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Grover Norquist is winning

You might think that Grover Norquist would be in hiding right now. Republicans are parading before the cameras, one after the other, to proclaim their intention of breaking his anti-tax pledge. And yet Norquist is everywhere. He's doing television shows and talking with reporters. Wednesday, he was the headline guest at Politico's Playbook Breakfast.

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. (Cliff Owen - AP)

Amidst the liberal glee over the demise of Norquist's anti-tax pledge, it's worth being clear about something: Norquist is winning. Big time. It's this moment, the death of his pledge's mostly unblemished record, that he's been working toward all these years.

Don't take Norquist's pledge at face value. It's an absurdity. From a budgetary standpoint, it's an obscenity. And everyone -- Norquist included, because he is very, very smart -- knew it would eventually fall. It's how it falls that matters. And right now, it's falling exactly according to plan.

For decades now, Norquist has asked lawmakers to pledge to oppose any and all taxes. That's a ridiculous pledge. Ronald Reagan, a president Norquist considers such a conservative inspiration that he's embarked on a quest to name every airport and park bench in the country after him, raised taxes time and time again.

But that's the point. The severity, even extremism, of the commitment demanded by the pledge has helped entrench a public impression that tax increases are a no-man's land for conservatives. As recently as Reagan's day, it was pretty much a given that cutting the deficit meant, in part, increasing taxes, even for Republicans. Today, Republicans who believe the debt is the greatest threat our nation faces -- the new "red menace," in the words of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels -- get plaudits just for being willing to consider the idea of a tax increase, no matter how small.

Norquist and his pledge changed more than the conversation. They changed American politics. The question isn't how we'll increase taxes and by how much. It's whether we'll increase taxes. For a Republican to simply consider a tax increase is considered a massive concession. That helps them ultimately agree to less in taxes, as having conceded so much philosophically and politically, they're expected to do less as a matter of policy.

The true test of Norquist's pledge wasn't whether a Republican ever voted for another tax increase. It was whether it held tax revenues below where they'd otherwise be. It's whether it increased the political cost of raising taxes. And today, you can see how well his pledge has worked.

A Democratic president just won reelection with a significant majority. Democrats just took 55 seats in the Senate. House Democrats won more votes than House Republicans. Yet it's a given that any deal that includes tax increases will also include large spending cuts, and perhaps even entitlement reforms -- and Democrats are celebrating the possibility of such a deal as a huge coup. They are ecstatic that Norquist's pledge might fall even before they know how much tax revenue they'll get.

And it's not, in the scheme of things, that much revenue. If President Obama gets every dollar he's asked for, the Congressional Budget Office estimate tax receipts will equal 19.4 percent of GDP over the next decade. That's less than it was during most of Bill Clinton's second term, despite the fact that our population is older, our spending is higher and our projected deficits are far more severe. Moreover, it's far less than the 21.6 percent of GDP we'd get if the Bush tax cuts expired fully. The furor over the prospect of any tax increase at all has helped obscure the fact that Obama wants to raise taxes by far less than George W. Bush cut them.

If Republicans had won the election, there would be no similar give among the GOP: harsh spending cuts would be considered inevitable, but tax increases would be considered unthinkable. Norquist's pledge has made modest tax increases as part of a larger fiscal deal look like a painful concession even in the aftermath of a complete Democratic victory. He's made even a small increase in taxes seems like an earth-shaking policy concession from the Republican Party.

That's Norquist's victory, though to achieve it, he has to run around town telling everyone that his pledge can't be broken and promising to exact terrible vengeance against any Republicans who vote for a tax increase. If Norquist's pledge is to work, he has to make us believe in it, even as it's being broken. And we do.




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Neil Irwin · November 28, 2012

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