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On Taxes, Jeb Bush Is Annoying Conservative Republicans Again

Jeb Bush has pointedly refused to rule out raising taxes on the wealthy.

Unlike most of the other Republican 2016 hopefuls, Jeb Bush has pointedly refused to rule out raising taxes on the wealthy, opening up another divide between the ex-Florida governor and conservatives in his party.

Americans for Tax Reform, an influential conservative group, has for more than two decades circulated a pledge in which candidates commit to opposing any net tax increase. Most Republican members of Congress have signed it, as have more than a dozen GOP governors and about 1000 state legislators, according to ATR.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas have signed the pledge as presidential candidates over the last few weeks. They have committed, in the words of the agreement, to oppose “any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business” and “any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

Aides to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker say the governor is likely to sign the pledge when he becomes an official candidate.

"You’re asking for the votes of millions of people. ‘Trust me’ does not work on matters that concern other people."

But Bush’s aides say the ex-governor won’t sign any pledges during the 2016 campaign cycle, including the ATR one. And when pressed to rule out tax increases at the recent National Review Ideas Summit in Washington, Bush repeatedly evaded the question, emphasizing his record of cutting taxes in Florida but refusing any commitments.

“No,” Bush told National Review editor Rich Lowry when asked if there was “any circumstance” in which the candidate would sign the tax pledge.

“But I cut taxes every year. $19 billion dollars,” he added, referring to his eight years in Florida as governor. “Every year we had all sorts of tax cuts. I don’t have to be told how important that is.”

“So will you promise not to raise taxes?” Lowry asked.

Bush then shifted to the importance of growing the economy, avoiding the question.

Conservatives are not satisfied.

“You’re asking for the votes of millions of people. ‘Trust me’ does not work on matters that concern other people,” said Grover Norquist, the longtime head of ATR, in a recent interview. “The Republican candidates are going to need to make it pretty clear they are reformers, not tax increasers. And the pledge is an easy to do that.”

Larry Kudlow, an influential conservative activist and former Reagan administration official, said, “I've always supported Grover's pledge. Bush should sign it.”

Democrats and even some Republicans say some taxes should be increased both to help balance the budget and pay for other programs. Many bipartisan deficit reduction plans do not raise income tax rates, but limit tax deductions for people who are upper-middle class or wealthy, moves that would in effect increase how much they pay in federal taxes.

President Barack Obama has supported such tax increases, and Hillary Clinton is expected to do so as well in her 2016 campaign.

Jeb BushBill Pugliano / Getty Images file

“I find it surprising and heartening, “said Jared Bernstein, a former top economic adviser to President Obama, in an e-mail message, referring to Bush’s position.

“Always smart to preserve optionality and perhaps--let's not lean too far over our skis here--he recognizes the need for a more balanced approach toward budget sustainability than all cuts all the time," he added.

The tax issue illustrates another split between Bush and conservatives, who are already weary of his support of the Common Core education standards and creating a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants. And it creates the possibility that Bush would raise taxes as part of some kind of compromise with Democrats if elected president, a move that would deeply challenge GOP orthodoxy.

Bush’s father raised taxes in 1990 after famously pledging “read my lips, no new taxes,” a move that deeply angered conservatives and resulted in him facing a primary challenge during his reelection campaign. The legislation Bush worked on with congressional Democrats back then increased the top rate from 28 percent to 31 percent and is credited by some with helping create the budget surpluses of the 1990’s.

George W. Bush signed the no-tax pledge early in his 2000 run and never supported a tax increase in office. Mitt Romney made the same commitment in his 2012 campaign.

Jeb Bush’s promise not to sign any pledges at all is a tad misleading, as he has made other commitments. He released a public letter last year affirming his support for a bill that would ban abortions after five months of a woman’s pregnancy. He has promised in his presidential run not to require states to implement Common Core if they want to receive federal education funds.

Bush has not precisely explained his thinking on taxes, but not signing the pledge would give him room to maneuver in office. When House Republicans were considering a so-called grand bargain with President Obama in 2011 that would have limited some tax deductions and breaks but also raised the eligibility age for Medicare, as conservatives want, House Republicans carefully considered how to avoid being portrayed as signing a tax increase.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another GOP presidential candidate, was sharply criticized in his home state earlier this year when his aides reached out to Norquist’s group as they considered how to plug a hole in the state’s budget deficit. Jindal appeared to be asking ATR to determine what constituted a tax increase.