"A political party is not a fraternal order."
-- Former Governor Ronald Reagan to the New York Times, December 15, 1976
Can you say Speaker George H.W. Bush?
Here we go again.
The pattern is uncanny.
First comes the pledge. Then the breaking of the pledge. Then retribution against those who protest the breaking of the pledge and refuse to go along. Followed inevitably by the political symmetry of a conservative base, tsumami-like backlash that politically drowns the original pledge-breakers. Leaving behind a massive Hurricane Sandy-style wreckage of once-promising political careers.
All of this coupled with a complete lack of strategic planning.
The last time this happened -- when President George H.W. Bush famously broke his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge -- Bush wound up not only targeting fellow Republicans for lack of personal loyalty, his decision to break principle also did in Republican House candidates in the 1990 elections. Two years later Bush himself managed to go from a president with a 90% popularity rating after the Gulf War to winning an appalling 37% of the vote in his disastrous 1992 re-election campaign, losing to Bill Clinton.
Has Speaker Boehner learned anything from this?
So let's jump in the time capsule and revisit exactly what happened with President Bush 41.
Here's the famous Bush line on the original tax pledge, a pledge made in his acceptance speech at the 1988 convention:
The truth is, this election is about the beliefs we share, the values we honor, the principles we hold dear…. I'm the one who won't raise taxes. My opponent now says he'll raise them as a last resort, or a third resort. 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. 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."
Catch that line? "…the principles we hold dear…"?
George H.W. Bush, holding tight to Ronald Reagan's coattails and making much of being a conservative, was elected in November of 1988 and sworn in on January 20th of 1989. Within months, according to my old boss Ed Rollins (Reagan's campaign manager in the 1984 49-state Reagan sweep) in his memoirs Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms: My Life in American Politics, Bush's pollster Bob Teeter, over dinner at Washington's Hay-Adams hotel, asked: "How long do we have to hold the tax pledge? Can we give it up this year?"
Rollins was stunned. Incredulous, he replied: "What do you mean, give it up?"
It turned out that Richard Darman, Bush's director of the Office of Management and Budget and a thorough-going moderate Republican, was insisting on raising taxes.
Dick Darman, who died a while back, was a man of many talents. Conservative principle was not one of his things. Neither, as so many conservatives had long been concerned, was it one of President Bush's things. As far back as 1985, three years before his 1988 run for the White House in which he presented himself as Reagan's heir and made his "read my lips, no new taxes pledge," Bush had invited Rollins to dinner at the Naval Observatory, the vice president's residence. After dinner, standing on the porch for a talk, Bush told Rollins he didn't think lowering taxes -- as Reagan was at that moment in the process of doing a second time -- was a "good thing." To Rollins' astonishment, Bush voiced the views of liberals: the way to get more revenue for the government and help the economy was to raise taxes, not lower them. The fact that Reagan was persisting with this, Bush said, would wind up hurting the President.
A year later, Reagan won his tax victory, and the rest is history. Some 21 million jobs were created in the Reagan presidency -- and tax revenue for the government went up -- not, as Bush predicted, down.
Say again, tax revenues went up -- not down.
As noted in Investor's Business Daily by Paul Sperry:
Between 1982, when the first round of Reagan's across-the-board tax cuts went into effect, and 1990, when President George H.W. Bush broke his no-new-taxes pledge, individual tax receipts jumped 57% to $467 billion.
All of this notwithstanding, Bush was persuaded by Dick Darman and insistent Democrats to break his "no new taxes" pledge.
Bush had also made one other pledge on economic policy in 1988: to cut the capital gains tax to 15% from 28%, the next step needed to continue the Reagan expansion. By breaking his "read my lips" pledge -- and failing to get the capital gains tax reduced as promise -- disaster followed.
In terms of the economy, by the fall of 1991 an all too predictable recession had hit.
And right on cue, the Democrats of the day -- the very same Democrats who had gulled Bush into breaking his tax pledge -- were out there excoriating the President for (in the words of a certain Governor of Arkansas named Clinton) "record numbers of people without jobs" etc., etc., etc.
As if this weren't bad enough, one of Reagan's famous supply-siders, longtime Jack Kemp adviser Jude Wanniski, took to the pages of the New York Times to scorch the President for abandoning Reaganomics. The headline over Wanniski's op-ed: "Blame Bush for the Recession."
One of the political strengths of the Reagan Revolution was that it had finally begun to break the decades-long grip of Democrats on the Congress. In 1980, Reagan's victory had finally broken that grip on the Senate, electing a GOP Senate Majority for the first time since 1952. It was lost again in 1986 -- but a GOP Senate would be back, finally out of the political wilderness.
The House was a tougher nut to crack. But the rise of a group of young GOP Reagan Revolutionaries -- led by Newt Gingrich -- had used Reagan's powerful 1980 and 1984 victories and had begun to force cracks in the idea of the House as a permanent liberal fiefdom. The 1990 congressional elections were seen as the potential to gain another eight seats, with problems on the horizon for only a handful of GOP incumbents. In baseball terms, 1990 would be about singles and doubles, not grand slam home runs.
Suddenly, these potential gains were wiped out -- and some 30-35 House GOP seats were in danger of being lost. All because President Bush had broken the tax pledge.
Rollins, who by then had been lured to the job of being the Bush-era executive director at the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee with an eye to finally winning back the House, did what any self-respecting Reaganite would do. He sent out a memo to GOP candidates telling them to be consistent, saying: "Do not hesitate to distance yourself from the President."
The memo, inevitably, was leaked. And as Rollins well knew, House Republicans were already out there distancing themselves from Bush. One incumbent, with Bush sitting mere feet away at a fundraising breakfast in the congressman's district, made a point of announcing his split with the President. Reported the Times: "Mr. Bush looked grim…" Indeed.
The Bush White House went crazy. The President -- acting then as John Boehner is now acting by targeting House conservatives -- was furious. Suddenly, retribution was the order of the day.
What happened? All manner of House Republicans were suddenly under attack -- from their President on one side and their own constituents on the other. On election day, Rollins recalls, "Republican voters stayed home in droves. It was the lowest Republican off-year turnout since Watergate, and it was all because of Bush's tax cut."
Instead of singles and doubles, making a gain of 9 seats or so, the GOP lost a net of nine seats -- and Newt Gingrich himself survived by a bare 974 votes.
On the plus side, because of the Reaganite damage control, fifteen seats were saved that almost went down the drain.
After the 1990 election? Just as Boehner is targeting today's House conservatives by removing them from committee assignments, so the Bush White House did their version of the same thing. Rollins was told the President would never again sign a fundraising letter for GOP House candidates if Rollins stayed in his job. Indeed, the President was quoted as saying to GOP House leaders: "I'll never do anything for you guys as long as Rollins is up there."
But he wasn't alone in facing the Bush White House wrath.
Newt Gingrich was targeted for the presidential fury via Dick Darman because Newt had not only openly opposed the Bush budget deal but led a movement with Reaganite House members who momentarily blocked passage of the deal in the House. Newt, railed an angry Darman, "was worth only thirty votes." To which an acerbic OMB Reaganite staffer who had opposed the deal replied: "And how many votes are you worth, Dick?" The answer was of course obvious -- none. Zip. With one curt exception, Darman never spoke to the guy again.
Next on the list was Bush's HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, who was vociferously opposing the breaking of the tax pledge from inside the administration but out of public view. "I'll get Kemp fired," Darman snapped.
In short: what had happened was that those Reagan had once called the Fraternal Order Republicans -- the GOP Establishment -- had turned against the conservatives of the day.
And the political response from conservatives didn't take long in coming. The fire was lit with another op-ed in the New York Times -- this one only a month after the disaster of the 1990 mid-term elections.
Longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie wrote a politically scorching piece that would rival its economic twin by Wanniski a year later. This one was bluntly headlined -- prophetically, it would turn out -- this way:
Bush Loses the Right Wing
Predicted Viguerie: "George Bush and his minions are heading into a civil war with GOP conservatives that will leave the political fields covered with blood."
By election night of 1992, the presidency of George H.W. Bush was toast. Abandoned wholesale by the Republican base, he received a mere 37% of the vote.
One would think there's a lesson here for Speaker Boehner and his lieutenants.
To wit: if they abandon conservative principle, the GOP House is in serious danger of defeat in 2014 -- by the Republican base.
Just as all those GOP House seats went down the drain in the 1990 mid-terms, and just as those lost House seats were followed by the Bush 41 presidency itself two years later in 1992, so too is Boehner seriously endangering the House GOP in the 2014 mid-terms.
It should be noted here that no less than Richard Viguerie has now come forth with the very same criticisms of Speaker Boehner that he made back in December of 1990 about President Bush 41.
Almost 22 years to the day, Viguerie has written this piece on his Conservative HQ website. Having all-too accurately predicted what was to happen to the GOP in 1992 because of Bush's broken tax pledge, this time Viguerie is flatly calling for Boehner's defeat in order to save the GOP House in 2014. Writes Viguerie:
What Boehner and the rest of the Republican establishment seems to have forgotten is that thanks to their failed leadership, if just 16 members of the Republican conference abstain from voting for Boehner as Speaker in January, he will be one vote shy of the 218 necessary to re-elect him as Speaker.
Just 16 principled Republicans could change the world.
The House switchboard is (202) 224-3121. Please pick-up the telephone NOW, call your Congressman and ask him or her to abstain from voting for John Boehner as Speaker -- or better yet, to vote for a principled conservative, such as Representative Tom Price of Georgia, Jim Jordan of Ohio or one of the principled conservatives who were punished for sticking to their principles: Tim Huelskamp, Justin Amash, Walter Jones or David Schweikert.
The only difference in this corner with the always estimable Mr. Viguerie is the belief that the Boehner problem would be much better resolved by selecting a House speaker from outside the House itself instead of one from the inside.
While I mentioned Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for the job a few weeks back (and the Governor politely declined), the Constitution does indeed provide for a non-member as Speaker. The case for a non-House member as Speaker to replace Boehner was put wonderfully well just yesterday here at The American Spectator by Peter Ferrara in this piece headlined: "Replacing Speaker Boehner: Here's how and why it has to be done."
Without even mentioning the Bush disaster, Peter sums up today's case for replacing Boehner with an outsider this way:
That is what is needed now most of all. An articulate Republican who can take on Obama and his dishonest, false narratives. About the rich, the budget, spending, taxes and debt. About energy and the environment. About the Obama record, and the longest trail of broken promises in world history.
Steve Forbes could be named Speaker of the House. Or Larry Kudlow. Or Steve Moore. Or Paul Gigot. Or Grover Norquist. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or Sean Hannity. Or Mark Levin. Someone who can talk, explain, tutor, and at last who knows what he is talking about. How about R. Emmett Tyrrell? Hell, they could even bring Gingrich back.
We're fans here of all of these people… and heaven knows there are surely others out there.
But the central point? The point that was made by an alarmed Ed Rollins in 1989 in Year One of the Bush 41 presidency? By a furious Richard Viguerie in the aftermath of the 1990 election disaster for House Republicans (that Rollins had accurately predicted)? By a saddened and equally prescient Jude Wanniski in November of 1991?
Republicans have been here before.
The first time with President George H.W. Bush.
And now, it appears they are headed in exactly the same direction 22 years later with Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Does this have to happen?
By changing course, having a well thought-out strategy -- and replacing Speaker Boehner with someone knowledgeable in both conservative principle as well as how to articulate that principle -- disaster is avoidable. And yes, an outsider as Speaker could not help but electrify a party whose energy seems to have drained since the November election.
The impending Boehner-led GOP disaster of today is as avoidable now as was the disaster that was the Bush 41 era. The Bush 41 presidency imploded -- and severely damaged the House GOP as well -- because of stubbornness. Because what Ronald Reagan once called the Party of the Fraternal Order -- the GOP Establishment -- defiantly refused to stick to conservative principle, much less articulate it. Then -- as now -- the issue at hand was the economy. And, just as with John Boehner today, President Bush 41 was as nice a guy as one could imagine. But both Bush and Boehner share the fatal error of mistaking loyalty to a person -- themselves as President and Speaker -- for loyalty to principle.
Just as targets of the Bush White House became their own team -- Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp, Ed Rollins and other Reaganites -- so too now the Boehner House leadership is targeting dissenting conservatives like GOP House members Tim Huelskamp, Justin Amash, Walter Jones, and David Schweikert.
What is unspooling in front of the nation's eyes this Christmas holiday season is nothing less than what in the world of movies is called a "remake."
The Bush 41 presidency moves to the House of Representatives.
Starring House Speaker George H. W. Bush.
Are there 16 House Republicans who have the political will to save the House GOP from its own Speaker? Who have the courage to make sure a bad moment in the nation and the GOP's history is not repeated?
We shall see.