Don't believe the hype about mass defections from the no-new-taxes pledge. “I am officially not worried.”
WASHINGTON — Liberals, and some members of the Republican leadership if truth be told, may hope that conservative agitator Grover Norquist’s days as a political kingmaker are over — but that doesn’t mean his influence is actually waning.
In recent days a handful of Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss, as well as Rep. Peter King, have rejected in whole or in part Norquist’s no-tax-increase pledge, to great media fanfare.
Those statements have, predictably, led to much speculation that the influential chief of Americans for Tax Reform has lost his iron grip on the Republican Party’s tax and spending policies.
In an interview with BuzzFeed, Norquist dismissed those criticisms, noting that “we went through all of 2011” hearing how the debt ceiling would mean “the pledge was going to be broken.”
“This is like turning in last year’s homework again,” he added, arguing that until Republicans actually begin voting for tax increases, “it’s a way to get on TV … [but] at the end of the day, no harm, no foul.”
That said, Norquist has indeed seen his influence shrink in the last year. Republicans have been increasingly willing to cross swords with him, and veterans of Capitol Hill suggest that his fight with Sen. Tom Coburn earlier this year damaged his standing within the party.
Additionally, Republican leadership in the House and Senate has long chafed at his influence, while lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, where every member sees themselves as a future president, naturally dislike the appearance of being in the thrall of an outside power.
But to count out Norquist and his anti-tax pledge would be a mistake. Here’s why:
Much of Norquist’s power comes from the simple fact that he’s cornered the market on cornering Republicans on an issue they already support — opposition to new taxes on anyone, regardless of income.
In this very real sense, Norquist is less Kingmaker and more Gatekeeper of the Obvious, enforcing the one principle that social conservatives, defense hawks, fiscal conservatives, genteel Northeast Republicans, and Southern firebrands alike agree on: Ronald Reagan’s no new tax pledge.
And Republicans who haven’t signed the pledge generally agree with the notion that tax increases are a nonstarter, at least in terms of hiking tax rates.
Even those who have publicly broken with him have numerous preconditions for voting for an increase that, at least as far as Norquist sees it, make them unlikely Obama allies.
For instance, Norquist told BuzzFeed that following Graham’s statements, he talked with the South Carolina Republican about the issue. After hearing the number of qualifiers Graham had in mind, he quipped, “You’ve described a unicorn that you’d vote for. Unicorns don’t exist in the real world. I am officially not worried.”
The power behind ATR’s pledge is not Norquist's personal clout. It’s the threat of a 30-second campaign commercial in a Republican primary.
“The pledge has made it easy for people to communicate with voters in a credible way that they won’t raise taxes. Politicians since the pharaohs have been promising to not raise taxes and lied about it,” Norquist notes.
With Republican primaries becoming more blood sport than coronation of a party favorite, incumbents are increasingly unwilling to stake out controversial positions with base voters. And nothing is more universally unpopular with Republican base voters than tax increases.
Although Norquist insists his pledge is “not a cattle prod” he uses to maintain loyalty, the threat of a conservative challenger using the pledge in campaign commercials and debate one-liners is real.
And the grass roots isn’t likely to forget members who break the pledge: Norquist has set up some 60 regular meetings of like-minded conservatives in 48 states over the years, giving him and ATR a powerful grassroots base of their own.