George Mitchell: A Profile in Political Courage

There's a nice little story in our local paper about the Kennedy family delivering its Profile in Courage award to former president George H. W. Bush for his role in the 1990 budget compromise that cut spending, raised taxes and---along with the 1993 Clinton budget---laid the foundation for the federal budget surpluses of the late 1990s.

Unfortunately for both the Kennedys and the Bushes, the historical record undercuts the notion that Bush acted courageously.  As his granddaughter pointed out when accepting the award on his behalf back in May, "Candidly speaking, my grandfather didn’t want to raise taxes in 1990...".  Well then, with all due respect, it's hard to conclude it was an act of political courage on his part to do so, isn't it?

Especially because Bush had painted himself into that particular political corner with his craven (and unnecessary) "Read my lips; no new taxes" pledge at the 1988 Republican national convention.  "The Pledge" didn't get him elected in 1988; and breaking it was not the cause of his defeat in 1992.

No, if any politician deserves a profile in courage award for the 1990 budget deal it's then-Senate Majority Leader---and Commonweal's 2014 "Catholics in the Public Square" honoree---George Mitchell.

Or at least, that's my admittedly biased opinion.  Having grown up (a generation later) in the same town as Mitchell, I've got more connections to the Mitchell family---though I don't know the senator well---than I can list here.  (Anyone who's lived in a small town will know what I mean.)

Throughout most of 1990, as the federal deficit worsened and as the president tried to wriggle out of his self-inflicted "no new taxes" conundrum, Mitchell quietly but persistently insisted that if there were going to be spending cuts that inflicted pain on the poor and the middle-class, then there would also be tax increases that inflicted pain on the rich.

In the end, after a three day government shutdown and an all-night session in the House, there were both.  The top marginal rate on income went up, and the value of high-end tax deductions went down.  Taxes were raised on gasoline, tobacco and alcohol; they also went up on yachts, airplanes and furs.

Most House Republicans split with the president, and with their leader, Bob Michel, following instead House Whip Newt Gingrich in voting against the budget.  (Mitchell was, throughout the months of negotiations, a particular target of Gingrich's ire.)  And, it was in the wake of the 1990 budget that the new Republican orthodoxy of opposing tax hikes, especially for the wealthy, at all times and under all circumstances, took hold.

Perhaps it's because the 1990 budget came during the final act of President Bush's long public career that his actions then are seen as courageous today.  Still, there is a certain moral and political courage required to insist that the rich have obligations, too.  Nearly a generation later, as the gap between the rich and the rest of us continues to widen, George Mitchell's courage is worth remembering and celebrating.

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 

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