In the summer of 1999, George W. Bush chose the first major policy speech of his presidential campaign to pick a fight with Grover Norquist. Bush flatly rejected the “destructive” view “that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved” — a vision the Texas governor dismissed as having “no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than leave us alone.”As they say, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. The fact that the only significant evidence Gerson can find to support his notion that Bush was standing up to the anti-tax crowd comes from a campaign speech is telling.
For some reason Gerson didn't link to the actual speech, but it's available online. The speech was part of Bush's attempt to reinvent himself as a "compassionate conservative", a concept to which he offered little more than lip service.1 Once Bush took office it wasn't that "deficits don't matter" because we need to "carry a message of hope and renewal to every community in this country". It was "deficits dont' matter" because Bush wanted to expand spending on Medicare (something Mitt Romney might cynically characterize as "buying votes") and massive tax cuts for the wealthy, even if it meant that the deficit would go through the roof.
Gerson relies upon the conceit that a single campaign speech in which Bush supposedly picked a fight with Norquist should be read in a vacuum. As if the only person whose opinion matters in the entire Republican hierarchy is a single anti-tax zealot. Given a choice between a Democratic President who was disinclined to cut taxes and would have tried to maintain budget balance, and a Republican candidate who was promising massive tax cuts for the rich even if it meant going back to deficit spending, who do you think Norquist would choose? And... one suspects Norquist was receiving assurances behind-the-scenes.
Twice in the past week, Bush has sharply criticized his party. A week ago, he charged that congressional Republicans were trying to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor." On Tuesday in New York, he said that his party has been too negative, too pessimistic and too enamored of believing that free markets can solve social problems while ignoring the role of government...."What, me worry?"
Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, said the Bush speech was not even discussed at the weekly meeting of conservative activists that he hosts each Wednesday.
1. I don't want to be unfair here - perhaps Bush sincerely believed in the "compassionate conservative" concept that he made a cornerstone of his campaign. But if he did, he either quickly changed his mind once in office or decided that it wasn't a concept worth pursuing.