The expiration of the Bush tax cuts would mean a marginal tax rate increase, which Republicans believe is the most evil of all tax increases. You may remember the vigor with which Republicans fought Obama over letting these tax cuts expire last year. Norquist was a central combatant.
Reducing marginal rates is the cause for which Norquist was called into this world. As Norquist said in the Post interview, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts would "raise taxes from where they are" and would "be a very bad thing to do." When the Post offered a hypothetical situation of a politician like Mitt Romney using the technicality to support the expiration, Norquist said he would "denounce him as a tax increaser and a bad guy."
This is why all the activity Thursday morning was overheated. It is not realistic to think that a Republican member of Congress—formerly cowed by the Norquist pledge—would use this technicality as an opportunity to leap into newfound bravery. Nor is it realistic to think that he or she would do very well in the face of Norquist's promised denunciations. This kind of strict textual interpretation of the promise may have saved Antonio from losing his pound of flesh, but the laws of politics are a little looser than those of Venice. As Norquist said in the Post interview, "You may get me to say technically you've done x,y, or z, but it doesn't pass the laugh test with the American people."
Norquist's pledge has power because Republicans who vote in primaries and conservative GOP districts don't want their members to vote for tax increases of whatever flavor. As he put it in an interview with me yesterday: "The modern Republican Party is a different party than it was 10 years ago, it was a party that has got kinda slapped and said, 'Hey you, hear us: Spend less.' So those Democrats and moderate Republicans who are hoping for the good old days when Republicans would raise taxes for you are very old, because that happened 20-plus years ago and hasn't happened since."
Norquist shapes and uses that power—but he didn't create it, and he can't suddenly reverse course even if that were his intention (which it's not). If Obama is going to work out a deal with Republicans that wrings some savings out of changing the tax code, he's going to have to convince conservative Republicans that they won't get punished. At the moment that still looks about as easy as convincing people that the weather in Washington is lovely this time of year.
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