Are Republicans Really Breaking with Grover Norquist?
The man behind the GOP’s anti-tax pledge decodes the buzzwords.
Closing loopholes. Paul Ryan got through an entire campaign for vice president by promising to “close tax loopholes” without ever saying which ones he meant. It didn’t really work for him, but it lets Republicans start at ground zero now and suggest that “loopholes” that currently lead to lower taxes for some people might be killable. “Democrats consider the differential on capital gains to be a loophole,” says Norquist. “Republicans consider tax credits for favored industries to be loopholes. Sometimes they’re not talking about the same things. Actually, a loophole is something you shoot at the enemy through.” And until he hears a Republican say he’ll kill a loophole without getting some concession on tax rates, he doesn’t worry.
A Simpson-Bowles approach. Norquist spent most of a year attacking the Simpson-Bowles commission, its recommendations, and its adherents. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, in death Simpson-Bowles has only grown stronger. On Wednesday, Erskine Bowles himself will come to Captiol Hill to meet with John Boehner and give yet more cover for a plan that—in the punditocracy’s understanding—raises tax rates. Norquist doesn’t sweat it. He points to the argument Paul Ryan made when he gave the thumbs-down to Simpson-Bowles: “The revenue increases called for in this proposal are simply too high and threaten to stifle the very growth needed for economic prosperity and fiscal stability.” If “Bowles-Simpson” is code for “I’m reasonable,” the Republican is using it as cover to keep his pledge.
But why would Republicans bring up Simpson-Bowles at all? They need to sound reasonable, and they can’t sound like they’re precipitating a crisis. According to a CNN poll, 45 percent of voters are ready to blame Republicans if there’s no spending/tax deal by Dec. 31, and only 34 percent of voters expect to blame Barack Obama. This is the legacy of the debt-limit crisis. This is why Republicans now denounce the pledges and associations that make them look unreasonable. Norquist doesn’t take it personally.
“The clearer you get in the wording, the less agreement there is,” says Norquist. That’s why, at the beginning of these things, they all have this huge fudge factor, and that’s why they hate the pledge. If you don’t want the government to get bigger, the goddamn pledge is written down, and doesn’t change, and has words that mean what they say, and you can’t get around a commitment against a net tax increase.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.