WashPost Reporter Frets Taxes Off Table, 'No Matter How Sensible'

“In Heat of Battle, Darman Put Taxes Back on the Table,” read the Saturday “Business” section headline over the “appreciation” piece, by veteran Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson, on the legacy of Richard Darman, the budget director who in 1990 arranged the deal which undermined George Bush's “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge. Darman passed away Friday, at age 64, after battling leukemia. Mufson hailed how Darman's deal, “along with the first Clinton budget...balanced the federal government's books for a decade,” and empathized with how Darman had confronted “the dilemma of contemporary U.S. politics: Republicans have taken taxes off the fiscal table, no matter how sensible they might be.”

Mufson, who currently covers energy for the Post but back in 1990 covered economic policy, presumed the Reagan tax cuts of nine years earlier caused a “budget mess” which had to be fixed in 1990, asserting that “many people thought it was fitting that Darman was at the center of these talks because of his role in drafting the big 1981 Reagan tax cuts.” Mufson quoted David Stockman, the infamous Reagan back-stabber, as quoting Darman: “I don't know which is worse, winning now and fixing up the budget mess later, or losing now and facing a political mess immediately.” But the “fixing” didn't occur for a decade, leading Mufson to postulate:
That summed up not only the Darman dilemma but also the dilemma of contemporary U.S. politics: Republicans have taken taxes off the fiscal table, no matter how sensible they might be. That makes compromise difficult and it could be bad policy, too. In addition to raising revenue, the small gasoline tax increase that conservative Republicans were able to purge from the final 1990 deal "might have been good energy and environmental policy," Darman said in a talk last March.
An excerpt from Mufson's January 26 article on the former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, “In Heat of Battle, Darman Put Taxes Back on the Table,” which carried this headline on the jump page: “Darman's Budget Legacy Rests in Balancing Tax, Spending Cuts”
From his spacious quarters in the Old Executive Office Building in 1990, White House budget director Richard G. Darman ran one of the most skillful -- and fateful -- budget battles in modern political and economic history. For a year, the battle commanded Washington's attention and briefly shut down the federal government.

The deal negotiated that year by Darman, who died of leukemia yesterday at age 64, is his most notable legacy. Along with the first Clinton budget, it balanced the federal government's books for a decade and established the rules popularly known as "pay-go" still quoted to justify balancing tax and spending cuts.

But Darman's deal also backtracked from President George H.W. Bush's "Read my lips: No new taxes" 1988 campaign pledge. Blamed by many conservative Republicans, including the current President Bush, for contributing to Bill Clinton's victory over Bush senior in 1992, it has become a warning to some partisans of the dangers of the sort of compromise that Darman believed in....

Darman talked about the idea of an "immaculate conception" for tax increases and program cuts. Seeking to gain distance from the partisan rhetoric of Washington, he moved talks with top Democrats to the officers' club at Andrews Air Force Base, where reporters wouldn't see the deal being born. It didn't work.

Many people thought it was fitting that Darman was at the center of these talks because of his role in drafting the big 1981 Reagan tax cuts. "I don't know which is worse," President Ronald Reagan's budget director, David A. Stockman, later quoted Darman as saying at the time, "winning now and fixing up the budget mess later, or losing now and facing a political mess immediately." Stockman later recalled that Darman said, "We'll win it now, we fix it later."

When I asked Darman about that in 1990, he didn't deny saying it. But he said "the thought never crossed my mind, and I don't think the thought ever crossed Stockman's mind, that we would wait a decade."

That summed up not only the Darman dilemma but also the dilemma of contemporary U.S. politics: Republicans have taken taxes off the fiscal table, no matter how sensible they might be. That makes compromise difficult and it could be bad policy, too. In addition to raising revenue, the small gasoline tax increase that conservative Republicans were able to purge from the final 1990 deal "might have been good energy and environmental policy," Darman said in a talk last March.

Even after making those sorts of adjustments, he earned the lasting enmity of conservative Republicans who, led by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich, voted against the deal, nearly sinking it, and who then launched an ultimately successful campaign to overthrow GOP moderates.

Darman was never a favorite of the Republican ideologues. Even during the Reagan administration, Darman later wrote, many GOP partisans used ideology "as a litmus test by which to separate the black hats from the white hats. And their version of the purity test was one I could not pass."...
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center