The End of the Pledge: How Democrats Can Finally Beat Grover Norquist

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Mitt Romney gave them the idea. The fiscal cliff lent them urgency. The election bought them momentum.

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Here are supposedly the 60 most powerful words in all of politics:

I, ___ , pledge to the taxpayers of the district of the state of ___ and to the American people that I will: One, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and Two, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Washington calls it The Pledge. Republicans call it common sense. Democrats call it somewhat more unprintable things. Written by Grover Norquist and signed by all but 22 elected Republicans on Capitol Hill today, it is a simple promise to never, ever raise taxes. And, since 1990, Republicans on Capitol Hill never, ever have.

When President Bill Clinton raised taxes in his first year in office, he received exactly zero Republican votes. The Pledge had build a steel curtain between the tax raisers and the GOP. Four years later, Clinton cut investment taxes. Four years after that, President George W. Bush cut taxes again. And then again. We've never raised them since.

But in the wake of President Obama's victory last Tuesday, Norquist's steel fortress is creaking. The White House insists that there will be no deal to avoid the fiscal cliff unless taxes go up for the richest slice of American households. House Speaker John Boehner has responded that he would be willing to accept new revenue "under the right conditions," although he has also stated flatly that "there is no mandate for raising tax rates."

How do you raise taxes without raising rates? You borrow an idea from Mitt Romney. If Obama keeps everything in the tax code just as it is and caps itemized deductions at $50,000, he could raise just over $700 billion over ten years. In this plan, poor and rich families alike would pay the same low rates, but the richest households wouldn't be allowed to write off quite so much of their charitable donations and mortgage debt. As a result, they would pay a higher tax. How much higher?  Matt O'Brien brings the graph:

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I'm ready to make a bold prediction: Republicans will vote for a plan to limit deductions and raise taxes. Not a few of them. A lot. Their votes might violate The Pledge and earn the Wrath of Grover. But it will also spare them from two fates worse than wrath. On the one hand, there is the disgrace of clashing with an easily reelected, and suddenly sympathetic, president in a way that clearly damages the economic recovery. That would mean falling over the fiscal slope into a recession clutching The Pledge, which could potentially damage their party and position on taxes even more than a subtle compromise. On the other hand, there is the clear humiliation of smashing The Pledge into a million piece by actually raising tax rates. The Romney Plan offers a middle path: Uphold the first 38 words of the The Pledge (no tax rate increases) and forget the last 22 (no revenue-position deduction cuts).

Norquist and some Republicans will scream. Let them. This would not mark a radical departure for the Republican Party. In fact, it would signify a return to sanity following a radical departure from responsible governance. Grover Norquist's desk holds the bust of President Ronald Reagan (as seen on 60 Minutes, above). Tax increases are a part of Reagan's legacy. After signing a massive tax cut in his first year, the Gipper signed laws raising gas taxes, payroll taxes, estate taxes, and even federal income taxes by broadening the base and closing loopholes.

Raising taxes after cutting taxes isn't historic. It's common. It's what we did for decades. Until the 1990s, the U.S. had not gone more than than 11 years between tax increases since WWII. Next year would mark the 20th anniversary of the last federal tax increase. It's a tradition worth ending.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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