Here is what you should know about George W. Bush as you ponder his surprising vow that “not over my dead body” will he accept a tax increase: The phraseology was impromptu but the philosophy was thought through; it was utterly political and completely principled; and he was both winging it and thinking strategically.
The phrase made a number of people wince slightly, understandably. Presidents should never refer to their dead bodies. There are a number of reasons for this, including the fun cartoonists might have down the road with, say, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt holding a passed tax hike bill and high-fiving each other over a prone Bush with RIP on his chest. But after the wince you have to ask if Bush’s vow was a smart move, a mistake, a slip of the tongue or a whopper.
Let’s start with Bush as public speaker. Bush is a speechwriter’s dream in that he understands exactly how the White House speech vetting process works. Most presidents don’t, have to learn, and usually master it only after it’s damaged them. But Bush knows how a speech is created because he watched it on and off for 12 years during the administrations of his father and of Ronald Reagan, whom his father served as vice president. W knew what a first draft sent to his father looked like, and what the final draft his father approved looked like. He watched the people around his father when they were trying to delete or add a phrase; he listened to them talk about why, how and when exactly (in the helicopter, or at the TelePrompTer rehearsal) they were going to make their move. He absorbed it and tucked it away.
Today, Bush’s speechwriters tend to write speeches that are pointed and brisk, or eloquent and lofty. Then the speeches go through the vetting process, in which scores of staffers attempt to add or delete things, and the speeches get soggy and soft. I used to think the process did to words what cotton gins did to cotton: It took the good stuff out and took it away, leaving behind dry brown unconnected branches. President Bush, having seen what he’s seen, understands how good work becomes less good. So these days when he gets a speech he tends to use it as a departure point.
He’ll get to the podium, hold the cards or talking points, refer to them for all the thank yous—“I want to single out the Rosemont High Marching Band, number one in last week’s state competition, all right!”—then begin his remarks and add whatever he wants to say. Which is often what was edited out of the speech. Bush off the cuff, extemporizing, is, those around him say, an interesting thing to see. That’s where he puts the cotton back in. Normally when a politician starts winging it, he throws out a joke, tells an anecdote or two, makes a reference to someone in the crowd. But Bush, when he wings it, is telling you what he thinks. His off-the-cuff remarks are his considered views. Which makes his remarks in California last week all the more significant. His vow wasn’t on the cards. But it was in the cards.
Bush has an increasing tendency toward a certain thudding bluntness when speaking impromptu. This might stem from a boyhood in Texas, where a valid murder defense still on the books has been boiled down to, “He needed killin’.” Pressed by a reporter in September to define his intentions regarding Osama bin Laden, Bush famously said: “Wanted, dead or alive.” He was roundly criticized for this, though mostly not by New Yorkers, who thought: Can’t he go a little further? Osama is wanted dead or alive, and Bush said it because he meant it. More to the point he was being candid: He was telling us what he no doubt also told the joint chiefs. And the world got to hear it, too. Now he has declared that we will have tax cuts “Over my dead body.” Or actually, “not over my dead body,” which is grammatically less sound and more evidence that he was revealing The Essential Bush.
What Bush said last Saturday at a Town Hall meeting in Ontario, Calif., was that the economy is in recession and the worst thing you can do at a time like that is to raise taxes. And yet “some in Washington” want to do just that. “Not over my dead body will they raise your taxes.” This got big applause from the largely Republican crowd. Why the vivid words? For the same reason John F. Kennedy said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and not, “I support Berlin.” Bush wants everyone to understand he means it. When you want people to understand you mean it, you use words that pierce, not words that cloud.
Why now? Because Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle made an important and ballyhooed speech on the economy the day before Bush made his remarks. In that speech Daschle attempted to draw the battle lines for the 2002 elections. The deficit is rising, and Bush has worsened the recession through his tax cuts passed last year. Daschle did not quite say the tax cuts should be rescinded (as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has), he just said they’re bad and destructive and the cause of our woes.
Bush decided he had to help the Daschle speech be better understood. So the next day he picked up the presidential megaphone and told everyone what Tom Daschle really meant. Daschle means that he is going to take away our tax cuts and raise our taxes. And will he succeed? Not over my dead body. Daschle tried to frame the debate on Friday. Bush tried to reframe it Saturday, using language that he no doubt hopes will demand a similar vividness in response. Daschle will likely not say, as presidential hopeful Walter Mondale did in 1984, that he will raise taxes. But he’ll have to say something, and it will be in response. Because on Saturday Bush seized the initiative.
Is Bush to be believed when he says he will not accept a tax increase? The biggest evidence that he is telling the truth is the element that makes some others wonder if he is. And that is the Bush Family Tax Vow History. George Bush knows better than anyone in America—anyone—what happened to his father in 1990 when he reversed his bluntly put, “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge—a pledge he had given two years earlier at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans.
Dubya, after all, was there. He knew breaking the vow was a mistake. But he was still considered young back in 1990, still called Junior behind his back by his father’s aides, and no one really listened to him on matters of policy, not even, it seemed to me then, his father.
But people around W knew he had a sharp political sense. He knew that rescinding the tax pledge would not only anger the GOP base, it would put his father in a delicate position regarding that key four- letter word—luck. The economy would have to stay high and healthy for Bush to get away with breaking his pledge. That is, he’d have to stay lucky to not pay a price. You’re in a bad place when you’ve got to stay lucky to stay alive. As for the making of the pledge in his father’s acceptance speech, which I worked on and drafted, I don’t remember being told explicitly what the younger Bush’s position was. But I gathered from others that he supported the policy and the pledge, and I thought on my own that he supported it for two reasons.
One is that he knew his father had pledged not to raise taxes throughout the campaign. His father had won the Republican nomination in part because he had signed the Americans for Tax Reform no-tax pledge. (Bob Dole had not.) To not mention the vow in his acceptance speech, or to gloss over it, would have caused either a big controversy or a small revolt. It would have de-energized the base. W would have known this and said it, as his similarly political friend Lee Atwater knew it and said it.
The second reason I have for thinking he backed it is this: Though I did not know him then, sometimes I passed him in the hall of campaign headquarters, and the only words he ever spoke to me about the speech were, “Don’t forget the contras.” Don’t forget the anti- communist rebels fighting the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. There weren’t many people around George H.W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan for that matter, whose first comment on a speech was, “Don’t forget the contras.” I was struck by it and thought: He’s a conservative. Conservatives live to cut taxes.
I left the tax pledge out of a draft of that acceptance speech, having grown weary of one Bush aide’s opposition. I sent it, as I had others, to a sophisticated friend who’d been observing the process from outside. He phoned me, alarmed. Where is the tax pledge, he asked. I told him I had let it drop. He caught me up sharp. “This is Bush’s decision, no one has the right to make it for him.” I thought: You’re right. I put it back in, and gave the next draft to Bush. Twice we went over it line by line; once he asked that I take out a line I especially liked and thought he agreed with. But he didn’t take out the tax pledge. He didn’t even mention it. People within the campaign were paying more attention to his promises on job creation, and by the time the president gave the speech the tax pledge was old news; the press was more interested in, “I want a kinder, gentler America.”
But “Junior” was always there in those days, and if he had not supported the tax pledge as much as he later protested its reversal I would have heard about it. And I would have remembered.
The point is, President Bush knows the tax pledge history and its aftermath better than almost anyone. He honestly believes a tax hike or rescinding the tax cuts would be destructive to the economy. He knows what it means when he says “Over My Dead Body.” And he knows what he is trying to do. Tom Daschle wanted to sound like Bill Clinton—we have to protect Social Security, we have to keep a deficit from rising. But Bush, with his vow, is trying to make him look like Sen. Robert Taft—“They’re for accountants and green eyeshades, we’re for growth.” Seems to me that either Bush’s vow was a matter of tactical flair and savvy, or he has learned nothing from the history he so closely observed and is a truly stupid man. Time, of course, will tell: That’s what time does. But I imagine Bush flying east after the California speech, kicking back and saying to some aide, “Guess we’ll be hearing from Daschle soon. Wonder what he thinks of my strategery.