Dick Darman Still Doesn't Get It


Polar Politics and the Sensible Center

By Richard Darman Simon & Schuster -- 384pp -- $25

You probably didn't know this, but it was Ted Williams who persuaded George Bush to abandon his 1988 campaign pledge never to raise taxes. Well, not Teddy Ballgame alone. Ex-Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter all privately warned Bush that he might never get a budget deal without a tax hike. Just before an opening-day outing at Baltimore's old stadium, Bush backer Williams suggested a quick, candid retreat. Even Newt Gingrich gave Bush the Big Wink just before he reneged on "Read my lips: no new taxes"--the central promise of his Presidential race.

That, at least, is the version proffered by Richard G. Darman--a midlevel White House aide to Ronald Reagan who rose up the ranks to become Bush's budget director. Darman was, so to speak, present at the creation of the fiscal crisis of the 1980s and '90s. And despite his efforts as budget chief to untangle the mess, the yearly deficit was $200 billion higher when he left government than when he got there. This from a man who said in 1989 that if all he did was balance the budget during his tenure, "we won't have done much."

In Who's In Control?, Darman provides his inside view of the past 15 years of budget politics. In it, he settles a few scores. And he tries to explain why fiscal policy failed so dismally during the Reagan and Bush years.

Perhaps the prime target of Darman's scorn is Gingrich, who feuded with the budget director over fiscal politics in 1990 and succeeded in blowing up the initial version of the Bush tax-and-spending package that year. Darman portrays the Speaker-to-be as an unprincipled, nakedly ambitious pol whose dreams exceed even the Presidency of the U.S. Gingrich, writes Darman, was "intoxicated by his own vision of shifting power" and "might actually envision himself, one day...as a kind of modern-media-made world ruler."

The blame game that Darman plays is a bit unbecoming. He fingers perfidious pols, double-crossing journalists, and overly enthusiastic speechwriters for the budget mess of the past 15 years. For instance, he recounts that the fateful "Read my lips" line was put into Bush's convention acceptance speech by writer Peggy Noonan. It was kept, says Darman, at the behest of campaign media guru Roger E. Ailes and other political aides who felt it would make Bush seem firm and direct. Hardly a hint from Darman that Bush himself had some responsibility for the promise.

When the ex-budget director shoulders a bit of the blame himself, his mea culpa seems only perfunctory self-deprecation. Darman says he opposed the line, but adds: "I was indulging in the fantasy of governing without attending to the prior imperative of winning." And he quickly notes that while Noonan "had worked for me in the Reagan White House," by the time she penned the infamous promise, "she no longer worked for me. She worked directly with the Vice-President." As is too often said in the passive voice of Washington-speak: "Mistakes were made."

Still, the biggest disappointment is Darman's attempt at the broad political analysis that would fulfill the promise of the book's title. In his heyday, Darman's insights were always provocative and often on the mark. In private, he had an uncanny ability to step back from his role in a particular dispute and clearly analyze its long-term consequences--no matter how unfavorable they might have been for Reagan or Bush.

But this effort to reach for the deeper meaning for American democracy of the fiscal politics of the 1980s and '90s falls flat. Darman still doesn't get it.

He concedes that within days of the 1988 election, he and others in the new Administration were looking for ways to back away from Bush's no-tax vow. While the President disliked deficits, Darman concedes that Bush had little interest in actually cutting federal programs. And, of course, he had promised not to raise taxes. So how would the Administration get there from here? Well, writes Darman, it required performing "an awkward two-step."

But this was no ordinary political shuffle. By abandoning the pledge, Bush left a large portion of American voters with the uneasy feeling they had been lied to. To Darman, this wasn't betrayal, it was merely poor management. "The subsequent violation of trust was a problem," Darman blandly concedes. And finessing the lie was merely another problem to be managed. Top White House advisers knew that Bush would turn his back on his promise, Darman admits. Their task was to do it in a way that did the least amount of harm to his reelection chances.

Thus, to Darman, the ultimate decision to abandon the promise backfired simply because it was poorly executed. "The mistake we made was tactical," he explains. "It was a matter of timing and presentation. We never should have allowed the press release to go out when we did." It was, according to the old Harvard business school grad, just another case study gone awry.

Darman, the Robert McNamara of fiscal policy, misses the point. The price of "Read my lips" can't be calculated just in deficit dollars. Instead, it must be measured in the deepening cynicism of the American public. Having been lied to again and again, is it any wonder that voters have lost faith in government? Voters didn't turn their back on Bush in 1992 because he raised their taxes. They abandoned him because he deceived them. Darman, of course, knows that. But like McNamara on Vietnam, he just can't bring himself to say it in public.

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