After the election, it was obvious the Republican Party's establishment and interest groups weren’t going to be enjoying much of a honeymoon. But when Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) says that he cares more about his country than he does about his pledge to Grover Norquist (CEO of Americans for Tax Reform) this means war.
In reality, none of this is very surprising. Grover Norquist is an influential figure, but, like most political leaders, he is only influential so long as he is moving somewhere. On taxes especially, Norquist has always been most powerful when he moves along with the tide. He could defy the socially conservative wing of the party at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference. The populist upsurge then was against Obamanomics.
Now, with a stunning defeat in the November elections, Norquist has to rally the troops again. His mailing list will always serve as a base. But Norquist’s supporters were probably not his supporters because of who he was; they supported him because they believed in what he was advocating. There were even times when his background made people uncomfortable. Norquist’s relationship with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff raised some eyebrows during the corruption investigation scandal (even though he appears to have been guilty of nothing but association).
Norquist’s brilliance was not in being a charismatic leader for people to get behind (if you can think of any specific public appearance that Norquist has ever made, your memory is better than mine). Rather, Norquist found a shorthand way for advocating policy: would a true conservative ever vote to raise taxes? Not in Grover Norquist’s world. At times, this had led to him advocating policies that most conservatives consider crazy or outdated — like tax breaks for ethanol and corn subsidies.
Chambliss might have a primary challenger if he fails to live up to the Americans for Tax Reform pledge. He probably will; Mississippi has enough ambitious politicians who are willing to sign on to the Americans for Tax Reform bandwagon. But that doesn’t mean that Grover Norquist’s bandwagon can endure. After all, Chambliss isn’t the first one on the right to ask whether it is more conservative to keep taxes low than maintain reasonable deficits.
Norquist’s organization probably would have had more success if it had opposed spending increases as vociferously as it had opposed tax increases. After all, the only difference between the two is time. Every dollar spent is a dollar that will eventually have to be taxed from the economy. Every swollen budget that the Republicans passed during the Bush years was a tax increase. It’s just that no one said so at the time. In his defense, Norquist was never an advocate of his party’s spending spree in the early 2000s and he made plain his opposition to the Democrats’ splurges during Obama’s first term.
Norquist may not have been part of the problem. But, unless he creates a similar pledge to the one he created for tax increases and rallies Republicans to sign on to a plan which would pledge to some sort of realistic plan to limit spending, he won’t be part of the solution either.