"Read my lips: no new taxes" is a now-famous phrase spoken by former American president and candidate George H. W. Bush at the 1988 Republican National Convention as he accepted the nomination on August 18. Written by speechwriter Peggy Noonan, the line was one of the most prominent soundbites from the speech. The pledge not to tax the American people further had been a consistent part of Bush's 1988 election platform, but its prominent inclusion in his speech cemented it in the public consciousness. The impact of the election promise was considerable, and many believe it helped Bush win the 1988 presidential election.
Once he became president, however, Bush was pressured by Democrats and some Republicans to raise taxes as a way to reduce the national budget deficit. Bush refused many times but was making no progress with a Senate and House that was controlled by Democrats. Bush later agreed to a compromise in which he worked with Congressional Democrats to raise several taxes as part of a 1990 budget agreement. This reversal caused great controversy, especially in the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. Although technically there were no new taxes in this agreement, Bush in the same speech also ruled out raising existing taxes. In the 1992 presidential election campaign, Pat Buchanan made extensive use of the phrase in his strong challenge to Bush in the Republican primaries. In the election itself, Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, running as a moderate, also pointed to the quotation as evidence of Bush's untrustworthiness, which contributed to Bush losing his bid for re-election.
As the competition to succeed Reagan began in 1986, it was clear that taxes would be a central issue. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, had created a no-new-taxes pledge and was encouraging Republican candidates to sign it. A large number of congressional candidates signed, as did Bush's primary rivals Jack Kemp and Pete du Pont. Bush at first refused to sign the pledge, but in 1987 eventually acquiesced. (Norquist still urges politicians to sign his tax pledge and claims that almost 50% of congressmen have taken the pledge.) The Bush campaign would later join other candidates in using the tax issue to attack Bob Dole, who had not been clear on the subject. 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.
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, 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.’
The passage was written by leading speechwriter Peggy Noonan, with Jack Kemp having suggested the basic idea. Including the line caused some controversy, as some Bush advisors felt the language was too strong. The most prominent critic was economic advisor Richard Darman, who crossed the phrase out on an initial draft calling it "stupid and dangerous. Darman was one of the architects of Reagan's 1982 tax increase, and expected to have a major policy role in the Bush White House. He felt that such an absolute pledge would handcuff the administration.
Upon the advice of others however, especially Roger Ailes, the line remained 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 a perception of being weak and vacillating. At the time Bush was significantly behind Michael Dukakis in the polls, and Darman has argued that the campaign was far more concerned with winning than governing. The phrase, delivered with seemingly great conviction and passion by Bush, became one of the most prominent soundbites played in the media after the speech, as was intended by the campaign team.
Despite these problems the budget for the 1989 fiscal year was passed with relative ease, largely as the White House team and Dan Rostenkowski, chair of the House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee, agreed to postpone talk of both deep cuts and tax increases until the next year.
The budget for the next fiscal year proved far more difficult. Bush initially presented Congress a proposed budget containing steep spending cuts and no new taxes, but congressional Democrats dismissed this out of hand. Negotiations began, but it was clear little progress could be made without a compromise on taxes. Richard Darman, who had been appointed head of the Office of Management and Budget, and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu both felt such a compromise was necessary. Other prominent Republicans had also come out in favor of a tax increase, including Gerald Ford, Paul O'Neill, and Lamar Alexander. The alternative would have been to veto any budget bill that came out of Congress, risking a potential government shutdown and possibly triggering the automatic cuts of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act.
At the end of June, Bush released a statement stating that "it is clear to me that both the size of the deficit problem and the need for a package that can be enacted require all of the following: entitlement and mandatory program reform, tax revenue increases, growth incentives, discretionary spending reductions, orderly reductions in defense expenditures, and budget process reform." The key element was the reference to "tax revenue increases" now being up for negotiation. An immediate furor followed the release. The headline of the New York Post the next day read "Read my Lips: I Lied." Initially some Republicans argued that "tax revenue increases" did not necessarily mean tax increases. For example, he could mean that the government could work to increase taxable income. However, Bush soon confirmed that tax increases were on the table.
Some of the most enraged over the change in policy were other Republicans, including House Whip Newt Gingrich, the Senate leadership, and Vice President Dan Quayle. They felt Bush had destroyed the Republicans' most potent election plank for years to come. That the Republican leadership was not consulted before Bush made the deal also angered them. This perceived betrayal quickly led to a bitter feud within the Republican Party. When Sununu called Gingrich with the news, Gingrich hung up on him in anger. When Senator Trent Lott questioned the reversal, Sununu told the press that "Trent Lott has become an insignificant figure in this process." Republican National Committee co-chair Ed Rollins, who issued a memo instructing Republican congress members to distance themselves from the president if they wished to be re-elected, was fired from his position. Many also felt that, while perhaps necessary, the reneging was badly handled. Bush's statement on the issue was simply posted on the notice board in the pressroom. There was no attempt to sell or defend the reversal. It was also very sudden; there was no attempt to slowly convince the American people of the perceived necessity of raising taxes. No figures with influence on the conservative base were recruited to endorse and try and sell the about-face.
Eventually taxes were raised in the new budget. In September, Bush released a new budget proposal, backed by the congressional leadership, which notably included an immediate five-cent per gallon increase on the federal gasoline tax, and a phased increase of even higher fuel taxes in subsequent years. To the surprise of the Bush administration, this plan was rejected in the House of Representatives. Over a hundred conservative Republicans, led by Gingrich, voted against it because of its tax increases, while liberal Democrats opposed it because the focus on excise taxes fell too heavily on the poor. Bush vetoed the continuing resolution, and thus on October 5 the federal government shut down for the Columbus Day long weekend. Three days later, Bush agreed to a new resolution, and soon after the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 was finally passed. This new proposal replaced some of the fuel taxes with a 10% surtax on the top income tax bracket (thus raising the top marginal tax rate to 31%) and also included new excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco products, automobiles and luxury yachts. It also included the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 which established the "pay-as-you-go" or PAYGO process for discretionary spending and taxes, which resulted in a budget surplus by the end of the decade.
These events delivered a severe blow to Bush's popularity. From the historic high of 79% early in his term, Bush's approval rating had fallen to 56% by mid-October 1990. This was a blow to Republicans generally, who lost ground in both the House and Senate in the 1990 midterm elections. Soon after, however, the events of the Gulf War pushed such issues out of the news, and Bush's approval rating rose to even higher levels.
The early response by Bush was that raising taxes had been essential due to the condition of the economy. Polling showed that most Americans agreed some tax increases were necessary, but that the greater obstacle was the loss of trust and respect for Bush. When the primary campaign moved to Georgia, and Buchanan remained a threat, Bush changed strategies and began apologizing for raising taxes. He stated 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. His renewed promise was parodied by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live as "...never, ever, ever, ever, never, ever... never, ever, ever... ever, ever again!" In the October 19 debate he repeatedly stated that raising taxes was a mistake and he "should have held out for a better deal. These apologies also proved ineffective, and the broken pledge dogged Bush for the entirety of the 1992 campaign.
Bush's eventual opponent Bill Clinton used the broken pledge to great effect late in the campaign. In October 1992 a television commercial, designed by campaign strategist James Carville, had Bush repeating the phrase to illustrate Bush's perfidious nature. It was regarded as one of the most effective of all of Clinton's campaign ads. The tax reversal played a central role in reducing the public's opinion of Bush's character. Despite the variety of scandals that affected Clinton during the election, polls showed the public viewed Clinton and Bush as similar in integrity. Clinton's most effective ad, the "How're you doin" spot, also included a clip of the broken pledge.
Ross Perot capitalized upon disenchantment with Bush and the status quo entering the 1992 race as an Independent candidate, leaving and subsequently re-entering. While the effects of his candidacy have been speculated, exit polls showed Perot essentially drew votes from Bush and Clinton evenly . Further analysis of Perot's possible effect has determined that Perot's presence on the ballot could possibly, but not certainly have cost Bush numerous electoral votes, but not enough to have changed the outcome in the election in Perot's absence.
Conservative Republicans generally feel the opposite, that Bush should have stood by his pledge no matter the pressure exerted by Congress. While the reversal played an important role in Bill Clinton's 1992 victory, it also played a role in the 1994 Republican congressional victory. Newt Gingrich, while a member of the congressional negotiating committee, refused to endorse Bush's compromise on the tax issue. He then led over one hundred Republican House members in voting against the president's first budget proposal. This made Gingrich a hero to conservative Republicans, and propelled him into the leadership role he would play in the "Republican Revolution" of 1994.
The phrase was also used as a sound bite in the song "Foreclosure of a Dream" by Megadeth in their 1992 album Countdown to Extinction. The song deals with bassist David Ellefson's family, who were farmers in Minnesota, being put out of business during the Reagan administration. Another song to use the phrase as a sound bite is "Choices" by Mudvayne in their 2005 album Lost and Found. The song is essentially antipolitical, calling leaders irresponsible. The sound bite is one of several that support the theme of the song. During one flashback sequence in the film Hot Shots!, Topper "Buzz" Harley becomes distracted by several things he remembers that have happened to him in the past, causing him to lose control of the aircraft he is flying. This sequence includes the "Read my lips" speech. Puerto Rican rock band Fiel a la Vega made a reference to the phrase in a song titled "Bla Bla Bla" in their second studio album. The song criticizes politicians' empty speeches and false promises. White Lion rock band includes this phrase as a sound bite in the interlude of the song Lights and Thunder in the album Mane Attraction (1991).
The phrase also became the title of a political party, albeit one that was a sham. In a 2002 U.S. House race in Minnesota's Second District, Sam Garst, a supporter of incumbent Democrat Bill Luther's, ran as a candidate of the No New Taxes Party, ostensibly to siphon votes from the Republican challenger, John Kline, in a closely contested race. The move backfired, as Kline accused Luther of engaging in dirty politics (Luther's campaign manager knew of Garst's candidacy) and demanded that Garst be included in their debates (Garst fled the district during the campaign). Kline ended up defeating both Luther and Garst, though Garst did win over 12,000 votes, or 4% of the total.
On The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, ever spoiled Hilary Banks was overjoyed at getting her first paycheck. To her disappointment the amount she expected to get had been greatly reduced by taxes, to which she replied "I thought President Bush said 'No new taxes.'" To which Geoffrey says "The Federal taxes aren't new!" She replies, "Well, they're new to me!" In the Married...with Children episode "The Chicago Wine Party", Al Bundy protests a hike in the local beer tax. After a rousing speech about Americans and their love of beer, which leads the city council to re-examine the tax, the episode ends with him saying, directly to the camera, "Read my lips, don't tax beer!" In The Simpsons episode "Two Bad Neighbors", Homer Simpson demands that President Bush "apologize for the tax hike."