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Politics

George H.W. Bush was the last of his kind -- a Republican who didn't believe in 'voodoo economics'

Catherine Rampell on

WASHINGTON -- Many have mourned former president George H.W. Bush as the last of his kind. Mostly they eulogize his decency (racist Willie Horton ad notwithstanding), his physical courage, his commitment to public service.

But Bush was end-of-an-era in another crucial way. He may well be the last Republican leader to acknowledge the fundamental fraud of Republican fiscal policy -- that tax cuts do not pay for themselves.

Almost 40 years ago, during the 1980 presidential primary, Bush famously characterized the agenda of then-rival Ronald Reagan as "voodoo economics."

Bush was referring to supply-side policies that claimed tax cuts for the rich would unleash so much growth that they'd generate enough revenue to fund themselves.

Characterizing Reaganomics as "voodoo" was colorful, yes, but it wasn't crazy. Of course it was ridiculous to claim you could increase tax revenue by cutting taxes.

Bush walked back his criticism after he became Reagan's vice president. First he denied he'd ever called Reaganomics "voodoo." Then, when reporters dug up the footage, he said he'd been "kidding," and, in any case, supported Reagan's agenda.

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But even Reagan knew his fiscal promises were a scam.

Reagan began his presidency with an enormous tax cut, the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. Literally weeks after he signed the bill, his administration began scheming to roll back those cuts -- because they were concerned about rising deficits.

Over subsequent years, Reagan endorsed and signed into law 11 different tax increases, as economist and former Reagan official Bruce Bartlett has documented.

In the end, Reagan took back about half the value of his splashy 1981 tax cut, Bartlett estimates.

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