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Encyclopedia > Read my lips, no new taxes
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Bush delivering the famous line at the 1988 convention

"Read my lips: No new taxes" was a famous pledge made by Republican Presidential candidate George H.W. Bush at the 1988 Republican convention in his acceptance speech on August 18. The impact of the speech was considerable and helped Bush win the 1988 United States presidential election, but when he raised taxes during his time in office the clips became potent ammunition for his adversaries during the 1992 presidential election campaign.


The exact phrase "Read my lips: No new taxes" was used first in the New Hampshire primary, and throughout the primary Bush's pledge not to raise taxes was a consistent, if not central issue. The phrase rose to great prominence in Bush's acceptance speech at the New Orleans convention.


The full section of the speech on tax policy was:

I'm the one who will not raise taxes. My opponent says he'll raise them as a last resort, or a third resort. But when a politician talks like that, you know that's one resort he'll be checking into. My opponent won't rule out raising taxes. But I will. And The Congress will push me to raise taxes and I'll say no. And they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again, and all I can say to them is "Read my lips: No new taxes."

The passage was written by leading speechwriter Peggy Noonan and was included largely due to her advocacy and that of Roger Ailes and Jack Kemp, long an anti-tax advocate. A number of the other Bush advisors felt the language was too strong. One of these was economic advisor Richard Darman, who called the phrase "stupid and dangerous." Upon the insistence of Noonan, however, it was included in the speech. It was felt the pledge was needed to keep conservative support in a campaign that was trying to be very centrist. It was also hoped it would add an element of toughness to a candidate who was suffering from an perception of being weak and vacillating.


The phrase, delivered with seemingly great conviction and passion by Bush, became one of the most prominent sound bites played in the media after the speech, as was intended by Noonan. After the convention the phrase was not often repeated and Bush placed far less emphasis on his no taxes pledge. For the last months of the race, when Bush was comfortably in the lead, his campaign team felt that such an uncompromising pledge was an unnecessary risk.


When in office Bush found it very hard to keep his promise. By 1990 rising deficits, fueled by a growth in mandatory spending and a declining economy, increased pressure for new taxes. Bush's economic advisors worried that the high deficits would push up interest rates and cause a full-blown recession just in time for the 1992 election. Pressure from the Democrats also limited Bush's options.


In order to pass a fiscal year 1990 budget, Bush entered negotiations with the Democrats. After several weeks at the end of June Bush agreed that the next budget would include tax increases as one of the components of a deficit reduction program. Eventually taxes were raised in the new budget, most notably by a five cent increase on the federal gas tax. His Chief of Staff John Sununu first described the new budget as containing "tax revenue increasing" measures. The first journalists to read this vague statement did not interpret it as a tax increase. Soon however the Democrats, led by George J. Mitchell and Dick Gephardt, released their spin on the budget and clearly emphasized that there would be new taxes. Soon the broken pledge became the leading news story.


The issue quickly faded from prominence, however. The tax increase attracted little criticism from the Democrats, who supported the move itself and had lobbied Bush to agree to it. Some criticism was made by conservatives, but was mostly erased by Bush's success in the Gulf War not long after. Most enraged were other Republicans including Newt Gingrich, the Senate leadership, and Vice President Dan Quayle. They felt Bush had destroyed the Republican's most potent election plank for years to come. That the Republican leadership was not consulted before Bush made the deal also angered them. The Republicans kept their disapproval behind closed doors, however. The broken pledge was thus largely forgotten until two years later.


Early in the 1992 presidential campaign little note was made of the pledge, except as an occasional defence against the Republican attacks on Clinton for being a flip-flopper. The phrase was first widely used as attack on Bush by Pat Buchanan who used replays of the sound clip heavily in his suprisingly successful New Hampshire primary campaign. While Buchanan failed to win the Republican nomination he did cause some fiscal conservatives to abandon Bush for third party candidate Ross Perot. Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, who didn't object to tax hikes, also managed to use the broken pledge to great effect. A television commercial designed by campaign manager James Carville had Bush repeating the phrase to illustrate Bush's perfidious nature. It was regarded as the most effective of all of Clinton's campaign ads.


The early response by Bush was that taxes had not actually been raised, rather there were only new "user fees" and "revenue enhancements". When this proved unsuccessful in convincing Americans, who rather saw the equivocations as an example of Bush's lack of character, Bush changed strategies and began apologizing for raising taxes. He pronounced that "I did it, and I regret it and I regret it" and told the American people that if he could go back he would not raise taxes again. This also proved ineffective and the broken pledge dogged Bush for the entirety of the 1992 campaign.


The broken promise was only one of the factors leading to Bush's defeat, but it was an important one. Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin called them "the six most destructive words in the history of presidential politics."


The phrase was also used as a sound bite in the song "Foreclosure of a Dream" by Megadeth, off their 1992 album Countdown To Extinction. The song deals with bassist Dave Ellefson's family, who were farmers in Minnesota, being put out of business during the Reagan administration. [1] (http://megadeth.rockmetal.art.pl/lyrics_countdown.html#Foreclosure)


President George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush's son, made a similar pledge in 2002 when he stated that "not over my dead body will they raise your taxes." He has not, as of 2005, broken this pledge.


See also: Election promise


 
 

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