BTC: Read his lips

Perhaps in hopes of reminding the Prime Minister when he might muster excitement, his speechwriters sprinkled exclamation points throughout tonight’s text. The words Mr. Harper was prompted to hit with particular enthusiasm were as follows: Done! Quebeckers! Government! Debt! Predators! Forever! Opposition! Word! Percent! Pensioners! Office! Trudeau! Claims! Taxes!

The most inspiring of these is surely that last one, Taxes! As in, “As long as I will be Prime Minister, as long as I have MPs like Jacques Gourde, there will be no new taxes.”

Thus does the PM’s pep rally climax. And thus does he make history, becoming surely the first politician to make a promise he’s already publicly broken.

It would be an odd line even if it weren’t demonstrably untrue. Twenty years ago this summer, George H. W. Bush accepted the Republican nomination with his signature line and eventual epitaph: “Read my lips, no new taxes.” And it’s difficult to read the phrasing here as anything less than an homage—an ironic and possibly subversive homage by Mr. Harper’s speechwriters, but an homage all the same.

It was, of course, rather ruinous for Herbert Walker. Two years after taking office he had to raise taxes. Two years after that Bill Clinton and the Democrats had great fun at his expense. And still now the line (written by Peggy Noonan) lingers as tangible proof that politicians are natural liars and all your reflex cynicism for the political process is justified. (Surely Herbert Walker smiles now to see that his son has exceeded him tenfold in this regard.)

But even if Bush Sr. had never begged us to pay uncomfortably close attention to his mouth, even if this government hadn’t already introduced a new tax, tonight’s pledge would still be a juvenile bit of rhetoric. Precisely because it’s physically impossible, or at least bizarrely reckless, to vow, as a government, that you won’t ever raise taxes. Unless you’re psychic it’s not possible to know what economic stumbles or crises may come. You’re dealing with an inherently volatile system, dependent on myriad variables beyond your control. (As Harper warned tonight of fiscal trouble, “no country is immune.”) In effect, promising you won’t ever raise taxes is roughly akin to promising you won’t ever go to war. You can say it. You can promise it. And you might get lucky enough to stick with it. But it’s at best a guess. And a self-limiting guess at that. 

Granted, “If our national economic situation should reach a point where it would be prudent and necessary to adjust the taxation formula, we may be forced to introduce new taxes” isn’t quite as fun to say as “no new taxes.” Even if you put an exclamation point at the end. But it’s, you know, at least somewhat closer to the truth.