The story of the Bush family and Grover Norquist is a tale of daddy issues and betrayal.
The saga begins in the 1980s with former President George H.W. Bush and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and continues to present day, when potential presidential contender and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is refusing to take Norquist’s anti-tax pledge.
“Jeb Bush, when he hears, ‘Will you take the pledge?’ he thinks the question is, ‘Do you love your father?’ He thinks this is referring to Dad’s mistake," Norquist told The Daily Beast.
Norquist, the influential head of Americans for Tax Reform and its famous no-taxes pledge, said this is what Jeb Bush told him when they sat down and discussed the matter in the early 2000s, when Jeb was governor. And it has been, he said, a Bush family issue.
Since the mid-1980s, Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform has been pressuring lawmakers to sign the group’s pledge to oppose tax increases.
This has spurred a decades-long history of bad blood between Norquist and the Bushes. Norquist was a thorn in the elder Bush’s side then, and he’s a thorn in the younger Bush’s side now.
President George H.W. Bush’s failure to get reelected has been commonly blamed on his reneging on a famous promise: “Read my lips. No new taxes.” In an effort to strike a budget deal that would cut the deficit, the elder Bush conceded that tax increases were ultimately necessary to reach a compromise.
Norquist was once a loyal foot soldier. In 1990 The Sunday Times in London wrote of a “mysterious American" named Grover Norquist who had arrived in Edinburgh to aid Scottish conservatives, bragging to be “only a footstep away from George Bush."
But after the no taxes promise had been broken, Norquist wrote in the conservative American Spectator that the elder Bush had been “a failure as a party leader," and called Bush’s 1992 campaign “embarrassing.”
Norquist recalls being yelled at by a senior George H.W. Bush aide for trying to put language in the GOP platform acknowledging that raising taxes was a mistake during the 1992 election.
Even George H.W. Bush had called his decision to raise taxes the biggest regret of his presidency, at least during that fateful campaign. But despite his father’s own regret over the budget deal, Jeb continued to trumpet the compromise as recently as 2012.
“The budget deal my dad did, with bipartisan support... created the spending restraint of the ’90s,” Jeb Bush told a group of reporters in 2012.
Jeb Bush has also said he would make a tradeoff that involves tax increases -- if the price was right.
“If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we are going to have $10 of spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement, put me in, coach,” the former Florida governor said in 2012 before the House Budget Committee.
“The problem is the 10 [dollars in spending cuts] never materializes,” shot back the then-chairman, Republican Representative Paul Ryan.
In the same hearing, Jeb Bush told lawmakers, “I don’t believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people. I respect Grover’s political involvement. He has every right to do it. But I never signed any pledge.”
Given three opportunities to sign the pledge while running for governor in Florida, Jeb Bush declined.
Jeb Bush’s commitment not to sign an anti-tax pledge if he were to formally run for president was a point reiterated again via a spokesperson.
“If Governor Bush decides to move forward, he will not sign any pledges circulated by lobbying groups. 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,” said Jeb Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell. “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.”
George H.W. Bush made a similar point about the pledge when Parade magazine interviewed him for a cover story in 2012.
It’s clear there’s no love lost between the elder Bush and Norquist.
“The rigidity of those pledges is something that I don’t like. You know, the circumstances change and you can’t be wedded to some formula by Grover Norquist… who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?” the former president said.
Norquist shot back, “Asked to talk about anything in the world, he pipes up with, ‘Who the hell is Grover Norquist?’ … Uh, I’ve never blurted out his name in the middle of the night. There is a sensitivity there.”
Norquist says he expects Jeb Bush to sign the anti-tax pledge, sooner or later.
“The pledge looms large in his dad’s history, and it ought not to be determinative, but I understand it, and that is why at the end of the day Jeb is a politician that learns, and will learn, he’s a big mature guy,” Norquist said.
Norquist may have been encouraged to think this way by his experience with Jeb’s brother, George W. Bush. In 1999 a spokesperson for the then-Texas governor said Bush would not sign Norquist’s pledge. Just one day later, according to The Washington Post, George W. Bush signed a letter pledging not to raise taxes.
Pressed regarding Jeb Bush’s positions on taxes, his aides did not directly respond to a question about whether Jeb Bush might make a general promise to voters more broadly not to raise taxes.
“The smart move will be, and Jeb is a smart man, will be to move to a zone where he says… ‘I’m not filling out a commitment to any group, but let me promise you the voters I’m not raising taxes,” Norquist said. “It need not be [personal] because the way you honor your father is to learn from the mistakes, and this is exactly what his brother [George W. Bush] did.”
Some 88 percent of House and Senate Republicans have signed the pledge offered by Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, as have 12 governors.