The GOP’s ‘Read my lips’ moment

November 26, 2012

Updated at 9:39 a.m. to reflect Corker's move. "I'm not obligated on the pledge," Corker told CBS on Monday morning.

Four big-name Republicans have broken with Grover Norquist in recent days, saying they won't be bound by their Norquist-sponsored pledges to oppose any and all tax increases.

The moves by Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and Rep. Peter King (N.Y.) represent the opening steps of a delicate dance for the GOP -- and one that could come to define the just-begun talks over the looming "fiscal cliff."

The question from here is whether this represents a simple trial balloon or the beginning of a movement in which a large segment of the GOP embraces a tax increase as an unhappy reality.

If that were to occur, it would both mark a significant shift in party orthodoxy and also threaten to make the tea party primaries of 2010 and 2012 seem tame.


Grover Norquist (Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)

Twenty years ago, George H.W. Bush saw his approval ratings plummet and Republicans lost seats in Congress in the 1990 midterms after Bush went back on his anti-tax pledge ("Read my lips: No new taxes"). By the end of 1992, Bush had lost reelection.

Today, congressional Republicans have their own pledge and are inching toward breaching it, despite knowing very well that they could pay an electoral price.

Republicans in Congress have seen a procession of conservative and tea party candidates upset more moderate establishment candidates (including incumbents) in primaries in recent years. And many of them lost in large part because of one vote -- for the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout.

If you don't think Republican incumbents fear for their political lives by voting for a tax increase, you don't know members of Congress. Even as the vast majority of Republicans who supported TARP didn't face tough primaries in recent years and only a handful lost, the fate of the ones who did will be on the mind of anybody who votes for a tax increase -- as will Bush's demise.

"'Read my lips' is still an iconic phrase for breaking your word on taxes," said GOP strategist Dan Hazelwood. "I suspect it will be widely quoted in 2013-14."

Despite that very real threat, Republicans have been hinting for a while now that they may accept some revenue increases -- whether through tax hikes or closing tax loopholes -- to avoid the drastic cuts that would be triggered by sequestration.

Whether Republicans vote for tax increases or closing loopholes, if those changes aren't offset by other tax cuts, the package will be in violation of Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform pledge.

Norquist, for his part, doesn't see the GOP deserting his pledge en masse. He noted that Graham has made similar comments before and only said he would abandon the pledge if it was accompanied by big entitlement reforms, which Democrats will be hard-pressed to embrace.

"I don’t think between now and 2014 that either the South Carolina senator or the Georgia senator will vote for a tax increase," Norquist predicted in an interview with The Fix. "I am pleased at how the modern Republican Party and the members of Congress are hanging together in opposition to being TARPed again."

What seems to be missing so far is a big public threat from the tea party and groups like Norquist's to support primary challenges against any member who votes for a tax increase. So far, Norquist and conservative groups haven't been willing to go there.

Sal Russo, the founder of the Tea Party Express, said his group would obviously prefer that Republicans vote against tax increases, but that it doesn't believe in litmus tests and is willing to look at the entire package.

"There is a huge difference between not supporting the pledge and being for destructive economic policies, as advocated by Obama," Russo said. "We certainly will oppose any Republicans who vote to make the economy worse."

Most Republican strategists suggest the Norquists of the world and the tea party groups might be able to stomach a deal that includes tax increases, as long as the rest of the deal is seen as a good one -- that is, that it contains real spending cuts and other conservative-friendly reforms.

"Conservatives have seen this movie before where we buy into higher taxes in return for spending cuts, only to have the cuts never materialize and find ourselves years later dealing with higher deficits and debt," said one GOP strategist, granted anonymity to discuss strategy. "I can't see us allowing Lucy to pull the football again."

For the Republican Party, though, it will be very difficult to sell its anti-tax base on even a good deal that includes tax increases.

This is a Republican Party, after all, whose presidential candidates all stood on a debate stage last year and said that they would reject a deal that includes $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases.

Capito to run for Senate: We've got our first major declared challenger of the 2014 election, with Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) set to announce her Senate campaign Monday.

Capito will run for Sen. Jay Rockefeller's (D) seat, thought it's not yet clear that the 75-year-old incumbent will seek reelection.

Even if he does, this race is instantly a toss-up. A recent poll showed Capito at 48 percent and Rockefeller at 44 percent.

Fixbits:

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) says Democrats want to raise taxes on the wealthy because of their "dogma."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) softens his criticism of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice.

The Human Rights Campaign launches a $250,000 pro-gay marriage ad buy featuring Morgan Freeman.

Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) may write a book.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) criticizes the probe into David Petraeus, arguing for his privacy.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says Republicans should stop talking about abortion, because it's alienating young women.

Among the potential Democratic challengers for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R): businessmen Tom Wolf and Tom Knox, political operative John Hanger, former congressman Joe Sestak, Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, state Treasurer Rob McCord and retiring state Auditor General Jack Wagner.

Must-reads:

"Republicans face unexpected challenges in coastal South amid shrinking white vote" -- Douglas A. Blackmon, Washington Post

"Slugging It Out, Inside Obama’s Mind" -- N. Gregory Mankiew, New York Times

"The Senate’s Long Slide to Gridlock" -- Jonathan Weisman, New York Times

"‘Fiscal cliff’: Consensus on increasing tax revenue, a wide gulf on how to do it" -- Lori Montgomery, Washington Post

"How Hillary Clinton’s choices predict her future" -- Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post

 
Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Aaron Blake · November 25, 2012