There is something about taxes, spending and the name “Bush” that can set conservatives on edge, especially now that Jeb Bush is talking like a man who might run for president.
The latest example came earlier this month when testimony Mr. Bush gave at a 2012 House Budget Committee hearing suddenly resurfaced in a news story. In those two-year-old comments, Mr. Bush said he could accept a fiscal deal of $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts that Democrats would agree to — a position that drew sharp criticism from one of the nation’s fiscal hawks.
“Jeb stabbed Republicans in the back just when they were unified in insisting on major spending cuts with no tax increases,” Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist told The Washington Times.
President Obama and the Democrats had made no quid pro quo offer on taxes and spending at the time, Mr. Norquist said. The statement also revived for many Republicans the famous “read my lips” promise of Mr. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, a promise later broken in a 1990 budget deal with congressional Democrats.
In an email to The Washington Times, Jeb Bush’s spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said flatly that her boss does not favor raising taxes, despite the testimony recounted in the story that ran in Politico last week.
“As Florida’s chief executive, Gov. Bush cut taxes by more than $19 billion dollars for families and businesses. At the same time, budget reserves in the state rose from $1.3 billion in 1998 to $9.8 billion in 2006,” Ms. Campbell said. “His record on cutting taxes and exercising strong fiscal discipline speaks for itself.”
“Gov. Bush does not support tax increases,” Ms. Campbell added.
But many see the sudden resurrection of a two-year-old incident as an early indicator of attacks his rivals will mount against Mr. Bush, whom many regard as a potentially formidable fundraiser if he joins what could be a large field of GOP hopefuls.
The brother of one former president and the son of another, Mr. Bush has got himself in trouble with conservatives on two other issues. Unlike most on the right, he supports Common Core approach in education and a path to citizenship for illegal entrants into the United States.
Still, the name matters in politics, as in other endeavors. In what polls suggest is a wide-open race, Mr. Bush is in a virtual dead heat with rivals such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the early GOP polling for 2016, although the “front-runner” — Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — is only at 11.8 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls.
Some Republicans came to Mr. Bush’s defense last week.
“I know for fact he doesn’t approve of raising taxes — I know that,” said former Florida GOP Chairman Al Cardenas, a Bush friend and a former American Conservative Union chairman.
“They asked him a hypothetical question in 2012 when they were debating how to handle the national debt that at the time was spiraling out of control,” Mr. Cardenas said. “He did not mean he favors raising taxes.”
The former governor takes great — some say stubborn — pride in saying what he means, even it if loses him some love among fiscal conservatives who form his natural political base. He has consistently refused to sign Mr. Norquist’s “no new taxes” pledge.
As Republicans remember it, they branded themselves as the party of lower taxes with President Reagan’s historic 1981 tax cuts — only to get rolled by Democrats in Congress in 1982 when the White House agreed to a $1 tax hike for every $3 in spending cuts. Mr. Reagan gave them the taxes, but the spending cuts never materialized.
Next, Democrats led by the then-House Speaker Tom Foley and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell outmaneuvered President George H.W. Bush in 1990 by getting him to agree to $1 increase in taxes for every $2 in spending cuts. Again, the Democrats failed to follow through on the cuts, which still has many Republicans fuming and which many say paved the way for the 1992 election of Democrat Bill Clinton.
Mr. Clinton was followed in the White House by President George W. Bush, who burnished the GOP brand by cutting taxes several times but tarnished it by boosting spending faster than any other president since Lyndon B. Johnson.
If there is to be a serious chance for yet another Bush to win the GOP nomination and, setting historical precedent, actually to win the Oval Office, the tax issue will have to be addressed.
If the younger Mr. Bush does go for the 2016 nomination, he’ll face a raft of tax-averse rivals — and their surrogates — likely to use past statements on taxes against him. The Politico story, for example, was featured prominently on the website of Americans for Tax Reform all day Wednesday.
“He has not stepped up to the plate and said his 2012 tax statement was ill thought through,” said Mr. Norquist. “I think it would be very helpful if Bush would say now that what he said in 2012 was a mistake and that ‘I’ll never be tricked again’ by the Democrats” on spending cuts in exchange for tax hikes.