george hw bush 1992 Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Re-Reading George H.W. Bush’s Lips

The late president showed a “profile in courage” in 1990, when he met the Democrats halfway to achieve fiscal responsibility. Unfortunately, his presidency was the last time any Republican has tried to live up to the label of fiscal conservative.

CAMBRIDGE – When President George H.W. Bush was laid to rest last week, the encomiums appropriately remarked on his general decency and competence, which tended to be followed by a “but.” For journalists and historians, it is “but he was only a one-term president.” He lost the 1992 election, in part because of the recession of 1990-1991. For his fellow Republicans, however, it is “but he broke with the legacy of Ronald Reagan by repudiating his ‘no new taxes’ pledge.” Bush’s electoral defeat was blamed on that supposed betrayal.

But Bush’s mistake was that he made that anti-tax pledge in the first place and stuck to it in the first part of his presidency. His courageous 1990 reversal on fiscal policy set the stage for a decade of economic growth that eventually achieved budget surpluses.

The budget deal that Bush reached with congressional Democrats in 1990 may indeed have contributed to his failure to win re-election in 1992. There is no question that the timing was terrible. The move to fiscal discipline coincided with the onset of a recession, probably made the downturn worse than it otherwise would have been, and slowed the subsequent recovery.

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