Grover Norquist is the most tenacious anti-tax warrior in the conservative movement. No lobbyist whips Republican elected officials into line as effectively. Privately, both Republicans and Democrats admit that his Taxpayer Protection Pledge is the single biggest obstacle to effective governing in Washington.
But as frustration over congressional gridlock gives way to panic over fiscal armageddon in January, more and more Republicans are publicly breaking ranks with the anti-tax movement and publicly disavowing their pledge never to raise a cent of new revenue. At the same time, Norquist can boast accurately that despite deadly politics, and dangerous legislative brinksmanship, Republicans haven’t yielded — and thus 2011 passed with zero dollars in new tax revenue paired with trillions of dollars of cuts to federal programs.
Which raises a natural question: Is Republican commitment to Grover’s cause so deep that they’d rather plummet the country to the bottom of the fiscal cliff than allow taxes to rise, or will they hit the brakes and throw Grover over the edge instead?
Several days ago, multiple Democratic sources alerted me and other reporters to an event House Republicans — conservatives and tax bill writers — had planned for Thursday in the Longworth House Office Building with the man himself. He was invited to answer questions about the pledge nearly every member of the conference had signed. If the pledge is as straightforward as Grover insists, his visit suggests some Republicans are seeking flexibility ahead of the rough fight awaiting them at the end of the year.
“I understand that Mr. Norquist is going to come up here and he’ll have a conversation about [the pledge],” admitted House Speaker John Boehner. “I’ve been around the political process for a long time. I’ve never voted to raise taxes. But we’ve got a big job to do. I’m not interested in raising taxes. But they can discuss whether loophole closings are tax increases — I hope they resolve it all actually.”
Democrats seized the opportunity to drive a wedge further between Norquist and nervous Republicans. And nervous Republicans did their best to downplay his presentation. But when the event emptied out Thursday, Norquist, as always, betrayed no indication that his grip on the GOP had slipped even slightly.
“Republicans have a majority in the House,” he said. “They’re about to get a majority in the Senate. And they’re about to elect a Republican president. We will have a non-partisan tax reform, that’s revenue neutral, and a non-partisan budget reform. It would be nice if some Democrats join, but it’s not necessary.”
Boehner’s reticence, and his subtle admission that anti-tax absolutism on the right is making governance extremely difficult, explains why Democrats were so happy to sound off on Grover’s big day.
“I think they’re in touch every day,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday. “I think his physical presence here is not any different than the influence he has on that caucus, where he’s saying a pledge to me is more important than the pledge to uphold the constitution of the United States.”
Senate Democratic leaders convened a press conference specifically to make Grover an issue.
“The blitz he’s doing is a sign of weakness,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said — Grover visited the Senate side of the Capitol on Wednesday. “His relevance has been openly questioned for the first time lately and he’s in full damage control mode. Well, he has an uphill climb. More and more Republicans are beginning to decide they don’t care what he thinks. More and more Republicans are realizing that to solve our nation’s fiscal problems, they cannot be part of Grover Norquist’s army. Jeb Bush — as respected a figure as exists right now in the modern Republican Party — decided to take [Grover] on in a very high-profile way.”
The evidence suggests Grover should be at least a little worried. But when his briefing House Republicans ended, he scrummed with the press for over half an hour — and if, like so many others, he believes his credibility and influence are on the line, he never once let it slip.
“We went through this all through 2011, where every time somebody hiccuped they said, ‘Oh, maybe the Republicans are open to a tax increase.’ Each time that turned out not to be the case,” Norquist said. “[Schumer]’s from one of five states in 2011 that rather than reform government raised taxes. Forty-five states reformed government, didn’t raise taxes. New York unfortunately was not one of those and so Mr. Schumer’s understanding of how politics works is not where Indiana is, it’s not where Michigan is it’s not where Wisconsin is, it’s not where Florida is, it’s not where Texas is.”
Norquist is a human fountain of self-ratification. The only assumptions he entertains have his movement in ascent. He interprets all events as validations of his team’s worldview. That means means all Democratic woes can be traced back to his pet issue.
“Nancy Pelosi lost her majority in the House because she wanted to raise taxes to pay for Obama’s big government and she made her congressmen vote for that,” he said. “That’s not a PR problem — that’s a political disaster for the Democrats. On the Senate side they lost a great deal of Senate seats, and they’re about to lose more going in this next election because they’re the party of higher taxes to pay for bigger, unreformed government.”
And it means Republicans are certain to sweep in November.
I pressed him two different times to consider the possibility that early next year Republicans will be faced with a choice between reinstating some of the Bush tax cuts, or leaving them all expired. What would he press them to do?
After talking around the question for minutes, he picked a safe dodge.
“I’m not making too many plans based on the idea that people who lied their way into office, voted for massive spending increases, massive tax increases, are going to get re-elected,” he said. “It doesn’t keep me up at night.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.