Four years ago this week, all the Republican candidates for president were asked in a debate what would happen if they were presented a deal to tackle the federal deficit, and the deal would yield $10 in budget cuts for every $1 of tax increases. “Who on this stage would walk away from that deal?” asked Fox News’s Bret Baier. Every single one of them raised their hands, so deeply offensive did they find the notion of any tax increase at all, even one that would allow enormous progress on another goal they claimed to hold dear.
While the same question wasn’t asked in the first GOP debate of this season, perhaps it will be in one of the upcoming debates. And when it does, the answer may be the same, or nearly so. Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform has announced that Chris Christie has signed “The Pledge,” ATR’s blood oath in which Republican politicians promise to never, ever, ever raise taxes for any reason (h/t Steve Benen). Norquist has become a kind of high priest of tax purity, with the power to declare which Republicans have kept the faith and which are vile apostates who must be cast out of the temple. As the group’s news release about Christie says, “In 2012, all candidates for the Republican nomination for president signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, with the lone exception of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Huntsman finished seventh in Iowa and third in New Hampshire before dropping out of the race.” So don’t get any ideas.
And in this election, they’re having almost as much success. Other candidates who have signed the Pledge either this year or in the past include Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich, Jim Gilmore and Mike Huckabee. In other words, only three of the 17 candidates haven’t taken the pledge: George Pataki, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush.
Are those stragglers going to come on board? Who knows what Trump would say if he was asked about it. Probably something entertaining yet not quite coherent, like “Pledges are for losers, and my tax policy is going to be so super-classy it’ll create a billion new jobs and make Mexico beg me to build a wall made of the finest cubic zirconium along our border.” And Bush, whom many people still think is going to wind up with the nomination, has actually ruled out taking the pledge. In fact, when testifying before Congress in 2012, he got asked the same question the candidates faced in their primary debate, and he responded, “If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we are going to have ten dollars of spending cuts for one dollar of revenue enhancement — put me in, coach.”
These days when you ask Bush about this topic, he’ll say bluntly that he has always rejected Norquist’s pledge but will quickly recite his record of cutting taxes as Florida governor. Perhaps the whole idea of absolute pledges makes him nervous, given the fact that his father said, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” then later did the right thing and accepted some tax increases as part of a budget deal, and for his trouble got forever branded as a traitor by the right.
Though it goes back many years, the Pledge is in some ways the perfect embodiment of the current era in Republican politics. It takes a conservative principle — raising taxes is bad — and elevates it to the status of a holy commandment, one that can never be violated. It insists that context never matters, compromise is abhorrent by definition and the slightest deviation from orthodoxy should be punished without mercy. Deficits, wars, supervolcanoes, alien invasion — no matter what a future president might face, he cannot ever raise taxes for any reason. You have to hand it to Norquist: almost every Republican in Congress has taken the Pledge, and he’s gotten 14 out of the 17 presidential candidates to genuflect before him, which isn’t too shabby.
I may not have a lot of good things to say about Jeb Bush, but let’s at least give him credit for not giving in to Norquist’s bullying. And we should hope that in one of the future debates, the GOP presidential candidates face a question like the one their predecessors did. Unlike many gimmicky-sounding debate questions, this one actually tells us something important. Because presidents keep the vast majority of the promises they make, it’s good to get them all on record in a high-profile setting. Then the voters will know what to expect in the budget battles that will inevitably be part of the next presidency.