Great political mistakes (No4) – Read my lips: No new taxes

It’s always a tricky thing when a politician makes a promise. It creates a hostage to fortune and if you break your word everybody from your opponent to the mass media are going to hang you out to dry.

Despite being an experienced career politician George Bush Sr make exactly this mistake in 1988. He was running for election as President but polling data showed that the right-wing of the Republican Party wasn’t enthusiastic enough about his candidacy.

Generally promising to not raise taxes always go down well so he decided to make a big announcement to that effect at the Republican National Convention:

“And I’m the one who will not raise taxes. My opponent now 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 I’ll say, to them, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes”

Bush won the election and several commentators attributed the victory to this pledge. However, then things started to go wrong. The economy faltered and the Democratic controlled Congress began to push to raise taxes in order to help to make up the budget deficit. Bush attempted to resist but then compromised, agreeing to raise taxes.

As a result the media turned on him with headlines like this appearing. The right-wing of the Republican Party were equally scathing, with Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh attacking Bush’s judgement and honesty. Bill Clinton used the phrase ‘Read my lips: No new taxes’ as a key plank in his 1992 election campaign and it formed the basis of several of his most effective attack adverts. When he won the right blamed it on Bush’s broken tax promise. 

Today politicians try to avoid promises like this at all costs. They prefer to stick to general statements like “I promise to make America great again”, which are so difficult to measure as to be practically meaningless. Alternatively they add a string of caveats to every utterance e.g. “I will do this in the fullness of time depending on the economic circumstances…” etc.

Bush’s ‘Read my lips’ comment is probably one of the worst mistakes in American electoral history.

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About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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5 Responses to Great political mistakes (No4) – Read my lips: No new taxes

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