Caring about the budget deficit cost George H.W. Bush the presidency; his successors took note


At the funeral for President George H.W. Bush, former Sen. Alan Simpson recalled his friend’s reaction when Simpson and other allies urged him to go along with a tax increase to shrink the budget deficit.

“OK, go for it, but it will be a real punch in the gut,” Bush said, knowing the political heat he would take.

“When the really tough choices come, it’s the country, not me,” Bush said, according to Simpson. “It’s not about Democrats or Republicans, it’s for our country that I fought for.”


We venerate that “country first” attitude in theory, but in practice, it likely cost Bush the presidency: The tax increase, as Simpson said, sparked a revolt within the Republican party that was “one of the main factors assuring his return to private life.”

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A generation later, Bush’s successors, especially his Republican successors, have learned that lesson: Voters say they care about reducing the national debt, but more often than not, they punish politicians who do it.

Bush’s immediate successor, President Clinton, built on the budget he inherited, adding an upper-income tax increase of his own. By the end of Clinton’s term, with the help of an economic boom, the federal budget was in surplus.

Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, promptly pushed the government back into deficit with two large tax cuts. The financial crisis at the end of Bush’s presidency caused the deficit to rocket upward.


Republicans objected loudly to the deficit while President Obama was in office, even as he steadily brought it under control in his second term. But the deficit hawks have been mostly silent under President Trump as the red ink has once again spread.

This past year, the annual deficit hit $779 billion, despite a healthy economy. A big tax cut, combined with spending increases on the military and some domestic programs have pushed it higher.

By the time Trump’s current term ends, the deficit will likely have hit $1 trillion a year.

No one in either party claims that big deficits in healthy economic times are a good idea. But Republicans resist any tax increases, and neither side has much interest in cutting the biggest categories of federal spending — social security, the military, Medicare.

As Sarah Wire reported, Congress and the administration have a budget deadline right before Christmas that could cause a partial government shutdown. But it’s not the rising deficit that’s at issue but, instead, whether to provide money for Trump’s wall along the Mexican border.

As much as anything else, Bush’s willingness to take political heat for a balanced budget marks him as a political figure from a bygone era.


As Noah Bierman wrote, Bush and his family wanted to avoid turning his funeral into an event that focused heavily on Trump, the way the funeral of Sen. John McCain did.

The comparisons between the former president and the current one flowed inevitably, however, and Trump often appeared ill at ease as he sat in the pews, watching the pomp and pageantry of Bush’s state funeral.


Judging by his Twitter habits, the subject most prominently on Trump’s mind all week was the continuing investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Early in the week, as Chris Megerian wrote, Trump walked right up to the edge of witness tampering, according to some legal experts, with a tweet that praised his sometime-advisor Roger Stone for refusing to cooperate with Mueller’s investigators.

He book-ended the week on Friday by launching a series of tweets attacking Mueller and his team as they prepared to file court papers recommending sentences for his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his former lawyer, Michael Cohen.

Mueller also appears close to bringing a case against one of Stone’s associates, Jerome Corsi, who has publicly said he expects to be indicted.

Investigators have been looking into whether Corsi and Stone may have served as a communications link between Trump’s campaign and WikiLeaks, which published emails stolen from the Democrats during the 2016 campaign.

This week, Mueller wrapped up another part of his investigation, recommending no prison time for Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI but then cooperated extensively with the investigation and should be spared prison as a result, Mueller wrote.


Trump on Friday morning announced he had picked William Barr as his nominee for attorney general, Eli Stokols reported.

If confirmed, Barr, 68, would take over supervision of Mueller’s investigation. He’s been publicly critical of some aspects of the investigation, which may appeal to Trump. But as a former attorney general under the elder Bush, and as a senior corporate lawyer, he has the sort of establishment credentials that likely will lead to a smooth confirmation.

Trump had been under considerable pressure from some Republican senators to find a permanent replacement for former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions. Acting Atty. Gen. Matthew Whitaker has drawn extensive criticism for ethical problems in his private businesses, and, as David Savage wrote earlier, many legal experts say his appointment may be illegal because he hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate.

Whitaker, however, likely will remain in charge at Justice for at least a couple of months as the Barr nomination moves through the Senate.

Trump is also nominating Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman and a former Fox News broadcaster, as ambassador to the United Nations.


Bad was losing 40 seats to Democrats in this year’s midterm elections. Worse is that a 41st seat, in North Carolina, may now slip away because of allegations of election fraud by people working for the Republican candidate.

As Jenny Jarvie reported, people in a rural part of southeastern North Carolina talk openly about turning over absentee ballots to a collection operation that allegedly was run by a contractor for Mark Harris, the Republican candidate.

Collection of absentee ballots by people unrelated to the voter violates the law in North Carolina. Moreover, the number of absentee ballots that were never returned to be counted lends credence to the allegation that the contractor, Leslie McCrae Dowless, discarded an unknown number of ballots marked for the Democratic candidate, Dan McCready.

The state’s board of elections has so far refused to certify the results in the 9th congressional district — McCready lost narrowly — and state Republican officials now concede that a new election may be needed.

The case already appears to be the most significant example of election fraud in the U.S. since a disputed mayoral election in Miami two decades ago.

Notably, it doesn’t involve any of the practices that Republicans have talked about for years in their warnings about vote fraud — no people voting twice or illegal residents casting ballots or college students voting where they don’t truly live. Instead, the case involves the one type of vote fraud that has repeatedly been documented in recent years in the U.S., efforts to tamper with absentee ballots.


At the G-20 economic summit in Argentina over the weekend, Trump had dinner with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and declared afterward that the two countries were on a path toward deescalating their trade war.

As Don Lee wrote immediately after the dinner, the talks between the two would buy time but not resolve deep U.S.-China differences over trade.

As events turned out, the dinner didn’t even buy much time. Within days, it became clear that Trump had greatly exaggerated what he and Xi had agreed to. Senior White House officials admitted that the Chinese had not agreed to cut auto tariffs, as Trump said.

“We don’t yet have a specific agreement on that,” Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic advisor, told reporters.

The whiplash over China spooked investors and contributed to sharp declines in the stock market.

Then came news that Canadian officials had arrested a top executive of Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant. As David Pierson and Robyn Dixon wrote, the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the company’s deputy chairwoman and chief financial officer, came at the request of U.S. officials who wanted to charge her with efforts to evade sanctions against Iran.

The prosecution “wasn’t a shot across the bow, but a shot into the heart of the ship,” a former U.S. official said.


After a briefing by CIA chief Gina Haspel about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Republican senators said Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was complicit in the death of the dissident journalist. The question now is what they’ll do about it.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is pushing for the Senate to pass a resolution that would publicly name Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a part of the homicide plot.

Other senators, led by Republican Mike Lee of Utah, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, want to cut off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in its neighbor, Yemen. That effort seems less likely to succeed.

Senate votes on that issue could take place next week.


A senior aide to Sen. Kamala Harris has resigned over reports of gender harassment and a discrimination settlement.

In a statement, the representative for the senator said she had been unaware of the allegations against the aide, Larry Wallace, until this week when the state attorney general’s office settled a lawsuit over the allegations. Wallace served as a top aide in the attorney general’s office when Harris held that job and then worked in her Sacramento office.

Republicans quickly pounced on the news, and it’s likely to come up if, as expected, Harris runs for the Democratic presidential nomination. How much damage it could do likely will depend on whether she really was in the dark about Wallace’s apparent misconduct.


That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

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