Dwight Ball’s “Read My Lips” Misstep

When George H. W. Bush was running for president in 1988 there was much debate about whether taxes would need to be raised to help reduce the growing government deficit. After his opponent Michael Dukakis acknowledged the possibility that taxes might need to be raised, Bush gave a speech where he categorically declared that he would never raise taxes and uttered the famous line “read my lips, no new taxes”. That speech helped him win the election, but is often cited as the main reason why he failed to win re-election against a young, little known governor of Arkansas. At the time, some members of the Bush team had lobbied against making such an unequivocal statement as it would severely limit his flexibility as president, but the decision was made to keep it in the speech and it was credited with helping him win the election.

In the 2015 Newfoundland and Labrador provincial election, Dwight Ball had his own “read my lips” moment when he boldly declared that he would reverse the PC’s increase in the HST, and put an exclamation point on his stance with an election photo with the words, “not on my watch”. One of his first actions upon becoming premier was to cancel the proposed increase, but only a few months later he backtracked and reinstated the increase as part of an overall gloomy budget. Needless to say much of the electorate is now irate with this broken promise.

When the first President Bush made his dubious promise not to raise taxes he was trailing in the polls to an opponent who had acknowledged that there was a possibility that taxes would need to be raised to deal with the country’s growing deficit at the time. That “read my lips” statement may have cost him his re-election, but without it he may have never become President to begin with, so even in hindsight it still probably made sense. Dwight Ball, on the other hand, did not need to make any bold promises to win the election.  

The PC Party that Mr. Ball was going up against was in disarray leading up to the election and was almost certain to lose power. The party had just revolted against its own Premier, and then when they had a leadership race all of the candidates either dropped out or were barred from running. When they had a second leadership race the person who had more votes than the other two candidates combined on the first ballot somehow lost on the second ballot. Even though the eventual winner of the PC Leadership, Paul Davis, performed surprisingly well during his brief time as leader, the consensus was that he was just fighting to reduce the size of the Liberals’ inevitable majority.

With the PC Party saddled with so much baggage, all Dwight Ball needed to say was that the PCs spent too much during the boom time and didn’t leave anything in the cupboard for when the boom ended. Voters, even those who enthusiastically supported all that spending and tax cutting, would have agreed with him and voted the Liberals into power. Had he avoided making any bold promises, he would have had the flexibility to raise taxes and lay people off while deflecting all of the blame towards the previous government.

Unfortunately for the Premier, even people who recognize that increasing taxes and cutting spending may be necessary can still justifiably attack him for breaking his election promises. Even if every decision the government makes in the next four years is the best one for the future of the province, the Liberals may find themselves the first government since confederation not to be elected to a second term because of some reckless and completely unnecessary promises made last November.

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