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Learning from dad's error, Bush dodges the no-tax trap

By SARA FRITZ Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 9, 1999

WASHINGTON -- It was inevitable that people would want to know whether Texas Gov. George W. Bush intends to repeat his father's famous promise never to raise taxes.

After all, it was then-Vice President George Bush's "read my lips" anti-tax pledge that was largely responsible for electing him to the White House in 1988. And it was that same pledge that precipitated his defeat four years later after he had agreed to a tax increase.

But if you were expecting a categorical statement on this subject from the younger Bush, forget it. It seems he has learned from his father's misfortune.

"He is loath to make a pledge he cannot keep," Karl Rove, a top Bush adviser, said Wednesday. "He has tried to avoid rhetorical traps."

Of course, Bush is not the only presidential candidate who has tried to avoid the no-new-taxes trap. Virtually every candidate in the race has, in one way or another, expressed distaste for tax increases while at the same time leaving open an escape hatch of some kind.

Bush -- along with all of the other candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination -- has signed an anti-tax increase pledge sought by a conservative group known as Americans for Tax Reform. A letter written to the group by Bush this year was made public Wednesday by Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson.

"If I were elected president," Bush wrote, "I will oppose and veto any increase in individual or corporate marginal income tax rates or individual or corporate income tax hikes. . . . I will also oppose any further reduction or elimination of income tax deductions and credits, unless offset dollar for dollar by reducing tax rates."

Nicholson contends that Bush and the other Republican contenders, by agreeing to the pledge sought by Americans for Tax Reform, have ruled out "any and all" tax increases. Nevertheless, the statement they signed does not specifically rule out tax increases on cigarettes, oil or other commodities.

Nicholson, meanwhile, challenged the two Democratic contenders for the presidency -- former Sen. Bill Bradley and Vice President Al Gore -- to make a pledge similar to that made by the Republican candidates. Neither of them agreed to do so.

Gore told reporters Wednesday that he has no intention of imposing a tax increase, but he refused to make any categorical statement.

"I'm willing to say that under the current economic circumstances, I have no intention of proposing any tax increase," he said. "Nobody has a crystal ball."

Meanwhile, Gore criticized Bradley for suggesting in an interview with the Washington Post last week that he would consider raising taxes, if necessary, to reach his goal of providing health insurance for 95 percent of Americans. Gore said this was proof Bradley's health care plan is too expensive.

Likewise, Republican Steve Forbes attacked Gore for his response to the question. He said Gore was "trying to be Clintonesque coy" and added: "If you don't take a firm, hard pledge against raising taxes, it means you'll take the first excuse to do it."

Not one of these candidates used the phrase "read my lips."

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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