WASHINGTON -- Likely to be overlooked in all the election post-mortems was the first significant action taken by President Bush as a lame duck. The day after the election, he vetoed yet another bill -- this time the $27 billion package of tax increases and incentives bundled up with desperately needed aid to the cities.
The president said he rejected the package because "the original focus of the bill, to help revitalize America's inner cities, has been lost in a blizzard of special-interest pleadings." Bush said no in spite of the fact that the legislation included plans that he himself had sought for urban as well as rural enterprise zones, restoration of individual retirement account (IRA) tax breaks, credits for low-income housing and other tax breaks for business.
In a sense the veto was no surprise, inasmuch as Bush said after calling his broken promise of "no new taxes" a mistake that he would "never, never" approve a tax increase again. However, some Democratic legislators allowed themselves to entertain the hope that after the election, when the political stakes had diminished and especially if the incumbent lost, he would swallow the tax increases to get the portions of the bill he had said were essential to economic recovery.
The hope was foolish because one of the most firm characteristics of the man who will move out of the White House on Jan. 20 is to take categorical positions from which it then is extremely difficult to back off. It was not enough in his 1988
acceptance speech to say he would not accept new taxes if Congress proposed them. He had to say, several times, that he would tell Congress: "Read my lips: No new taxes."
In matters of international confrontation, it may be necessary to take categorical positions, as Bush did in the buildup to the Persian Gulf war, when he warned Saddam Hussein that his invasion of Kuwait "will not stand." With those words, he put his reputation and the country's on the line, effectively closing off any options. But the words probably helped him build the impressive world coalition against the invasion.
When the foe later was not a Middle East dictator, however, but instead a lagging economy at home, such rhetoric proved to be mere bluster. In his State-of-the-Union address last January, Bush again dragged out those words. "I know we're in hard times," he said, "but I know something else: This will not stand." But it did.
This foolhardy rigidity was seen, at ultimate great political cost to him, in his early refusal to acknowledge that the country was sliding into recession and his refusal to admit it was stuck there when unemployment figures and other economic indicators clearly established the fact.
It will be said by defenders of the president that consistency is a virtue, and that he never would have lost his re-election bid had he not broken his "no new taxes" pledge in the first place. But as Democratic nominee Bill Clinton noted in one of the debates, Bush's mistake was not in trying through compromise to find a solution to the mounting budget deficit problem, but in being so categorical in opposition to any new taxes in the first place, knowing the fiscal dilemma he would face as president.
George Bush has always been one to take a position and dig his feet in. In his 1980 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, he agreed in New Hampshire to a two-man debate with Ronald Reagan, and when Reagan -- who was paying for the debate -- invited four other candidates, Bush balked, sitting tight-lipped on the stage looking like a petulant preppy schoolboy. Reagan never forgot it, citing the incident later in his reluctance, eventually overcome, to take Bush as his running mate.
When, in fact, Reagan had the nomination in hand, and Bush was asked whether he was angling for the vice-presidential nomination, he said: "Take Sherman and cube it." Translation: Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's famous statement that "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected" was not strong enough to express his position. Saying that, however, did not stop him from jumping at the offer when Reagan made it.
Bush should have learned from that experience that it isn't wise to say "Never." On the other hand, the election assures that he can say no to new taxes as much as he wants to now, and know he can stick to it.