who raised taxes on the middle class after saying he wouldn't," Clinton said.

Bush's calculation had been that the deal would stabilize the economy, thereby helping him win reelection. But the recovery from the early '90s recession was slow, with unemployment peaking just months before Election Day in '92.

"It's the economy, stupid" famously became the Clinton campaign's mantra, and when Bush was drummed out, even Republicans who'd stood with him on the tax deal grew convinced that it hadn't just been bad politics but bad policy as well.

Related: George H.W. Bush through the years:

50 PHOTOS
George H.W. Bush through the years
See Gallery
George H.W. Bush through the years
View of US Representative to the United Nations (and future US President) George HW Bush during a press conference, New York, New York, 1971. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
George H. W. Bush standing in front of a 'Yale Fence' in his baseball uniform at Yale University, circa 1945-48. (George Bush Presidential Library/MCT via Getty Images)
United States Ambassador to the United Nations (and future US President) George HW Bush golfs with his wife (and future First Lady), Barbara Bush (nee Pierce), Washington DC, October 1971. (Photo by Leonard McCombe/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Washington, DC. December 1989 President George H.W. Bush gestures to reporters in the Rose Garden. Credit: Mark Reinstein (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
George H.W. Bush, Andover Philips Academy Year Book in 1964. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images)
View of US Representative to the United Nations (and future US President) George HW Bush during a press conference, New York, New York, 1971. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
George Bush was captain of championship Yale baseball team, while completing college in 2-1/2 years after war service, Phi Beta Kappa, Economics, in 1948. (George Bush Presidential Library/MCT via Getty Images)
Unspecified - 1975: George HW Bush on ABC's 'Issues and Answers' program. (Photo by ABC via Getty Images)
BEIJING, HEBEI, CHINA - 1975/05/01: Left to Right: Ted Castaneda, US 5K runner, George H.W. Bush, Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in the People's Republic of China, speaks with Milt Richmond, journalist at the Track Stadium in Beijing, China in May 1975. The Chinese invited the US Track team to compete in 1975 in preparation for the 1976 Olympics held in Montreal. It was seen as a historic opening up of relations for communist China. (Photo by John J Boitano/Stephen J. Boitano/LightRocket via Getty Images)
GRAND RAPIDS, MI - APRIL 16: (NO U.S. TABLOID SALES) (L-R) Lady Bird Johnson, President George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush, President Gerald R. Ford, Betty Ford, President Jimmy Carter, and Rosalyn Carter pose for a formal group portrait at the Gerald R. Ford Library re-dedication on April 16, 1997 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
During his campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination, American politician (and future US President) George HW Bush stands beside an open car door, Iowa, January 1980. (Photo Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 1981: Vice President George H.W. Bush explaining the new post of 'Crisis Manager' to the press in March 1981 in Washington, DC. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC -- FEBRUARY 23: President Ronald Reagan (R) walks with Vice President George H.W. Bush as the President arrive at the Vice President's residence on February 23, 1981 in Washington, DC. President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan were visiting the Vice President's residence for the first time. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
Detroit, MI - 1980: (L-R) Barbara Bush, George HW Bush, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan at 1980 Republican National Convention from Joe Louis Arena, in Detroit, MI. (Photo by ABC via Getty Images)
American politician (and future US President) George HW Bush speaks at an event during his campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination, Iowa, January 1980. His wife, future First Lady Barbara Bush, stands beside him. (Photo Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)
Harnessed to Staff Sergeant Bryan Schell of United States Army Golden Knights, former US President George HW Bush (center, bottom) parachutes in celebration of his 80th birthday, outside Houston, Texas, June 13, 2004. The jump was performed near the Bush Presidential Library and was his fifth. (Photo by US Army via CNP/Getty Images)
During his campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination, American politician George HW Bush (left) speaks with journalist Stryker McGuire on a airplane during a flight, January 21, 1980. (Photo Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)
KENNEBUNKPORT, ME - JULY 19: George HW Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, greets supporters along Ocean Avenue in Kennebunkport, Maine on July 19, 1980. Bush is campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination. (Photo by Janet Knott/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC -- CIRCA 1983: U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush and Mrs. Barbara Bush at the Vice President's residence circa 1983 in in Washington, DC. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC -- CIRCA 1986: U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush circa 1986 in in Washington, DC. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
Vice President George H.W. Bush (R), during re-enactment of Senate Swear- In. (Photo by Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
American politician and US President Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004) (right) and Vice President (and future President) George HW Bush relax together on Reagan's ranch, Santa Barbara, California, August 7, 1984. (Photo Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)
Washington, DC. 6-25-1984 Vice-President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara Bush attend a fish fry on the South Lawn of the White House. Credit: Mark Reinstein (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush 1990. (Photo by Pete Souza/ABC via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 3: George H.W. Bush throws out the first pitch before the Texas Rangers Opening Day game against the Chicago White Sox at The Ballpark in Arlington on April 3, 2000 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
HOUSTON -- JUNE 10: Laura Bush, Texas Governor George W Bush, George HW Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush at the Astrodome during part of the gala event celebrating the former president's 75th birthday in Houston, Texas on June 10, 1999. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
Former Presidents George HW Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford at a memorial service for King Hussein held at the American Embassy, Amman, Jordan, February 8, 1999. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - DECEMBER 7: Former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush speak at the University of New Orleans campus December 7, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, along with Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, announced how the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund would be dispersed. Grants worth $30 million would go to Gulf region higher education institutions devastated by Hurricane Katrina, $20 million in grants would go to a ministerial partnership with local and regional faith-based organizations and $40 million would be divided among the three states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama for their recovery and relief funds. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 15: (CHINA OUT) Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush speaks with post-surgery patients of Smile Train during a ceremony to launch the charity's new project on November 15, 2005 in Beijing, China. Free cleft lip surgery and related treatment provided by Smile Train, a non-profit organization, has helped many poor children in China. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 02: Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, left, and his wife Barbara, acknowledge the audience on day two of the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2008. The RNC will run until Sept. 4. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
ST. PAUL, MN - SEPTEMBER 02: Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush attends day two of the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center on September 2, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The GOP will nominate U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as the Republican choice for U.S. President on the last day of the convention. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Buddy Peterson, left, Louisville, shook hands with former President George H.W. Bush near the 10th green at the 37th Ryder Cup at Valhalla Golf Cub on Friday, September 19, 2008, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by David Perry/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT via Getty Images)
Former President Bill Clinton (L), former President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara Bush stand for the National Anthem at the Points of Light Institute Tribute to Former President George H.W. Bush at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts on March 21, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage)
HOUSTON - APRIL 08: Brad Mills, manager of the Houston Astros greets former US President George H.W. Bush at Minute Maid Park on April 8, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 13: Former President George H.W. Bush watches a baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on April 13, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
KENNEBUNKPORT, ME - JUNE 12: (EDITORS NOTE: Retransmission with alternate crop.) Former first lady Barbara Bush greets her husband and former U.S. President George H.W. Bush with a kiss after his successful skydive down to St. Anne's Episcopal Church on June 12, 2014 in Kennebunkport, Maine. The President is celebrating his 90th birthday today. (Photo by Eric Shea/Getty Images)
COLLEGE STATION, TX - OCTOBER 21: (L-R) Former United States Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton address the audience during the 'Deep from the Heart: The One America Appeal Concert' at Reed Arena on the campus of Texas A&M University on October 21, 2017 in College Station, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Ford Motor Company)
U.S. first lady Barbara Bush is pictured with President George H.W. Bush durina a presidential vacation in Kennebunkport, Maine, U.S., in this undated photo. U.S.. Former U.S. first lady Barbara Bush, the wife of the 41st president, George H.W. Bush, and mother of the 43rd, George W. Bush died on April 17, 2018. She was 92. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush waves from the field before game five of the 2017 World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros in Houston, Texas, U.S. on October 29, 2017. REUTERS/David J. Phillip/Pool via USA TODAY Sports MANDATORY CREDIT
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush participates in the coin toss ahead of the start of Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons as former first lady Barbara Bush looks on in Houston , Texas, U.S., February 5, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Mar 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; United States former president George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara Bush greet Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo , head coach Jason Garrett and tight end Jason Witten before the finals of the south regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament between the Duke Blue Devils and Gonzaga Bulldogs at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are greeted by former President George H.W. Bush upon their arrival on Air Force One in Houston, Texas April 9, 2014. Obama is in Houston to attend two Democratic Party fund raisers. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
U.S. President Barack Obama and former President George H. W. Bush (R) applaud during an event to honor the winner of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award at the White House in Washington July 15, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
Former U.S. presidents George W. Bush (C) and his father George H.W. Bush laugh alongside former first ladies Laura Bush (R) and Barbara Bush (L) during the dedication ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, April 25, 2013. Obama is in Texas to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with former president George W. Bush in what could serve as a powerful reminder of the ongoing struggle against terrorism, from the Sept. 11 attacks to the Boston Marathon bombings. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 29: Former United States Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush prepare to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before in game five of the 2017 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 15: Former President George H. W. Bush sits in a wheelchair during an event in the East Room at the White House, July 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Bush joined President Obama in hosting the event to honor the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award winner. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush salutes as he departs the East Front of the U.S. Capitol Building after Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States in Washington January 20, 2009. Barack Obama took power as the first black U.S. president on Tuesday and quickly turned the page on the Bush years, urging Americans to rally to end the worst economic crisis in 70 years and repair the U.S. image abroad. REUTERS/Tannen Maury/Pool (UNITED STATES)
Former U.S. President George. H.W. Bush (C) smiles at his wife Barbara (L), as their son and former President George W. Bush (R) laughs, during the "All Together Now - A Celebration of Service" at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington March 21, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ENTERTAINMENT IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush (R) watches as his son, former President George W. Bush, throws a ceremonial first pitch prior to the start of Game 4 of Major League Baseball's World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Texas Rangers, in Arlington, Texas, October 31, 2010. REUTERS/Brian Snyder (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASEBALL IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush attends the funeral service for his wife, former first lady Barbara Bush, with his son the 43rd U.S. President George W. Bush at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, U.S., April 21, 2018. REUTERS/Richard Carson TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

In GOP circles, Bush's political demise played as a validation of Gingrich's approach. When Clinton sought his own tax hike to tame the deficit in 1993, there was no bipartisan deal. Every single Republican in the House and Senate voted against, with the White House only getting its way with a tie-breaking Senate vote from Vice President Al Gore.

Republicans accused Clinton of enacting the largest tax increase in history and in 1994 reaped an electoral bounty that made Gingrich the speaker of the House. Uniform opposition to tax increases has been a staple of the congressional GOP ever since.

Ironically, as the economy blossomed in the mid-'90s, the higher tax rates from 1990 and 1993 helped bring in a revenue windfall. By 1998, the country even ran a surplus for the first time in decades, and the elimination of the national debt actually seemed in sight, but the explosion of spending after 9/11 changed that trajectory.

In 2014, as Bush neared 90, the John F. Kennedy Library gave him a Profile in Courage Award for "putting country above party and political prospects" when he raised taxes. Bush accepted and thanked the library "for remembering what our team tried to do, lo, those many years ago."

He wouldn't say it, but it seemed he no longer thought he'd made a mistake — even if it had become an article of faith within his party that he had.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.