According to an article in Politico:
Jeb Bush has a tax problem.
The former Florida governor has said he could accept tax increases in a hypothetical deficit-cutting deal. Never mind that he added that would come only in exchange for major federal spending cuts, or that he repeatedly cut taxes as governor.
Tax hikes are still apostasy in Republican circles, and the stance could be a big problem for Bush if he decides to seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
Bush’s views are already pitting him against one of his party’s most influential activists, Grover Norquist, the high priest of anti-tax orthodoxy who’s convinced nearly every elected Republican to sign a pledge not to raise taxes.
“Mind-boggling,” Norquist said of Bush.
Actually, it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be.
Set aside for the moment your view of Jeb Bush and the 2016 presidential race. Let’s instead examine this broader argument with some care, beginning with putting the story in context.
As Politico points out, during a June 2012 House Budget Committee hearing, Bush was asked about a theoretical deficit plan that would actually cut $10 in spending in exchange for a dollar in tax increases. This was a question first posed to Republican presidential candidates by Byron York and Bret Baier and was rejected by all eight of them. (I criticized that response at the time.) Governor Bush’s response was different than the Republicans running for president. “If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have $10 of spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement — put me in, Coach,” he said.
Note well what Bush didn’t say. He didn’t say he believed we as a nation are under-taxed. In fact Bush, as governor of Florida, had a sterling tax-cutting record, having cut them every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). What Bush said is that if you could actually get a 10-to-one ratio in spending cuts to tax increases–that after all was the premise of the thought experiment–he’d do it. So, I would think, would any conservative interested in limiting government.
I not only understand the case for lower taxes; I support tax cuts. But it’s not an inviolate principle. The question on these things is always context. Higher taxes in exchange for what? Which taxes are we talking about? And what else might be considered in any such deal (e.g., reforming Medicare by replacing the current fee-for-services system with a premium support one)?
People I respect believe the no-new-tax pledge has done more good than harm, that without it Republicans would be far more inclined to raise taxes. That’s not an unreasonable stance. But for conservatives to say, as many now do, that there’s no scenario in which taxes could ever be raised–and to pledge to oppose a tax increase regardless of circumstances–strikes me as misguided. Nor do I believe most Republicans, if you had a long, honest conversation, would be that absolutist. The right level of taxation is a prudential, not a theological, matter; it needs to be seen in the context of other economic conditions and possible gains in other areas.
This debate highlights a danger for conservatism, which is that certain policies are elevated to dogma, to canon. It takes a reasonable starting point in a negotiation and turns it into a non-negotiable end point. Vin Weber, a principled conservative, said Bush’s answer on the tax issue “was totally right, and if we’re ever going to deal with the long-term debt question, Republicans are going to have to come to grips with that.”
This debate also exposes a mindset that views compromise per se as unprincipled, a capitulation, a sign of weakness. This is a deeply unconservative attitude and quite at odds with what James Madison and the other Federalist founders believed. The Constitution itself was the result of a whole series of difficult, reluctant, remarkable compromises. That’s why it’s so odd that those who consider themselves “constitutional conservatives” are often the ones who react most strongly against even the idea of compromise.
One other thing. If the attitude many of those on the right have toward taxes today existed in the 1970s and 1980s, Ronald Reagan would have been considered a heretic. I say that because Reagan himself signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”; and as president he signed a tax increase (TEFRA) that at the time was the largest in American history. As president Reagan, in fact, raised taxes multiple times.
Now my own view is that Reagan’s record, including his record on taxes, needs to be seen in whole–and seen in whole it was outstanding. He was responsible for cutting the top rate from 70 percent to, when he left office, 28 percent, which helped catalyze our economy; and his 1986 tax reform plan was a tremendous achievement. Yet Reagan did raise taxes.
It’s true that President Reagan came to regret his 1982 tax increase. But it’s important to keep this in mind: He agreed to it, he said, assuming he’d get $3 of spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. (He didn’t, though the reality is somewhat complicated.) If that result had in fact come to pass, would the deal have been wrong? Would today’s anti-tax advocates torch him for his apostasy? Would he be vilified as a RINO? Would he be vulnerable to a primary challenge?
It tells us something about some currents within conservatism that a governor with a sterling tax cutting record, in expressing support for a theoretical deal far more conservative than what Ronald Reagan was willing to accept, would be the object of harsh criticisms.
My guess is that this kind of approach to politics, while still embraced in some quarters, is losing influence. At least I hope so. Not because I want higher taxes, but because I don’t think conservatism is a rigid, adamantine ideology; that the quest for political purification is fraught with danger; and because conservatives shouldn’t assume that any deal that gives you less than everything is a bad deal. Conservatives shouldn’t treat a debate about tax rates as a metaphysical matter.
We all have roles to play, and governing is different than critiquing those who do. The former certainly need to be prodded now and then by activists and commentators; I do a fair amount of that myself. But activists and commentators need to understand that while we need to strive for the ideal, the ideal can’t become the standard by which we judge politicians. Nor is every issue a hill to die on. And, as the greatest American conservative of them all warned, there’s not a lot to be won, and even a lot to be lost, by going over the cliff with our flags waving.