Pity poor Grover Norquist. The creator and enforcer of “the Pledge” – an agreement signed by 258 Republican members of the U.S. House and Senate never to vote for a tax increase – is being besieged on all sides. His world is now filled with traitors.
So far, several key Republican legislators have dissed, disowned or distanced themselves from Norquist’s sacred document, the signing of which was for decades a necessary ritual for aspiring office seekers wishing to garner the campaign sponsorship of Norquist’s well-endowed and influential advocacy group, Americans for Tax Reform.
The list is distinguished and growing. The quitters:
- Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who said that he cares more about the country than some 20-year old Pledge.
- Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who decries Norquist’s “tortured definition of tax purity.”
- South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who thinks “Grover is wrong.”
- New York Rep. Peter King, who feels that the Pledge is outmoded.
- And newly elected Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who signed the Pledge, but then denied in a campaign debate that he did.
The prevaricator: Arizona Sen. John McCain, who didn’t attack the Pledge directly but talked acquiescently about closing “a lot of loopholes.”
Finally, the scold: former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, who chastised all Pledge-takers by reminding them that Norquist has only one weapon against rebellious legislators who break the faith: “He can’t murder you. He can’t burn your house. The only thing he can do to you, as an elected official, is defeat you for re-election.”
Re-Election Contributions Only Stick Grover Norquist Has
It’s true. There is no rack or stappado that Norquist can employ to punish the Pledge’s transgressors or get them to recant their recent recantations. The only thing the formally fearsome, conservative lobbyist can do to retaliate against disobedient defectors is to throw his support to a primary challenger come next election cycle. Apparently, these Congressional solons have decided that the risk is worth taking, especially since ignoring fiscal reality is a line they finally were no longer willing to cross.
The revolution continues. The day after the recalcitrant Republicans’ frontal attack against the Pledge on the Sunday morning talk shows, comes a flanking maneuver by Warren Buffett, the second-richest man in America. Buffett’s New York Times op-ed piece on Monday undercut a key argument in the No-Tax-No-Way-Not-Never philosophy that is Norquist’s raison d’étre and the GOP’s unassailable voting guide for years: that higher taxes discourage risk taking and depress business activity.
According to Buffett, not only is raising taxes on the wealthy the only way to get the economy back on track, but in his experience the rich never were dissuaded from seizing an opportunity to make money as long as the investment idea is sound. The threat of higher taxes on higher earnings? Small price to pay.
In fact, the Oracle of Omaha wrote that he “did pretty well” selling securities back in the days when marginal rates on dividends reached 91 percent and capital gains taxes inched up to 27.5 percent.
Non-Partisan Report Hints Buffett Right, Norquist Not
Finally, consider a report written this summer by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service that seems to buttress Buffett: “The top tax rates appear to have little or no relation to the size of the economic pie. However, the top tax rate reductions appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution.”
Norquist is famous for having quipped: “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
With friends deserting him on the right and on the farther right, his sway over the national tax dialogue may be experiencing a similar diminution in stature.
Will the infamous Pledge soon become swamped by a tidal wave of economic sanity? Norquist believes a return to the true faith is inevitable and that in the end Republicans have always “come around.”
But stuck between a recent election drubbing and a looming fiscal cliff, these self-preserving, Republican office holders may decide that their only safe political path depends upon not only throwing out Grover’s baby – but along with it, his now suddenly lukewarm bath water.