It’s no big mystery that when politicians change their positions on an important issue, some interpret it as a treacherous betrayal of principle while others view it as a wise recognition of changing circumstances or perhaps higher priorities. Similarly, any flip-flop, depending on how and why it is executed, can be seen as a sign of courage or of cowardice.

George H.W. Bush is clearly getting the benefit of every doubt in the John F. Kennedy Library’s decision to give the 41st president a “Profile in Courage” award for signing the 1990 budget deal that violated his “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge. At Wonkblog, Steven Mufson rains on the parade with some reminders of how that actually went down:

I was covering economic policy for The Washington Post from 1990 through 1993, and things were not that simple. First, making the pledge was a political maneuver that Bush must have known was not sustainable given the mounting federal deficits in the 1980s.

Second, he held out for a long time to avoid breaking the pledge; the deadlock with House Democrats forced the government to briefly shut down. He did not lead the way to a tax deal; he made Democrats push hard for it and let his budget director figure out how to package it.
Third, after signing the budget deal, Bush tried to distance himself from it. Even before the formal signing ceremony, he said at a press conference that he “had to gag and digest” parts of the deal. Later he was pressed by some of his political advisers to renounce the deal when he was campaigning for reelection in 1992. On March 3, 1992, Bush declared in a public appearance and interviews that the 1990 deal was a mistake. “If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t do what I did then, for a lot of reasons, including political reasons,” he said.

As for the price Bush allegedly paid for the flip-flop, Mufson rightly notes that it was almost certainly not a game-changer for 1992, since he faced not one but two opponents who advocated tax increases to reduce the budget deficit. The most important effect of the flip-flop was probably the development of an ever-more-stringent set of pledges and litmus tests among Republican pols to ensure that no one ever again would agree to a tax increase under any circumstances. If the definition of “courage” is to do something that could never be emulated, then Poppy richly deserves his award.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.