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.”