Fiscal Cliff 2013: How Grover Norquist Could Drive Us All off It

There is an odd tendency in the Republican Party for politicians to kow-tow to certain high-profile ideologues who have, for reasons not always clear, gained demigod status within the conservative movement. At the nadir of GOP popularity in early 2009, then party chairman Michael Steele told CNN, “Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh — his whole thing is entertainment. He has this incendiary — yes, it's ugly.”

Within a few days, Steele issued a mea culpa to Limbaugh, saying, "I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren’t what I was thinking ... What I was trying to say was a lot of people … want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman, and he’s not." 

It was an embarrassing episode, not just for Steele, but for the party, whose leader felt compelled to publicly apologize to Limbaugh — a man who simply talks about stuff on the radio.

Apparently, these days the man Republicans mustn't ridicule publicly is lobbyist Grover Norquist — the head of Americans for Tax Reform — who has managed to get the vast majority of GOP lawmakers in Washington to sign his anti-tax pledge. Last week, Senator Saxby Chambliss (R - Ga.) made headlines when he appeared to have thrown Norquist to the wolves when he told a Georgia television station, "I care too much about my country — I care a lot more about it than I do Grover Norquist." It was a bold statement that indicated a willingness to compromise on generating revenue, which are a crucial part of the on-going fiscal cliff negotiations.

But the Washington Post is reporting a subsequent about-face, which should surprise no one. Five days after Chambliss appeared to buck the anti-tax dogmatist, "[O]n the phone with Norquist, Chambliss was sounding a conciliatory tone. As Norquist read aloud a transcript of Chambliss’s earlier remarks, item by item, Norquist recalled later, the senator repeatedly assured him on each one that he did not mean to imply they had major differences when it came to GOP principles on taxes."

Norquist continued, "He said he’d wished he hadn’t invoked my name and wished that he’d been clearer."

This is amazing for two reasons. The first is that a U.S. senator apologized to a lobbyist for some rather tepid remarks. The second reason is that said lobbyist feels entirely comfortable telling a reporter about that private conversation and that the senator basically said he was sorry. Indeed, one can imagine the pride Norquist takes in having the GOP by the balls. 

Since he's not a politician, Norquist has nothing to lose by insisting that taxes not be raised under any circumstances. He is on record as saying, "I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

That is not the rhetoric of a person who seems willing to compromise. It would be one thing if Norquist were just an entertainer like Limbaugh, but as the head of a major anti-tax lobbying firm, Norquist clearly has a lot of pull with the party. With the December 31st fiscal cliff deadline, this is an unwelcome reality.