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Does the media give Grover Norquist too much credit?

By Ezra Klein,

By Jay Mallin/Bloomberg News A GOP aide thinks I gave Grover Norquist too much credit in this morning’s Wonkbook. “He almost destroyed the Republican brand with his shenanigans with Abramoff, DeLay and the K Street project,” the aide e-mails. “We’ve been trying to clean up his mess for years. The groups that have real influence are the Tea Party, the Club for Growth and, I would argue, the members of Congress who have made the debate about spending. [Norquist] was, and is, a paper tiger.”

That’s probably right. I agree that Norquist gets more credit than he deserves. Norquist acts as an enforcer of an existing anti-tax consensus in the Republican Party. He didn’t create that consensus, and though he can make life miserable for one or two Republican politicians who try to break ranks on it, there’s nothing he can do if the GOP abandons his position en masse.

Moreover, plenty of Senate Republicans appear glad to puncture the myth of Norquist. Sen. Mike Johanns told Politico that “what Grover Norquist has just done is blown his pledge wide open.” Sen. John Thune was little kinder about Norquist’s pre-deal contortions. “I think that’s going to make it increasingly difficult for the pledge to have credibility going forward,” he said in the same Politico article. Talking to the Huffington Post, Sen. Jon Kyl — a member of the Republican leadership — dismissed Norquist’s influence on the vote altogether. “I don’t know what Norquist has to do with it or what he says about it,” he said.

So perhaps Norquist is mostly a mixture of effective self-promotion and a useful way for journalists to humanize the GOP’s anti-tax stance. But the point from this morning’s Wonkbook remains: The fact that Republicans, after blowing a hole in the deficit with the Bush tax cuts, have managed to define any revenues at all as some sort of massive concession is an astounding political victory, and it means that the ultimate mix of the deficit deal will probably tilt very heavily towards spending cuts.

If you want to see how heavily, notice that President Obama’s deficit-reduction proposal extends more than $3 trillion of Bush’s tax cuts and then raises taxes by less than $1 trillion. And that’s the Democratic opening bid. The Republicans, presumably, will counter with an offer to extend all $4+ trillion of the Bush tax cuts but close down some tax subsidies for green energy. And then the two parties will meet somewhere in the middle.

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