You know what? It doesn’t matter if Grover Norquist thinks that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire is technically permitted by his pledge, but opposed by him, his organization and virtually every elected Republican who has expressed an opinion on the subject. To consider this a game-changer, you have to believe that the precise wording of the pledge matters more than Norquist himself, that Norquist drives Republican Party policy rather than reflects it, and that elected Republicans are looking for an excuse to raise taxes rather than rejecting every opportunity that comes along. Oh, and you have to completely misunderstand the balance of power on the tax issue.
Republicans have had a lot of leverage over the past year because we’ve been faced with a series of forcing events in which inaction would lead to an outcome that Democrats feared more than Republicans did. That was true on the government shutdown and it is true on the debt ceiling. It’s not true on the Bush tax cuts.
When it comes to the Bush tax cuts, inaction means that tax rates return to their Clinton-era levels. That’s not an outcome that Democrats necessarily like: It’s a big tax increase during a weak economy, and it gives Republicans an issue to use against them at the polls. But there’s no doubt that Democrats are more comfortable with a return to Clinton-era tax rates than Republicans are, and there’s no doubt that they can achieve that outcome if they so choose. So the question isn’t what Grover Norquist thinks of the Bush tax cuts. It’s what the Obama administration thinks of the Bush tax cuts.
My reporting over the past few months has convinced me that the Obama administration does not see this as an opportunity to increase revenue. They see it as an ugly, distracting political fight that they would prefer to avoid. They think that if they engage it, the likely outcomes are an expiration of the Bush tax cuts for income over $250,000 or income over $1,000,000. They do not intend to fight for anything more than that, and would in fact oppose efforts to raise taxes below those thresholds. That means they have less leverage than the underlying structure of the situation would suggest, as they are more averse to a fight over the Bush tax cuts than one might assume.
But either way, Grover Norquist really isn’t an important player here. What happens to the Bush tax cuts is mostly up to the Obama administration and, to a lesser extent, the Democrats in Congress who would be needed to sustain a presidential veto of legislation extending the Bush tax cuts.