GEORGE BUSH'S switch on tax policy has angered many Americans. But it has not surprised them. Many voters never believed Mr. Bush when he said: ``Read my lips.'' So, now that he is considering raising taxes, the biggest backlash is coming not from Democrats, but from Republican conservatives who really believed - or wanted to believe - his stand.
``They're having a conniption,'' says William Schneider, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. ``All of a sudden the most potent political weapon that conservatives have - no new taxes - has been taken away by the president.''
Conservatives are lashing out all over the country.
``In Massachusetts, Democrats are saying: `Aha, he sold you a bill of goods,' '' says Gene Burns, host of a WRKO radio news-talk program in Boston. But ``the interesting reaction is coming from New Hampshire. ... We are getting a lot of outraged New Hampshire Republicans saying: `That's it, we are not going to vote for George Bush again.' ''
When Dallas radio reporter Frank Welch took to the streets for a reaction on Bush's switch, he says he couldn't find a positive response.
And in conservative Charleston, S.C., the nays far outweighed the yeas when radio talk-show host Dan Moon brought up the issue on WTMA. ``They felt they had been betrayed,'' Mr. Moon says of Charleston's Republicans.
These conservatives represent a vocal minority of the electorate. Among a broader spectrum of Americans, there appears to be a willingness to consider raising taxes to reduce the deficit.
``The outlook is very liberal right now in terms of taxes,'' says Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. ``Support for more spending has been going up for a good number of years.'' Support for tax hike
According to one recent Gallup poll, 40 percent of the respondents said Bush should break his promise and raise taxes. ``Apparently, the `fear of deficit' has convinced a substantial percentage of the population that raising taxes might be acceptable,'' concluded George H. Gallup Jr. and Frank Newport in a recent analysis.
Some voters are actually applauding President Bush.
``I think it was necessary for him to do what he's done,'' says Buck Fawcett, a farmer in Los Banos, Calif. ``He needs to get this budget thing moving.''
``I frankly felt that it was a profile in courage,'' says John Lay, a Democrat and president of a Colorado ski trade association.
Unlike the flag-burning issue, which generated an intense but short-lived burst, tax hikes are a long-burning fuse, analysts say. (In Chicago last week, the local hockey team's trade of a star player was a hotter item than taxes on WBBM's Dave Baum Show, says associate producer Mari-rose McManus.)
The public's final verdict will depend heavily on which taxes the White House and Congress choose to raise and, more important, how the economy fares between now and November, according to political analysts.
``If the economy improves, the public will say Bush did the right thing,'' Mr. Schneider says. ``If it slips, ... Bush and the Republicans are in deep trouble.'' Early public skepticism
Even before Bush took office, many Americans did not believe he would keep his promise. A Gallup poll in November 1988 found 68 percent of respondents saying he would be unable to avoid raising taxes. A month later, the Roper Organization revealed the same skepticism. Some 40 percent thought Bush would raise their income taxes. Democrats were far more skeptical about the pledge (45 percent) than Republicans (33 percent).
If anything, skepticism has grown. This January, when a Business Week/Harris poll asked Americans what would happen to their own taxes, 82 percent expected them to go up. According to a recent Gallup poll, conducted before last week's announcement, 72 percent believed Bush would OK some form of new taxation.
Bush's switch may affect some races for the US Senate and House, especially those involving a conservative who has taken a strong stand on taxes. The US Senate contest in Illinois, for example, features Rep. Lynn Martin, a conservative Republican who has distanced herself from the president since last week's switch on the tax issue.
But in local races, Bush's switch won't matter, says Illinois state Sen. Aldo DeAngelis, who is running for president of the Cook County Board. ``Whatever happens at the federal level really doesn't affect this level.''