Grover Norquist’s history lesson: George H.W. Bush, ‘no new taxes,’ and the 1992 election
“George Herbert Walker Bush broke his commitment to the American people. I don't think the Americans for Tax Reform even put out a press release. Somehow the American people figured out that he'd broken his commitment to them and he couldn't get 38 percent of the vote when he ran in a general. He didn't lose in a primary. He lost in a general election.”
— Grover Norquist, Nov. 26, 2012, after he was asked on CNN whether his anti-tax organization would target lawmakers who ignore a no-tax-pledge they signed and instead vote for new taxes.
This assertion by creator of the anti-tax pledge caught our attention. Did the 41st president fail to be reelected mainly because he reversed his famous pledge of “Read my lips: No new taxes”?
Bush, of course, had famously promised not to raise taxes in his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican convention, no matter how much pressure he faced from Congress. But then a soaring budget deficit — and a refusal by the Democratic-led Congress to accept only spending cuts — led him accept a tax hike in late 1990.
The 1992 race was not just between Bill Clinton and Bush, but also businessman Ross Perot, who took 19 percent of the popular vote (but won no electoral votes.) The three-person race was a key reason why Bush won only 38 percent of the vote — and Clinton 43 percent.
Let’s take a stroll down memory lane.
The Fact Checker covered the 1992 election and even had the task of analyzing the exit polls on election night. It’s been two decades, but we recalled there were other issues in that election. Indeed, this was the headline on our article: “Economy Killed Bush, Polls Show.”
“Bill Clinton yesterday won the presidency by riding a wave of discontent about the sagging national economy and President George Bush's perceived inability to deal with it, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll of about 15,000 voters across the country,” the article said.
Here are the details of the exit poll. When voters were asked what campaign topics had influenced their votes, Bush’s reversal on taxes ranked third among both Clinton and Perot voters — far behind the economic proposals of the candidates.
Question: Which of these things had a major influence on your vote today? (Choose no more than three)
percent of Clinton voters Bush Voters Perot Voters
Bush's role in Iran-Contra 29 12 15
Candidates' economic proposals 40 23 45
Clinton's activities during Vietnam 5 24 12
Your opinion of Dan Quayle 19 8 9
Bush's flip-flop on raising taxes 25 1 19
Your opinion of Al Gore 16 8 4
Democratic Party is too liberal 2 41 13
Bush's leadership in the Gulf War 5 43 3
The broadcast debates 16 9 32
Clinton's record as Arkansas governor 16 27 18
Republican Party is too conservative 24 1 7
None of the above 10 10 17
Moreover, when it came to issues, the exit poll found that taxes ranked near the bottom for most voters — except for those voting for Bush.
Jobs and the economy were cited by 69 percent of Clinton voters and 72 percent of Perot voters; taxes, by contrast, were cited by 7 and 9 percent of those voters, respectively. Thus taxes were the seventh most important issue for Clinton voters and fifth most important for Perot voters.
By contrast, taxes were cited by 21 percent of Bush voters, after moral values (46 percent) and jobs and the economy (34 percent).
Slam dunk? Norquist still begs to differ.
In an interview, Norquist offered a more nuanced explanation. He argued that the tax issue weakened Bush as a candidate, inviting a primary challenge by political commentator Pat Buchanan and then laying the groundwork for a third-party candidacy.
“Without the betrayal on the tax issue, the third party would have been a joke,” Norquist said, though he acknowledged that Perot was not motivated by taxes but rather the budget deficit. (In fact, Perot ran on a platform of raising taxes to shrink the deficit, including boosting the marginal rate for the wealthy.)
Norquist added that Bush’s tax reversal “depressed the hell out of the [Republican] base” because it was a “fundamental breach of faith.”
There is little evidence that Perot cost Bush the election — exit polls show Perot voters would have split between Bush and Clinton, with each getting 38 percent, if Perot had not competed — but it is correct that the tax reversal left Bush politically weakened, especially among his party. The drafters of the GOP platform at one point even voted to label the tax increase “a mistake,” before being forced to alter the language after pressure from the Bush campaign.
Clinton also tried to exploit the rift, running an advertisement highlighting Bush’s broken pledge and the relatively low taxes in Arkansas, where he was governor. “You don’t have to read his lips,” the ad concluded. “Read his record.”
(If this column had existed in 1992, this Clinton ad would like have earned a couple of Pinocchios because it failed to acknowledge that the tax hike was broadly supported by Democrats in Congress.)
The Pinocchio Test
To some extent, this falls in the realm of political opinion. As Norquist put it to us: “Go find someone else who got it wrong. But that ain’t here.”
But accurately recounting history is important. Norquist’s focus on the tax pledge plays down the main factor in Bush’s loss — the poor economy. The mantra of the Clinton campaign was “The economy, stupid,” and the exit poll data show that’s what was on voters’ minds when they went to the polls.
One can certainly make the case that the broken tax pledge contributed to Bush’s defeat — or at least his political struggles — but it was not the prime factor. Norquist earns a Pinocchio for viewing the results of the election only through a tax-cut lens.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker