In his race to succeed Reagan, George H.W. Bush famously embraced the pledge, saying “read my lips, no new taxes.” But as president, he raised tax rates as part of a balanced-budget deal with Democrats. Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton in 1992 “proved for all time, that even though tax increases may be justified economically, they are never justified politically if you’re a Republican,” Bartlett said.
“Since then it’s been Republican dogma that deficits don’t matter and the only thing that matters for the economy is cutting taxes,” he said. “And Grover Norquist has become the enforcer of this dogma.”
The rise of the anti-tax tea party movement in 2008 further hardened the party’s stance against taxes. How is the pledge enforced? Typically, Republican candidates sign the pledge to avoid attack in the primary. Once in office, violators might find that Norquist has contacted Republican voters in their state or district to inform them that their senator or representative is having “impure thoughts,” as he put it.
Norquist has “these amazing mailing lists. Just tens of millions of people,” said Gregg, who has been a target.
At the state level, a vast network of foot soldiers stands ready to discipline local politicians who fail to walk the no-tax line. One of the most high-profile battles is being waged in Sacramento, where Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is trying to persuade GOP lawmakers to join Democrats in extending the largest tax increase in state history, which is set to expire this month.
Last month, Norquist spent several days in the state, urging Republicans to stand firm. His argument is likely to be pretty compelling: In 2009, after enacting deep spending cuts, six GOP lawmakers helped then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) raise sales, income and auto taxes to close a $42 billion budget gap.
All six paid a price. The Republican leaders in both the House and Senate were deposed. The other four either retired or lost bids for higher office.
Senate Republicans dumped Dave Cogdill as their leader in a midnight coup before the tax deal was even approved. “They were hearing from their constituents and Grover Norquist, saying, ‘You got to do everything you can to fight this thing,’ ” Cogdill said in an interview.
Cogdill later retired from the Senate. He now serves as county tax assessor in his hometown of Modesto. He said he wishes he had been able to keep the pledge, but he didn’t see any alternative to raising taxes, given the state’s alarming financial condition.
Although he agrees with Norquist that taxes are too high in California, he’s not sure he would sign the pledge again. Pledges, he said, make it hard to respond to changing circumstances.
Republicans “have lost the art of compromise,” Cogdill said. “If we don’t get everything we want, then we let the whole thing burn.”
This story is part of The Post’s continuing examination of the origins and consequences of the federal debt and the debate over what to do about it.