Is this Obama’s “Read my Lips” Moment?

Way back in the last Century, in 1988, 22 years ago (Gasp! Am I really that old?), George H. W. Bush convinced the voters of America to elect him President, defeating Democrat Michael Dukakis in an electoral college landslide, 426 to 111. Central to Bush’s campaign, however, was a single memorable promise that made him a hero with conservatives coast to coast: that he would never, ever, ever raise taxes.

Bush immortalized this pledge in his acceptance speech to that year’s Republican Convention in New Orleans, uttering his most-ever-cited statement, as follows: “Read my lips! No New taxes!” — taken from the Clint Eastwood tough-guy movie “Dirty Harry.” Here’s the video in case you’ve never seen it. It’s a beauty: Click here.

The irony, of course, is that in 1990, just two years later, Bush broke that pledge. Facing soaring deficits and a sinking economy, Bush decided to compromise with Democrats and sign a deal cutting Washington government deficits by $500 billion over ten years. Though it contained many spending cuts painful to Democrats, it also raised many key taxes, including the Federal gas tax.

The photo above shows Bush as President siging the 1990 deal. Not much of a smile on his face.

Not surprisingly, conservatives erupted in anger. “Read my lips. I Lied!” headlined the New York Post. The Cato Institute called it the “Crime of the Century,” and the Heritage Foundation quickly tagged it a failure. Most Republicans in Congress voted no (or Hell No!!) on the package; Bush had to rely on Democratic votes. Then, in 1992, when Bush stood for re-election, the pigeons came home to roost. Despite his widely-admired leadership during the 1991 Persian Gulf War that sent his popularity soaring to near 90 %, Bush’s budget deal and a worsening recession soured his prospects. Television pundit and former Nixon speech-writer Pat Buchanan managed to embarrass him by winning 40% of the vote in the New Hampshire Primary, running largely on Bush’s violation of his tax pledge. In the general election, Democrat Bill Clinton cited it too, and won a comfortable victory in a three-way contest that also included businessman Ross Perot. (click here for 1992 election results.) By the next January, George H.W. Bush was out of a job.

All of which brings us to today’s president, Barack Obama, and his decision this week to join in a deal with Congressional Republicans to extend the large, due-to-expire, Bush Junior-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The deal contains other things, but none more important. As with Bush Senior in 1990, this too violated a position central to Obama’s candidacy and presidency. Obama has made his opposition to continuing the Bush tax cuts for Americans with incomes above $250,000 per year a matter of basic principle, one widely shared with his supporters. Already, many Democrats are calling it a betrayal or worse.

Will this be the beginning of the end of the Obama presidency, just as the 1990 budget deal marked the beginning of the end for George H.W. Bush? Obviously, it is way too soon to say. Obama still has time to win back his critics, and perhaps even win on the tax-cuts-for-the-wealthy issue itself when it comes up again in two years. Still, the parallel is hard to ignore. Stay tuned. This will be very good drama.