White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater uttered a huge Washington truth this week when President Bush, elected on a pledge of "no new taxes," announced that what Americans now need is, er, new taxes. Said Fitzwater: "We feel he said the right thing then and he's saying the right thing now."
If you read Fitzwater's lips -- you can't read Bush's this time because this bombshell came in a written statement -- he appears to mean that Bush was campaigning then and he's governing now. Or, with a $200 billion deficit and a slackening economy, what worked magic as politics is bombing as governance.
Fitzwater spoke with a knowing smile, as if to say: This is a turnabout all of Washington will understand. Everybody takes polls before taking positions. The 1980s taught us all that you don't win elections by summoning people to sacrifice. Nobody really expects leadership nowadays. Hey, at least he's leading now.
Even the Democratic leadership, target of a decade of anti-tax rhetoric, is more interested now in helping Bush stay his new course than in holding him to account. Nor are complaints likely to issue from the Republican most wounded by Bush's campaign rhetoric, Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).
Dole -- who invoked fiscal responsibility in refusing to take a no-new-taxes pledge in the 1988 New Hampshire primary, and then was blasted out of contention by Bush's portrayal of him as a pro-tax candidate -- now finds himself in the bizarre position of having to carry the GOP flag in Congress for whatever Bush-backed tax hike eventually emerges.
Which brings us to Walter F. Mondale, defeated by Ronald Reagan in a 49-state landslide in 1984, after saying he saw no solution except a tax increase to uncontrolled and eventually crippling federal budget deficits.
"Let's tell the truth . . . ," Mondale said in his Democratic nomination acceptance speech. "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."
Reached in his law office in Minneapolis yesterday, Mondale said he was less interested in saying, "I told you so," than in making a point about the confusion of politics with governing.
"What I hope is that we'll all learn something," he said. "This is probably the most basic, deliberate, horrible economic mistake in American history and it was all driven by a disingenuous political strategy that has cost our nation terribly. Let's hope we learn our lesson and start to talk honestly and openly in these campaigns.
"We're in what I call the era of the marketeer, where the strategy is always to tell the public there are no hard choices and no burdens in American life. . . . But there are burdens to national citizenship and we'll be a better nation if we face those issues candidly."
Mondale's 1984 issues director, William Galston, now a political science professor at the University of Maryland, observed that Americans never believed the no-taxes pledge and so have not really been betrayed as much as cheated -- "cheated," he said, "out of a full public debate over the deficit as a problem with consequences, and one having solutions with consequences."
If Bush has gotten religion on that subject, it is not clear that he will be able to bring his party -- or Democrats -- along with him. The day of his statement, 90 House Republicans signed a letter protesting it. Prominent among the signers were those running for the Senate this year on the no-new-taxes pledge, who say they have lost their best issue against Democratic opponents.
This complaint did not win sympathy from those concerned about the state of political debate. Said political analyst and author Kevin Phillips, a maverick conservative: "The monkey-see, monkey-do Republicans who stepped out with a 'Read My Lips Jr.' platform may have to go and do a little original thinking."
Analysts at the conservative Heritage Foundation gave the turnabout a different spin. Economist Dan Mitchell said Bush's politics as president have been deadly for the GOP all along. By calling for a "kinder, gentler" nation, said Mitchell, Bush has reinforced a growing view among Americans that government can in fact solve problems. Republican candidates do better, he said, when the public believes government is the problem.
But Phillips and other analysts believe Bush could fashion a political win out of what appears to be a move away from politics. For his concession on taxes, Bush may now extract from Democrats major spending and Social Security cuts they are loathe to broach -- all in the name of a healthier economic picture.
"He has in effect done what the Democrats have screamed would have to be done," said Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), a Senate candidate with a no-new-taxes platform. "Now, not only is the ball in their court. They actually have to play with it. I await their serve."