Goodbye to the tax pledge: Is it over for Grover?
November 20, 2012By Dick Polman
That crack you just heard was a breach in the Republican wall of resistance. And what a sweet sound it is.
For more than a generation, the party's mantra had never wavered: any and all tax increases were verboten under any and all circumstances. But now, in the aftermath of President Obama's decisive electoral victory, and in the wake of numerous polls showing broad public support for a year-end budget deal that includes new revenues, the vanquished GOP seems poised - finally! - to eschew absolutism and embrace reality-based governance.
And the best way to gauge the gentler GOP mood is to chart the diminished clout of Grover Norquist.
No doubt you've heard of the guy. For more than two decades, the conservative gadfly and lobbyist has enforced The Pledge (as it's called in Republican circles), a Grover-authored document that compels all signees to never ever raise taxes and never ever close any loopholes because that too would constitute a raise in taxes. And virtually every single Republican in the House and Senate has dutifully signed and marched in lockstep.
But not anymore.
For the first time in modern memory, there are dissidents in the Republican ranks - refuseniks who think it's nuts to sign a pledge that binds their hands, and who realize (either for pragmatic political reasons or enightened common sense) that compromise is the oil that enables government to operate effectively. For the first time, the number of Norquist signees has dropped significantly. A year ago, 238 House members and 41 Senate members had sworn fealty to The Pledge; currently, those numbers are 217 and 39. And when the new House shows up in January, roughly 16 Republicans will be Pledge-free.
And even though, on paper, Norquist will still have a thin majority of all House members, some Republican signees no longer feel bound by what they signed. Witness New York congressman Peter King, who tells The New York Times: "A pledge is good at the time you sign it....I don't think you can have a rule that you're never going to raise taxes or that you're never going to lower taxes. I don't want to rule anything out."
Slowly but surely, the GOP has been working to get over Grover. The guy has been seriously dissed lately by a string of party notables. The senior George Bush launched this summer salvo in Parade magazine: "Circumstances change, and you can't be wedded to some formula by Grover Norquist. It's - who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?" Last year, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn dismissed Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform as merely "a special interest group that claims to speak for all American conservatives when, in fact, they really don't." This year, Georgia senator Saxby Chambliss said, "Grover Norquist has no credibility, so I don't respond to him. He doesn't deserve being responded to."
Given all this ridicule, how did Norquist come to be called "the most powerful man in Washington" (Steve Kroft, CBS News)? Because, for years, incumbent Republicans were terrified that if they defied The Pledge, Norquist's group would spend a ton of money to unseat them. That may still be the case for many incumbents. But it's noteworthy that a number of Republican candidates refused to sign during the '12 campaign - and voters backed them anyway. Scott Rigell, a freshman congressman who signed The Pledge several years ago, renounced it early in his re-election bid ("Basically, The Pledge is like a Master Lock"), but the sun still rose in the morning and he won a new term.
Remember when I said earlier that Norquist still commands a thin majority of signees "on paper?" If you check his list, you'll discover that Rigell's name still appears on it. Norquist may still have a lot of names, but he has fewer hearts and minds. His big problem is that signees are increasingly cognizant of public opinion. In the presidential exit polls two weeks ago, ony 35 percent of voters said that taxes "should not increase for anyone" (Norquist's position). A 47 percent plurality said that taxes should be hiked only on incomes greater than $250,000 (Obama's position), and 13 percent said higher taxes should apply to everyone. Worse yet for the GOP, a new Pew Research Center poll says that if a fiscal-cliff deal falls through, 53 percent of Americans will put the primary blame on Republicans, and only 29 percent will blame Obama.
Norquist naturally disputes that his clout is diminishing; in fact, he thinks that the GOP should double down this winter and stick with brinksmanship. As he told Reuters yesterday, "The debt limit is an additional tool to explain to Obama that he is not the king."
Good grief, Grover, give it a rest. Obama won. You lost. Take a page from William Kristol, the conservative talking head, who said recently on Fox News: "I think Republicans will have to give in much more than they think....The president is in good shape. The Republicans in the House will be able to get some concessions and some compromises, but I think there will be a deep budget deal next year, it will be an Obama-type budget deal....You know what? It won't kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires. It really won't."
Kristol said one other thing: "Elections have consequences." If or when Republicans vote on a budget deal that raises new revenues, we'll know for sure that the reign of Grover is truly and blessedly over.
A follow-up to my post yesterday on Chris Christie's late-night TV antics:
The estimable Matt Katz, a friend of mine who covers Christie full time, has authored this New Republic article about the potential for a marquee gubernatorial race in 2013, pitting the guv against Cory Booker.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1