"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."
-- George Bush, accepting his nomination at the 1988 Republican Convention
"Read my lips: I was lying."
-- Update suggested by NBC-TV's David Letterman last week
A comic overstatement, of course -- but the President was suddenly playing mysteriously coy. After hundreds if not thousands of repetitions that made "read my lips" the most memorable line of the 1988 campaign, Bush last week practically invited Congress to start pushing, with a hint that his lips might now frame something other than a flat no. The President asked congressional leaders to join Administration officials in a "summit" meeting to plan, at long last, a real whack at the runaway budget deficit. His spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said Bush wanted the talks to start with "no preconditions" and proceed "unfettered with conclusions about positions taken in the past." Meaning, everyone assumed, that a tax increase could at least be seriously discussed, and Bush just might let himself be talked into one.
Or was that what the President meant? Edward Rollins, co-chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, estimated that a tax hike might cost the G.O.P. ten of its 176 seats in the House; 19 of the 45 Republican Senators signed a letter begging Bush in effect to "say it ain't so, Mr. President." The White House and its allies almost did. After a meeting with Bush, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, the assistant Senate Republican leader, insisted that the President was not talking about income taxes, for heaven's sake. Maybe excise taxes, or energy taxes, or a kind of national sales tax, or something or other, but never income taxes. Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, speaking as "a senior White House official" -- a transparent disguise -- then gave a novel definition of what "no preconditions" meant. The Democrats, he said, were free to propose a tax boost, but "it's our prerogative to say no. And I emphasize the no."
Sununu, whose task was to keep the Republican right quiet until the summit concluded, apparently did his job with far greater zeal than Bush intended. Sununu's efforts almost torpedoed the summit before it started. Democrats immediately took them as confirmation of their darkest suspicions -- that Bush is again trying to portray the Democrats as the high-tax party, by euchring them into proposing an increase that he could either virtuously reject or pretend had been rammed down his throat as the price for shrinking the deficit. "Now I wonder if this ((summit invitation)) is a good-faith effort or whether political traps are being set," said House Budget Committee chairman Leon Panetta.