WASHINGTON - From the day in 2001 when George W. Bush assumed the presidency relinquished only eight years earlier by his father, he seemed determined not to make the same political mistakes that had denied George H.W. Bush a second term in 1992.
Remembering how the first President Bush had reneged on his 1988 "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge, the second President Bush made the opposite - deep tax cuts - his mantra throughout his first term.
Unlike his politically aloof father, he also assiduously played to the Republican Party's conservative base, campaigning diligently after his 2000 election. He returned often to the states that had helped him win his narrow electoral-vote victory over Al Gore. By thus solidifying his party's base, he avoided his father's fate, winning both an electoral and popular vote re-election in 2004.
The contrast between the two Bushes was sharp. The father in his one term had resisted repeated entreaties from his political advisers to organize early for his 1992 re-election bid, often dodging political engagements in key states and telling those aides that he preferred his prime job of governing.
For example, after New Hampshire Republicans in 1988 put the senior Bush's nomination campaign on track with a come-from-behind primary victory over Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the candidate told them he would never forget.
But once he was elected, and bad times gripped the state, Bush sent Vice President Dan Quayle to express his concern. It didn't help. In 1992, Bush narrowly lost New Hampshire to Bill Clinton, his party support went soft elsewhere, and he became a one-term president.
A main reason was breaking his 1988 "no new taxes" pledge in the face of a severe budget crisis. Doing so confirmed for party conservatives that the vice president under their beloved President Ronald Reagan was not, as they had long suspected, one of them, after all.
George W. Bush, as he governed through his first term with an eye to re-election, was not going to let that happen to him. He conducted himself after Sept. 11, 2001, not only as a wartime president but also as a steadfast conservative party leader. He focused resolutely on nurturing and expanding his ideological base, and it paid off with re-election last year.
But now that President Bush is ensconced in his second - and last - four-year term, some conservatives fear he might be wavering. They applaud his second-term target of a Social Security overhaul but have doubts, politically at least, about the salability of spinning off private or personal investment accounts into the stock market.
Their concern was fanned recently by Bush's comment on the Social Security debate in a White House news conference, when he said he welcomed "any idea, except running up the payroll tax rate, which I've been consistent on."
What caused Republican ears to perk up was the word "rate." The president had up to then made clear he would not support an increase in the Social Security payroll tax rate of 12.6 percent, shared by employer and employee. That tax rate is levied on income up to $90,000 a year. A proposal by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina would raise not the rate but the income cap, so that taxpayers making more than $90,000 would keep paying up to the new limit.
Graham has suggested setting it at $200,000. The senior lobby, AARP, has proposed $140,000. Either way, it would place a heavier tax burden on higher-income taxpayers. Graham, who favors the private accounts, says the higher income cap could fund the transition costs of $1 trillion or more required to pay for establishing them.
The two most powerful GOP leaders in the House, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, immediately pounced on Bush's comment. They labeled raising the income cap "a tax increase" and said their House GOP colleagues would have no part of it.
The president obviously is aware that just as monkeying with Social Security has always been regarded as the third rail of American politics, any talk of boosting Social Security tax payments is equally hazardous to Republican conservatives.
But the rough sledding that his unspecific solution to what he calls the Social Security "crisis" has encountered, even within his own party, suggests he might be considering risking a backlash among conservatives by making a distinction between "tax" and "tax rate."
Graham has called Bush's comments "compelling evidence he is serious about making hard decisions for the common good," and a Graham spokesman added that the president's news conference remarks were "a signal that he is willing to negotiate" on the idea of an income cap increase.
The president seemed to have his father's negative experience in mind when he said in his news conference that "people should be encouraged to bring forth" a variety of ideas "without political retribution."
He observed further that "it used to be, in the past, people would step [up] and say, `Well, here's an interesting idea,' and then [critics] would take that idea and clobber the person politically."
The 43rd president did not cite the 41st as an example, but his father was clobbered within his party in 1990 when, faced with that severe budget squeeze, he included what he called "tax revenue increases" as part of a remedial packing of spending cuts. All hell broke loose among conservative Republicans who read the senior Bush's lips all too closely.
This time around, with Hastert and DeLay saying they want no part of a higher income cap on Social Security taxes, if George W. Bush buys into it, he can expect party conservatives to stick him with the presidential pledge of "no new taxes," even when he never explicitly made it as his father did.