Bush Family Values Pit Jeb Against Grover Norquist

Jeb Bush has never signed Norquist’s no-tax pledge, and there’s no reason to believe he ever will.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks at a dinner during the Republican National Committee Spring Meeting at The Phoenician May 14, 2015 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
National Journal
S.V. Dáte
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S.V. Dáte
May 18, 2015, 11:38 a.m.

Grover Nor­quist hates taxes. Jeb Bush made a ca­reer of cut­ting them as Flor­ida gov­ernor.

Yet Bush won’t touch Nor­quist’s baby, the Tax­pay­er Pro­tec­tion Pledge, which the an­ti­tax cru­sader tries to get every Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate for state or fed­er­al of­fice to sign.

Bush was asked about it again re­cently, at a con­fer­ence sponsored by the Nor­quist-friendly Na­tion­al Re­view. Would he sign it? “No,” Bush answered, and then poin­ted to his Flor­ida re­cord, where by the end of his second term he had cut the state’s tax base by $1.8 bil­lion a year against total col­lec­tions of about $50 bil­lion. “I don’t have to be told how im­port­ant that is. I did it.”

So how did the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s most fam­ous tax en­for­cer get cross­wise with the Re­pub­lic­an al­most-pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate? The an­swer could be in quarter-cen­tury-old his­tory, the af­ter­math of a budget deal struck by Jeb Bush’s fath­er, then-Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush, in 1990.

Many con­ser­vat­ives in the party, Nor­quist among them, were out­raged that Bush agreed to raise some taxes to help erase budget de­fi­cits gen­er­ated un­der pre­de­cessor Ron­ald Re­agan. After Bush lost to Bill Clin­ton, Nor­quist blamed it on the aban­don­ment of the “no new taxes” pledge.

In a Janu­ary 1993 op-ed in The Amer­ic­an Spec­tat­or, Nor­quist wrote: “There is the stench of be­tray­al and treas­on in the air, and it comes from the biggest be­tray­al of all: George Bush’s de­cision in 1990 to tear the heart out of the Re­pub­lic­an co­ali­tion.”

As per­haps Nor­quist did not ap­pre­ci­ate, the easi­est way to get on Jeb Bush’s wrong side is to in­sult his fath­er, whom he’s been fiercely loy­al to and pro­tect­ive of for dec­ades. While George W. Bush sent Nor­quist a let­ter es­sen­tially mir­ror­ing the no-tax pledge dur­ing his 2000 pres­id­en­tial run, Jeb Bush has nev­er agreed to Nor­quist’s pledge—through three runs for gov­ernor in 1994, 1998, and 2002, and now as he nears a pres­id­en­tial run.

In a phone in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al as he strolled through a bazaar in Istan­bul, Nor­quist said he had no idea if Jeb Bush was ir­rit­ated with him over his com­ments about his fath­er. “You’d have to check with him on that,” Nor­quist said.

Neither a Bush spokes­wo­man nor Bush him­self re­spon­ded to Na­tion­al Journ­al quer­ies about Nor­quist.

Bush’s at­ti­tude to­ward Nor­quist stands in con­trast with a keen sens­it­iv­ity that Bush has shown through the years to his party base’s an­ti­pathy to­ward taxes. As Flor­ida com­merce sec­ret­ary in 1987, Bush pub­licly backed Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Bob Mar­tinez’s push to widen the state’s sales tax to in­clude ser­vices in ad­di­tion to goods—but privately wrote Mar­tinez a let­ter say­ing he op­posed the idea. In 1998, while run­ning for gov­ernor him­self, Bush was able to pull out the let­ter when the is­sue was raised by Demo­crat Buddy MacK­ay.

Bush’s re­fus­al to pledge not­with­stand­ing, Nor­quist en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally praised Bush’s gov­ernor­ship as it was un­fold­ing. In 2003, he told the St. Peters­burg Times that he of­ten poin­ted to Bush in meet­ings with oth­er gov­ernors. “I use him as the mod­el when I talk to the oth­er gov­ernors, to shame them,” he said. In late 2006, with Bush’s ten­ure al­most over, Nor­quist called Bush the best gov­ernor in the coun­try and told The Palm Beach Post that he should run for pres­id­ent.

All of Nor­quist’s gush­ing, though, seemed a case of un­re­quited love.

Bush turned down meet­ing re­quests from Nor­quist dur­ing his two terms in Tal­l­a­hassee. In 2003, Bush’s sched­uler emailed him to see if he was in­ter­ested in meet­ing Nor­quist the fol­low­ing week when he was vis­it­ing the Flor­ida Cap­it­ol. Bush’s re­sponse: “Not really.”

Bush did meet with Nor­quist in 2005 (Bush told The Palm Beach Post that they spoke about “free­dom and lim­ited gov­ern­ment”), but both Bush’s hos­til­ity to­ward Nor­quist’s pledge and Nor­quist’s cri­ti­cisms of the first Pres­id­ent Bush have per­sisted.

“If my fath­er had thrown away a per­fectly good pres­id­ency by rais­ing taxes, I think one of the things in life that I would learn is, ‘Don’t do that,’ ” Nor­quist told Politico last fall. “But here you have Jeb Bush go­ing, ‘I learned noth­ing from my fath­er’s self-im­mol­a­tion.’ “

For fed­er­al of­fice­hold­ers, the pledge reads: “ONE, op­pose any and all ef­forts to in­crease the mar­gin­al in­come tax rates for in­di­vidu­als and/or busi­nesses; and TWO, op­pose any net re­duc­tion or elim­in­a­tion of de­duc­tions and cred­its, un­less matched dol­lar for dol­lar by fur­ther re­du­cing tax rates.”

The pledge is big busi­ness for Nor­quist and his group. In 2012, its last elec­tion year tax fil­ing avail­able, Amer­ic­ans for Tax Re­form took in $30.9 mil­lion in con­tri­bu­tions (with $26.4 mil­lion of that com­ing from Re­pub­lic­an strategist Karl Rove’s Cross­roads GPS secret-money polit­ic­al group) and spent 90 per­cent of it on ex­penses, in­clud­ing polit­ic­al ads, as­so­ci­ated with its pledge. Nor­quist per­son­ally was paid $448,000 by Amer­ic­ans for Tax Re­form and af­fil­i­ated or­gan­iz­a­tions.

Nor­quist told Na­tion­al Journ­al that he still ad­mires Bush’s gov­ernor­ship. “His track re­cord on taxes has been quite good,” Nor­quist said, and ad­ded that he hopes as the weeks and months pass, Bush will re­con­sider the pledge. “We’ll see how it goes. Jeb Bush hasn’t an­nounced his can­did­acy yet. All the can­did­ates who have an­nounced have signed it.”

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