"In the present weak economic climate," a group of conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, wrote in an open statement, "we believe that to restore the health of the economy and put Americans back to work, America should follow a course against high taxes and federal spending."
The White House was unmoved. "Republicans may feel they can't go to voters after supporting a tax increase," one administration official told the New York Times. "We've got to convince them that the situation won't be as devastating as it would be if the tax bill is sabotaged."
The latest moves in the debt ceiling debate? Not quite: The administration was Ronald Reagan's, and the year was 1982. With his previous year's landmark tax cuts having exploded the budget deficit, Reagan had reluctantly backed a tax increase to bring it back under control, prompting a minor conservative uprising led by then Rep. Jack Kemp and which included then backbench House member Gingrich. "You can't have the largest tax cut in history and then turn around and have the largest tax increase in history," one conservative rebel groused.
Right-wing economists issued dire forecasts. Arthur Laffer, widely described as the father of supply-side economics, warned that the bill would "stifle economic recovery" and "lengthen and deepen the recession." The president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote that the tax hike would "curb the economic recovery everyone wants," adding: "It will mean a lower cash flow as more businesses pay more taxes, with a depressing effect on stock prices. It will reduce incentives for the increased savings and investment so badly needed to improve productivity and create more jobs." As Bruce Bartlett, an early supply-sider and Reagan aide who has since recanted the faith, noted last month, "It would be hard to find an economic forecast that was more wrong in every respect." Real gross domestic product grew at 4.5 percent in 1983 and 7.2 percent in 1984, while unemployment fell from 10.6 percent in December 1982 to 7.1 percent in 1984.
Just about the only thing the conservative rebels got right back in 1982 was Gingrich's comment to the New York Times that the skirmish was the "opening round of a fight over the soul and future of the Republican Party." Looking back, the extent to which the conservatives won the fight within the party while losing the war with economic reality is fairly astounding. In the nearly three decades since, the Republican feeling toward tax increases has moved from Reaganesque dislike but acceptance (he signed tax increases into law in seven of his eight years in office) to their current, blindly absolutist position flatly opposing any tax increases at all, even in the face of spiraling deficits and possible economic default. [See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the deficit and debt.]
Witness comments like House Speaker John Boehner's that "raising taxes is going to destroy jobs." The rhetoric hasn't changed much since 1982, but the accumulated evidence against this GOP dogma is overwhelming.
Gingrich was again at the forefront of the fight against taxes in 1993 when he warned that the Clinton budget plan "will in fact kill the current recovery and put us back in a recession." Rep. Dick Armey, who would go on to be House majority leader and now is a Tea Party godfather, warned that "the impact on job creation is going to be devastating." Texas GOP Sen. Phil Gramm warned that the budget deal was a "one-way ticket to a recession," adding that Clinton's would be one of the jobs killed by the bill. (Gramm would seek Clinton's job, but couldn't best Bob Dole; he was last seen being muzzled by John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008 after calling the country a "nation of whiners.") Laffer warned that "Clinton's tax bill will do about as much damage to the U.S. economy as could be feasibly done in the current political environment." Boehner himself dismissed the Clinton plan as "Christmas in August for liberal Democrats: more taxes, more spending, and bigger government."