Is Grover Norquist Losing Power? How He Decodes GOP Tax Dodges.

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Nov. 27 2012 10:51 AM

Are Republicans Really Breaking with Grover Norquist?

The man behind the GOP’s anti-tax pledge decodes the buzzwords.

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Grover Norquist speaks at an Americans for Prosperity summit. Is Norquist worried about congressional Republicans breaking a pledge not to raise taxes?

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

Grover Norquist is used to it by now. A reporter corners a Republican on the tax extensions/debt deal/fiscal cliff. The reporter asks: Will you break the Taxpayer Protection Pledge and consider raising taxes? The Republican waffles, and the reporter’s next call is to Norquist, the president of Americans of Tax Reform, to see whether a heresy has been committed.

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David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

“Somebody answers a hypothetical—would you raise taxes a teeny bit if someone would give you a jillion dollars of entitlement reform?” says Norquist, taking a few minutes to talk between “some cable news things” on Monday. “That’s the question that Sen. Lindsey Graham keeps getting.”

Over the weekend, Graham had joined the latest round of the game by going on ABC News and appearing to break the pledge, which puts its signatories on record against any net tax increase. “I think Grover is wrong when it comes to we can’t cap deductions and buy down debt,” said Graham. “I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country, only if Democrats will do entitlement reform.” The Washington Post called this a “break with Grover Norquist.”

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That wasn’t how Norquist saw it. “I’ve talked to Lindsey Graham on the phone after some of his pronouncements, and he’s said: ‘Oh, I would need 10-1 [ratio of cuts to tax hikes], and it would have to include permanent, unalterable entitlement reform.’ I said: ‘Lindsey, if that’s what it’s going to take to get you to raise taxes, I’m not going to worry about you. You are not in danger of being offered a silver unicorn, because unicorns don’t exist.’ ”

The existence of the pledge, and of Norquist, turns coverage of big tax deals into something resembling a Brothers Grimm fairly tale. Will a Republican say the magic word and break the pledge? If he does, surely, the GOP’s anti-tax edifice will tumble over. Only 212 members of the incoming Congress have signed the pledge, which means that the power is fading—which means that Republicans will soon be free. “Everyone acts,” writes Rich Lowry, “as if Grover is the instrument of the party’s Babylonian captivity.”

This is too easy, which means that it’s wrong. Republicans have mostly mastered the buzzwords of fiscal policy in general and the fiscal cliff specifically. Reporters, for all of the obvious reasons, crank up the headlines and “Breaking News “chyrons, when they hear those buzzwords. But as my colleague John Dickerson has pointed out, the Republicans now denouncing Norquist’s pledge don’t represent a critical mass of tax-hike votes. Graham has talked like this for years, as has Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss. And yet there hasn’t been any great compromise that raised taxes. If you were a cynic, you might think that the great GOP moderates were using the pledge to play the press.

And if they were doing that, how would they pull it off? Why, they’d use the sorts of words that imply a separation from GOP tax dogma, but in a way that doesn’t actually worry Norquist. I asked Norquist to thumb through the key buzzwords and buzz-phrases and explain why they don’t spook him.

New revenue. John Boehner kicked off the latest Norquist Games on Nov. 7, when he said that Republicans were “willing to accept new revenue, under the right conditions.” It didn’t worry anti-tax activists because they understand that Boehner wants this revenue with no further tax hikes. The “right conditions” are, basically, Republican policies. “If you mean revenue through growth, you should say revenue through growth, as Boehner does,” says Norquist. “If you mean tax increases, say tax increases.”

Everything is on the table. Norquist gives Republicans a pass on this one. He doesn’t hear it and assume they’re going to serve themselves hot to Chuck Schumer. “This means: ‘I’m terribly reasonable and I’m not committed to anything,’” he says. “What the other person is supposed to hear is: I’m a cheap date.” But it’s fine to treat it as a ruse.

Dynamic scoring. Democrats actually try to pre-empt this one. In his post-election presser, President Obama named “dynamic scoring” among the “vague” ideas he doesn’t take seriously. He had to, because Republicans like to sound gettable on a tax deal by arguing that cuts will pay for themselves—they should be “scored” to reflect that. “It’s usually used by conservatives to mean: Cut the capital gains tax, because every time we’ve done that, we’ve brought in more revenue,” says Norquist. “You should be able to score it that way. If the government went to a 25 percent corporate income tax, I believe they’d get more revenue. Democrats don’t like it because it makes tax cuts on capital and mobile labor actually free.”