Sunday, August 18, 2013

Read My Lips

Twenty–five years ago tonight, George H.W. Bush delivered his first presidential nomination acceptance speech.

He had delivered two vice presidential acceptance speeches — when he was nominated to be Ronald Reagan's running mate. But this was his first presidential nomination acceptance speech.

He may well have won the presidency — and simultaneously doomed his re–election bid — with a single pledge he made in the convention hall in New Orleans — "Read my lips. No new taxes." The polls wouldn't reflect the shift in popular support until a few weeks later, but I have no doubt that what Bush said on this night 25 years ago played a significant role in his eventual triumph.

It clearly played a role in his defeat four years later.

I understood why he said it, and I understood why he broke his promise as president.

To put this into historical perspective, the American voters had not given the presidency to the nominees of the same party in three straight elections since the days of Franklin Roosevelt.

Until that time, it happened fairly regularly; FDR himself was elected president in four straight elections. But since World War II, voters had not stayed with the same party in more than two consecutive elections — no matter how popular the incumbent was.

In 1988, the general consensus was that Reagan could have won a third term if he had been permitted to run. But he was limited to the two terms he had served.

That left the Republican nomination up for grabs, and Bush did as every incumbent president or vice president (when the president was prohibited from doing so) had done for more than 35 years — he sought his party's nomination. But so did others, including Sen. Bob Dole (who would be his party's nominee eight years later).

Although he had been vice president under Reagan for eight years, Bush had never persuaded the party's conservatives that he was really one of them. Not when Reagan — grudgingly — named Bush as his running mate in 1980.

Not even in his eight years of loyal service as vice president (during which Bush frequently supported policies he had opposed as a candidate for the GOP nomination in 1980) did he earn their support, let alone their respect.

He felt he had made a gesture to that wing of the party when, in what was widely called his first presidential–level decision, he chose Dan Quayle to be his running mate, but it had been met with ridicule.

So when it came time to deliver his acceptance speech, he needed something that would stir up the conservatives, a line that would remind them of Reagan and, at the same time, show them that Bush had learned some things as Reagan's apprentice and was ready to assume command.

"I'm the one who will not raise taxes. My opponent now says he'll raise them as a last resort, or a third resort. But 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. And 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.' "

That "Read my lips: no new taxes" thing was a good line, written by speech writer Peggy Noonan, who had crafted some winning speeches for Reagan during his presidency.

"It was a strong, decisive, bold statement," wrote TIME in 2008, "and you don't need a history degree to see where this is going."

No, you didn't. After Bush made his speech, the poll numbers began to turn in his favor — and the previously unthinkable, that Bush would defeat Dukakis, started to seem possible.

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