You will notice, in its artfully worded response to a Washington Post editorial quoting Grover Norquist as saying that letting the Bush tax cuts lapse would not violate the no new taxes pledge, that Norquist's group did not deny that's precisely what he said.
It's always fun to listen to Norquist, the godfather of the no-new-taxes pledge that has been signed by nearly every Republican in Congress, not to mention a few Democrats. His mind is peripatetic. A conversation with him can be studded with allusions to everything from the movie Airplane to Ann of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry the Eighth.
Norquist was in full form when he stopped by to visit with The Washington Post Editorial Board the other day, but what really got me to perk up was his answer to my colleague Charles Lane's deceptively simple questions about what constitutes a tax increase. Norquist's answer — allowing a temporary tax cut to expire does not equal a tax increase for purposes of the pledge — had me leaping out of my chair. You can listen here.
Me: Wait wait wait wait wait! Can you back up for a second? Are you saying that it would not violate your pledge to allow the Bush tax cuts to lapse?
Norquist: The guys in the House and senate view that it would.
Me: I’m asking you…
Norquist: Not continuing a tax cut is not technically a tax increase.
Me. So it does not violate the pledge.
Norquist: We wouldn’t hold it that way.…That’s not going to get these guys off the hook because the House and Senate guy’ view is that it is a tax increase.
Me: But isn’t that just because they’re convinced that you would…pillory them?”
Break for an interlude about how to think about temporary tax increases on the state level and temporary tax breaks that are regularly extended.
Me: So you’re saying that if candidate Romney were to come out tomorrow and say…here’s the deal…in order to get our country on a sustainable fiscal path we are going to have to let all the Bush tax cuts lapse and people like me call you up and toss you what we think is going to be a softball and say, “Grover, would you like to denounce him for violating the pledge?”
Norquist: I would denounce him as a tax increaser and a bad guy. It would not technically violate the pledge.
Here’s the important thing about Norquist’s admission, and why it has his group in such a tizzy now. It’s not that Norquist was sending some kind of premeditated dog whistle to GOP lawmakers that it is now safe to reverse course. It’s just that, under the enhanced interrogation of the Washington Post Editorial Board, he was honest enough to acknowledge that in the current econtext of the Bush tax cuts being set to expire, the pledge is in effect toothless.
To the extent that he has terrorized scores of Repubilcan lawmakers against being willing to allow the Bush tax cuts, any part of them, to lapse, Norquist’s comments offer them a huge amount of wiggle room. Some $4 trillion worth of wiggle room, given the baseline on which Norquist says the pledge is based.
Norquist can revise and extend all he wants, but he said what he said.