When President George H.W. Bush was laid to rest earlier this month, the remembrances appropriately remarked on his general decency and competence. In public commentary, the encomiums tend to be followed by a “but.” For journalists and historians, it is “but he was only a one-term president.” He lost the election of 1992, in part because of the recession of 1990-91. For members of his own political party, the “but” is, “but he broke with the legacy of Ronald Reagan and with his own ‘no new taxes’ pledge.” They have always blamed his failure to win re-election on that perceived betrayal.
But President Bush’s mistake was making the anti-tax pledge in 1988 in the first place and sticking to it in the first part of his presidency. The 1990 reversal on fiscal policy set the stage for a decade of economic growth that eventually achieved budget surpluses.