In Defense of Grover Norquist, Idealistic Advocate of Bad Ideas

The new Grover-the-Terrible narrative is wrong in just about every way.

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Larry Downing / Reuters

The Beltway elite has suddenly decided that Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist is a dangerous bully. Somehow, he’s intimidated most Republican politicians into signing his Taxpayer Protection Pledge to oppose all tax increases under all circumstances. But times are changing! Grover’s reign of terror is ending! With the fiscal cliff looming, brave GOP politicians are defying him! “I answer to my constituents, not to a pledge,” declared congresswoman Diane White.

Give me a break. I rarely agree with Norquist on policy—although it happens — and I think his pledge is a destructive force in American politics. But the new Grover-the-Terrible narrative is wrong in just about every way.

Let’s start with those courageous Republican pledge-breakers. Sorry, congresswoman, but you didn’t make a pledge to Grover; you made a pledge to those constituents you say you answer to. It began: “I, Diane White, pledge to the taxpayers of the 6th district of the state of Tennessee…” Nobody forced you to pledge allegiance to absolutist anti-tax orthodoxy. That was your call, and I bet it came in handy when you wanted to become a Republican congresswoman.

The fact that Republican primary voters reward politicians who make irresponsible and extreme tax promises does not make Norquist a bully. It makes him a remarkably effective lobbyist. And unlike most lobbyists in Washington, he’s lobbying for an idea, not a special interest. I happen to think it’s an awful idea, because unlike Norquist, I don’t want to drown government in a bathtub. I think government does a lot of important things, and taxes are how we pay for them. I think a truly courageous Republican wouldn’t sign the pledge in the first place. But give Norquist credit: He’s provided a mechanism for GOP politicians who love talking about how much they hate taxes to prove that they’re not just talkers.

I hope that Republicans do violate their misguided pledges, but Norquist is correct that the voters who elected them with those pledges in mind would have every right to feel lied to and betrayed. Norquist is also correct that so far, Republicans like White have only revealed “impure thoughts” about the pledge. I’d be very surprised if many Republicans do end up violating it, not just because they’ll feel foolish, but because they’ll face primaries. Some of the pledge-takers are anti-tax true believers like Norquist; others just signed to suck up to their party’s right wing. But any of them who break their promise would be asking for trouble at the polls. It’s odd that there’s no equivalent to Norquist on the left, pushing politicians to swear to oppose any cuts to Social Security (which would actually be good policy) and Medicare (which wouldn’t, but would pack a real political punch.)

The popularity of the pledge does not mean that Grover is a marionette controlling the Republican Party. It means that the Republican Party and its base tends to share Grover’s monomaniacal loathing for taxes and government. That ideological monomania makes it extremely difficult to cut a deal with Republican politicians, something the Beltway elites should have noticed when the GOP was threatening to shut down the government and even force the U.S. into default in 2011. It’s weird how Norquist only became an unusually malign force–and his ideas became grist for the Beltway mockery mill–when Republicans dared to question him.

I am glad to hear Republicans sounding a bit more responsible this time around, and rhetorically distancing themselves from Norquist. But they haven’t made any commitments to support new taxes. For now, they’re still bound by their irresponsible commitments to oppose any new taxes. And their irresponsibility was their own. Grover was just smart enough to collect their signatures.