Son of Read-My-Lips on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

November 12, 1990|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, in another of those periodic hot flashes he seems to experience, greeted the bad news of the midterm elections by renewing his discredited invitation to read his lips on no new taxes. As he did, you could practically see the Democrats salivating.

The reason: his latest promise that he will "absolutely" not raise any more taxes, and that if the Democrats try "they're going to do it over my dead veto, or live veto," is an open invitation for them to nail him again as a protector of the rich.

It's not that Bush's word should be doubted this time. He and his party got burned badly by his first flip-flop and a second one could be politically fatal for him, as he doubtless realizes. It's that in keeping his word the next time around he will be playing once again directly into the hands of the Democrats to whom he handed the tax-fairness issue in the late deficit reduction fiasco.

Bush also said in his Son of Read-My-Lips remarks that if the Democrats propose new taxes "it ain't going to happen, I'll guarantee you." Maybe so, but his promise also guarantees something else -- that the Democrats will serve up again the so-called "millionaires' surtax" that Bush to their public chagrin but private delight killed in the last budget negotiations.

That act, more than anything else, enabled them to resurrect the old argument that the Republicans are the party of the wealthy, and Bush as one of them takes care of his own.

Democratic leaders in Congress have already said they expect that one of the first orders of business in the new session in January will be a resumption of their effort to enact the "millionaires' surtax." With a somewhat strengthened hand in both houses there seems little doubt they can do so. Bush then can be expected to veto it, charging that the Democrats are engaging in divisive "class warfare," but the Democrats will have their tax-fairness issue all over again.

Bush's argument in his post-election remarks that he had been "forced" by the Democrats to renege on his no-new-taxes promise the first time as the price of deficit reduction also figures to be a loser for him. It undermines the image of strong leadership his political advisers have tried diligently to build ever since he took office.

Within the Republican Party, Bush's return to no-new-taxes doubtless will be greeted with relief by conservatives who found themselves left out on that limb when he flip-flopped, eroding the single best pitch to voters the party has had through the Reagan years.

Reagan managed to sustain it for eight years even though in his second year he signed onto a $99 billion tax increase, the highest in history up to then. But George Bush is not Ronald Reagan when it comes to pulling wool over voters' eyes.

The Democrats ought to be grateful to whomever is giving the president political advice these days. One of the cardinal rules in politics, even at the ward level, is never paint yourself in a corner with categorical statements. Bush seems not to have learned that basic lesson from the manner in which read-my-lips turned around and bit him.

House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt provided a preview of things to come. Gephardt, D-Mo., said the surtax on millionaires that the Democrats will seek next year will be used to provide tax relief for the middle class -- and thus broaden its appeal beyond merely soaking the rich.

Gephardt warned that, if Bush "really intends to veto tax fairness for working families, that will inspire the Democratic majority and conscientious Republicans to unite for the first override of the Bush presidency."

Politically, however, a Bush veto that stuck would serve the Democrats just as nicely as overriding it.

And, if Bush persists in seeking a capital-gains tax cut, he will make it that much easier for the Democrats to label him the rich man's president.

All this portends a stormy second two years for George Bush with the Democratic Congress -- unless he takes the tax-fairness debate off the screen with a shooting war in the Middle East, which seems ever more likely as U.S. troops flood into the area.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of Th 1 Sunday Sun.

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