WASHINGTON -- President Bush, whose re-election prospects have been severely damaged by a deal he made with Congress in 1990 to raise taxes, now says he's sorry he did it.
In a series of interviews on the eve of yesterday's primaries, the president called breaking his "no new taxes" pledge "a mistake" because it has caused him so much "political flak" and because it has not stopped Democratic lawmakers from seeking further tax increases.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater insisted there was no coordinated plan to have the president disavow the 1990 budget deal at a time when so many Republican voters have indicated they are angry with him for breaking his major campaign promise of 1988.
Mr. Bush was simply given a chance to express his frustration with the results of a painfully wrought compromise with Congress that did not achieve its major objective of boosting the economy out of recession but that has cost him dearly at the polls, the spokesman said.
But other White House officials said the president's comments were intended as an unmistakable signal to disaffected conservatives that no further tax-raising compromise with the Democrats could be expected this election year.
The president and his surrogates defended the 1990 budget agreement all through the New Hampshire primary where Republican challenger Patrick J. Buchanan made Mr. Bush's violation of his "Read my lips" pledge a central theme of his campaign. But the president has now had second thoughts because of the new tax proposals being de
veloped on Capitol Hill, Mr. Fitzwater said.
"I thought this one compromise, and it was a compromise, would result in no more tax increases," Mr. Bush told reporters yesterday morning. "I thought it would result in total control of discretionary spending. And now we see Congress talking about raising taxes again. And some in Congress are talking about trying to break down the spending caps," which he considered the most attractive feature of the bargain.
"So, I'm disappointed and given all of that, yes, [agreeing to raise taxes was] a mistake," Mr. Bush said.
The question first came up during an interview Sunday with television station WXIA in Atlanta, where Mr. Bush was facing his second intense primary challenge from Mr. Buchanan.
"Any time you get hammered on something, I guess you want to redo it," the president said.
Then, when syndicated columnist Cal Thomas asked Monday if Mr. Bush wished he could have taken back the "no new taxes" pledge, the president replied: "I think if I had something to do over again, I would have rescinded making a deal with the Congress."
When Atlanta Journal columnist Dick Williams asked him later Monday if he felt like former President Ronald Reagan, who once said the greatest mistake of his presidency was agreeing to raise taxes in 1982, Mr. Bush readily agreed: "I'd be glad to say the same thing."
Yet he continued to defend the compromise in a separate interview with WJZ-TV in Baltimore.
"I say every once in a while you've got to do something that tastes like castor oil. I didn't want to shut the government down," he said.
And he wouldn't say it would never happen again. In fact, Mr. Bush recently sent Congress a fiscal 1993 budget that proposes $21 billion in tax increases over five years, including higher taxes on securities dealers, owners of boats with diesel engines and civil servants who don't pay Medicare taxes.
Mr. Bush disputed his critics' contention that the $168 billion in higher taxes had aggravated the economy's decline, noting that most of the increase was gasoline levies that were offset by a drop in the price of gasoline.
Particularly annoying to Mr. Bush is that the Democratic leaders of Congress are refusing to enact his "economic growth package" without attaching a middle-class tax cut that would be financed by higher taxes on the rich.