Jeb Bush’s family ghosts make for ugly tax battle with right

Updated

Jeb Bush has pledged to be his own man as president, rather than follow the lead of father, President George H.W. Bush, and brother, President George W. Bush. When it comes to taxes, he’ll get his wish: Whatever he decides will run counter to at least one of their legacies. 

Bush 41 became a permanent cautionary tale for conservatives after agreeing to a bipartisan budget deal that raised taxes despite declaring “Read my lips: No new taxes” in his 1988 convention speech. Bush 43, on the other hand, championed sweeping trillion-dollar plus tax cuts that Democratic critics derided for busting the budget and disproportionately aiding the wealthy. 

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Bush earned strong reviews from the right as governor of Florida for his tax-cutting record. But more recent statements earned jeers from conservatives like anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, whose group Americans for Tax Reform pushes Republican candidates to sign a pledge vowing never to raise taxes under any circumstances. 

As part of a blanket ban on interest group agreements, Bush refused to sign the “taxpayer protection pledge” when he was governor, and he hasn’t done so as an expected presidential candidate either. Norquist said he’s less worried about the pledge, however, and more concerned about the former governor’s openness to a deficit-cutting deal along the lines of his father’s — and he’s raising his concerns early and at high volume. 

“He can’t say ‘I was governor and cut taxes, but elect me now and I’ll do whatever I want.”
Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform

“He can’t say ‘I was governor and cut taxes, but elect me now and I’ll do whatever I want,’” Norquist told msnbc. “When you’re trying to run against the idea of a dynasty, against the idea of privilege, against the idea of hereditary position, to say to the peasants ‘I’ll let you know after you give me power’ — it just comes across as a ruler.”

Norquist’s group points to two incidents. In 2012, Bush was asked in a House Budget Committee hearing about a Republican presidential debate in which the candidates universally said they would oppose a “grand bargain” with Democrats to cut the deficit, even if it included $10 in spending cuts for every $1 dollar in new revenue. His response to the 10:1 offer: “Put me in, coach.”

“This will prove I am not running for anything,” he added.

The same year, Bush defended his father’s tax deal on policy grounds, if not political ones, to reporters at Bloomberg LP. Per Bush, the agreement may have lost Bush the election, but it “created the spending restraint of the ‘90s” and was “helpful in creating a climate of more sustained economic growth.” 

“His brother’s position was ‘I saw what happened when they cheated my father, they’ll never do that to me, I’m signing the pledge,’” Norquist said. “[Jeb Bush] thinks if he takes the pledge the whole world will have a conversation about his dad. He’s got it wrong: The reason people are talking about his dad’s tax increase is because Jeb is saying he’d do the same thing.” 

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You can expect to see the above Bush quotes pop up in the primary as rivals look to fuel conservative opposition to Bush, who will also have to defend his support for immigration reform and Common Core education standards that are unpopular on the right. How Bush responds and what tax plan he offers up himself will be one of the biggest tests of his campaign.

“If Governor Bush decides to move forward, he will not sign any pledges circulated by lobbying groups,” Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell told msnbc in an email. “His record on tax cuts is clear. He didn’t raise taxes. He cut them every year as Governor for a total of more than $19 billion in tax relief. He does not support raising taxes and believes cutting taxes and reforming the tax code will lead to greater economic growth and more prosperity for Americans.” 

“As far as raising taxes or reform that does increase revenue, there doesn’t seem to be an appetite for that debate within the party structure.”
Republican strategist John Weaver
It would be, to put it mildly, a shock for Bush to openly push for a tax increase with Republicans now in control of Congress, the short-term deficit on the decline, and the party as fiercely anti-tax as ever. Even Norquist conceded to msnbc that a tax increase is not Bush’s “first instinct” and he’s offered plenty of praise for Bush’s economic record as governor.   

“As far as raising taxes or reform that does increase revenue, there doesn’t seem to be an appetite for that debate within the party structure,” said John Weaver, a Republican strategist who advised Jon Huntsman’s 2012 campaign and criticized the party’s refusal to put revenue on the table in budget talks. “These days, being responsible is considered bold.” 

Compared to the rest of the field, however, Bush is stuck in a uniquely difficult position on taxes. Part of it’s because of his family’s presidential record and part of it stems from his privileged background in general. 

Mitt Romney, another wealthy scion of a political family, struggled with this issue in 2012 like no other. Fearful of being accused of trying to line his own pockets, he resisted proposals like eliminating capital gains taxes that would substantially lower his own tax bill at the expense of the middle class. Afraid of being labeled a hypocrite on the deficit, he promised to make his plans revenue-neutral. In the end, he wasn’t able to produce a plan that met those goals and passed mathematical muster with independent analysts — and the Obama campaign hammered him relentlessly for it.

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Marco Rubio, another likely 2016 candidate, is looking to solve this problem by giving up on the “revenue-neutral” part and proposing trillions of dollars of tax cuts, most of which would benefit the wealthy, while proposing some tax credits for working families at the same time. It’s a combination reminiscent of George W. Bush’s approach.

But things won’t be so easy for Bush. Rubio has a blue-collar-son-of-a-bartender background to pair with his tax bonanza. If Bush follows the same route as Rubio and pitches an end to capital gains taxes (a move that would have nearly wiped out Romney’s tax bill), he’ll be accused of class warfare. If he blows up the deficit like Rubio, he’ll be accused of borrowing from his brother’s economic playbook. Prominent Republican policy analysts speculated to Politico this month that Bush might try a none-of-the-above approach and propose raising taxes on the rich or big banks to cut middle-class taxes elsewhere, but doing so could enrage the party’s business wing.

To borrow from “Star Trek,” it’s a Kobayashi Maru scenario — a game with no winning move. Just as with Captain Kirk, we’ll learn a lot about Bush’s leadership skills from how he faces the inevitable firestorm. 

Jeb Bush's family ghosts make for ugly tax battle with right

Updated