Should elected officials sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge committing in writing to oppose and vote against any and all net tax increases?
Today there are 219 members of the House of Representatives who have signed the pledge and 49 Senators. That’s 90 percent of incumbent Republicans. (While Democrats have signed the pledge it tends be to a year or two before they switch parties and become Republicans — seven in 1995 — or just before they lose the general election.)
The short answer if that if as a governor, congressman, or president you are committed to reforming government to cost less you will sign the pledge.
Tax increases are what politicians do instead of reforming government.
For Reagan Republicans, a crisis is a teaching moment for reforming government to cost less.
For those willing to hike taxes: “Problems?” says the traditional pol. “I’ll raise taxes to pay for the mistakes of the past and raise taxes to pay for new stuff. No problem.”
But what about the politics of it all? Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post put two thoughts together and raised some interesting questions.
Data point one: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did not sign the Taxpayer Protection Pledge when he was governor and has announced through staff that he would not sign the pledge should he run for President. Is he making a big mistake or being clever?
Data point two: A poll by YouGov highlighting two questions.
1. Is it ever necessary to raise taxes?
2. Are you more likely or less likely to vote for a candidate who has signed a pledge promising no new taxes and to oppose any and all tax increases?
Rampell says it is “confusing” that among all voters 37 percent are more likely to vote for the candidate who takes the no tax hike pledge and only 16 percent would be less likely to vote for a pledge taker. (33 percent say they don’t care.)
Republicans are full-on 56 percent more likely to vote for the no-tax-hike candidate and only 5 percent would be less likely. Independents look like Republicans two to one supporting the anti-tax pledge signer 37 to 15 percent.
And yet: 57 percent of Americans answer that it is “sometimes” necessary to raise taxes. And even 50 percent of Republicans agree it is “sometimes” necessary to raise taxes while 40 percent say it is never necessary.
Are these not in conflict?
The first question is about a candidate that you are about to vote for or against. This is your state. Your town. Your president. It is about the future. Your future. Can you foresee a time when in your state, country, town, nation the proper response to a crisis is higher taxes rather than reforming government? No, say most Republicans and the 2:1 majority of independents. Democrats are split 24/23 percent in favor of pledge signers.
The question of whether somewhere sometime in the past or other nations or states it could conceivably be “necessary” to raise taxes tells one little. Necessary in what sense? Some politicians say they will shut down all state support for public education if they don’t get a tax hike. Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri did this. Obama tried and failed in 2011 to play the same card. Can special spending interests clobber politicians into passing a tax hike? Too many do.
But politics is not about hypotheticals. It is about intensity and vote-moving issues.
Rampell led with the news that Jeb Bush learned from his father’s defeat in 2012 that he should not promise the American people he will not raise taxes. But that is the wrong lesson.
In the Republican primary in 1988, George H.W. Bush was losing to Senator Bob Dole. Dole had just won Iowa. Bush was losing. Then at the televised debate before the New Hampshire primary the candidates presented Dole with the pledge.
Dole recoiled as if the pledge was Kryptonite.
Candidate Pete DuPont explained that everyone except Dole had committed to voters they would oppose and vote against tax hikes.
Dole Lost. Bush 41 went on to win the primary.
And later when he was 14 points behind Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis he said “Read my lips, no new taxes” and he leapt to a decisive victory in the November general election.
In 1990 Bush agreed to sign a tax hike to pay for still more government spending. Taxes went up. The promised spending cuts never happened. In fact, spending increased even faster than before the “deal.”
Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, whose powerful national television ad said Bush had supported one of the largest tax hikes in American history and he, Clinton, would never raise taxes on middle class Americans (he did.)
George Herbert Walker Bush is the perfect teacher on this topic: Sign the pledge and win the primary election. Highlight the pledge against tax hikes and win the general.
Raise taxes and break the pledge, lose.
His son George W. Bush signed the pledge and won the primary in 2000, kept the pledge in office and won reelection in 2004.
Thus endeth today’s lesson.
Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform and author of the forthcoming book, End the IRS Before it Ends Us — How to Restore a Low Tax, High Growth, Wealthy America.