The Obama-George H.W. Bush Comparison

Lessons from the 1990 budget deal for today's White House negotiators.

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In today’s New York Times, Jon Meacham, who is writing a biography of former president George H.W. Bush, points out the historical parallels between Obama’s economic negotiations today and the ones that were going on in 1990:

It was in 1990 that Mr. Bush broke one of the most celebrated promises in modern American politics —“Read my lips: no new taxes,” as he put it in 1988 — in order to control federal spending. In the same way that Mr. Obama struck his deal to secure lower tax rates for the middle-class and win an extension of unemployment benefits, Mr. Bush gave on tax rates to get “pay as you go” rules — meaning that no further spending could be approved without compensating budget cuts or revenue increases. It was the beginning of the fiscal discipline that helped create the budget surpluses of the 1990s.

While Mr. Obama’s immediate concern is stimulus and Mr. Bush’s was deficit-reduction, both gave way on issues critical to the true believers within their parties. For Mr. Bush, it was political death. He had never been fully trusted by a Reaganite Republican base. Like Mr. Obama — who is unhappy with his “sanctimonious” left wing — Mr. Bush was no ideologue.

“I’m not going to be held up by campaign rhetoric,” he wrote in his diary early in his term. “If the facts change, I hope I’m smart enough to change, too.” Mr. Bush privately said that he had no intention of being “off in some ideological corner falling on my sword and keeping the country from moving forward.”

The late Dick Darman, one of the chief Republican negotiators of the 1990 budget deal, later was quoted in Doro Bush’s biography of her father: “We all appreciated that he knew very well that he was taking an enormous personal risk--and that, unlike most conventional politicians, he was willing to sacrifice his own political interest for what he took to be the public good.”

[See a slide show of 5 reasons Obama is the same as Bush, Clinton.]

Former Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole agreed, “It wasn’t that the president wanted to raise taxes, he didn’t have any choice. It was either take what the Democrats were going to give us, because they had the majority, or we weren’t going to get a budget. We had to keep the country moving, and you get to a point where sometimes you have to accept what the opposition, particularly when they have the majority, give you. So it was a big campaign issue. I never thought it was fair, but some things aren’t fair in politics.”

Hopefully Congressional Democrats will realize that we have to keep the country moving. And hopefully more elected officials will be willing to put the public good ahead of their own political interest. I just wish Obama and the current negotiators had included a way to pay for this $900 billion package with off-setting spending cuts. Whatever happened to “pay as you go”?