For Presidents’ Day, we asked readers to name the most underrated U.S. president. Andrew Miller had the most popular nomination — George H.W. Bush — and as a reward, he got to write this guest post.
But, what happens when our elected officials do make those tough decisions? George H.W. Bush learned the answer in 1992. Two years prior, he had pushed a budget deal that included tax increases alongside spending cuts and paid the ultimate political price: a one-term presidency. This was just one of the many decisions that showed Bush put his country first and political career second.
Under Ronald Reagan, the national debt tripled. Combined with the festering Savings & Loan crisis, Bush was left holding the bag of Reagan’s popular but fiscally unsound policies. Something had to be done to get the country’s balance sheet in order. Recognizing that a Democrat-controlled Congress would only accept a budget deal with tax hikes, Bush had to roll back his now-famous campaign pledge: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
Bush knew the stakes, confiding to his diary that the budget “could mean a one-term presidency but it’s that important for the country.”
Sensing the chance to cull favor with arch-conservatives, GOP opportunists pounced. Newt Gingrich, House minority whip at the time, left the president at the altar after having agreed to the deal. And former Reagan staffer Pat Buchanan, who would later challenge the president in the primaries, sent out bumper stickers to his supporters with Bush’s “read my lips” tax pledge. They were bolstered by conservative groups such as the National Center for Policy Analysis, which made dire predictions about the budget killing 400,000 jobs.
Not only did the predictions prove false, but the budget’s pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) measures and discretionary spending caps later helped give the government its first balance sheet in the black since 1969. Former Congressional Budget Office director Robert Reischauer called the 1990 deal “the foundation upon which the surpluses of the 1998 to 2001 period were built.”
Bush executed a foreign policy that was as prudent as his domestic policy was courageous.
Without him, Germany might not be standing today as a unified country in the NATO alliance. Bush brought France and Britain around on reunification while stiff-arming Soviet attempts to keep it out of the alliance. The successful German transition is barely discussed today, but this achievement, according to Harvard’s Josef Joffe, stands as one of “the three greatest moments in the history of American statecraft” in league with the Louisiana Purchase and containment of the Soviet Union.
A more recognized achievement was Bush’s leadership during the Gulf War. He took time to build an unchallengeable military presence in the region backed by a United Nations mandate. Kuwait was liberated within 100 hours of the invasion order. More importantly, Bush wisely understood what driving to Baghdad would have meant: a long, bloody quagmire.
His decision did not go unquestioned at the time. James Baker, secretary of state during the war, recounted often being asked why the administration didn’t take out Saddam Hussein. “Guess what,” he now says, “nobody asks that question anymore.”
Some argue that Bush should have disabused his son from making the blunder that he had avoided. Like any statesman, however, the elder Bush respects the democratic process. He recognized that the American people elected his son — not him — so it would be wrong to interfere with presidential decisions.
Despite Bush’s sky-high approval rating of 89 percent after the Gulf War, Buchanan stoked conservative disconnect over his budget deal, and Ross Perot did the same over fears about globalization and the lagging economy to weaken the president. Unfortunately for Bush, presidents have far less control over the economy than Americans tend to think, especially when tectonic shifts like globalization are taking place.
The economy did grow at a strong clip of 2.7% in the third quarter of 1992, but by then it was too late. Bill Clinton took the White House, capturing six million more voters than the president.
George H.W. Bush’s story of courage and defeat serves as a valuable lesson. Our elected officials are capable of putting their country first when it comes to the debt crisis or any other challenge. If they — whether Republicans or Democrats — make the tough decisions, the American people should stand by them this time.
Andrew C. Miller works at a foreign policy think-tank in Washington, D.C. and holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University. He can be found on Twitter @andrewmiller802.