Jon Stewart to Grover Norquist: Your Pledge Is a Failure

By focusing on taxes rather than spending, the conservative activist has helped make big government more palatable for more than 25 years.


Earlier this week on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart spoke with Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who more than 25 years ago created The Pledge, a promise he extracts from Republican politicians to never raise taxes under any circumstances. It has coincided with a period in which the size and scope of the federal government has increased dramatically, and when deficits have grown so large that folks on the right regard them as an imminent threat to the American way of life. So you'd think his brand of activism would be widely regarded as having failed. The Pledge nevertheless retains broad support in the GOP and the conservative movement. 

This exchange between Norquist and Stewart is instructive:

Grover Norquist: If you raise taxes it won't reduce the deficit. The other team will simply spend the resources.

Jon Stewart: Well let's look at George W. Bush. He had a huge tax cut. And he went from a surplus to a deficit. So does that put any sort of doubt in your mind about the simplistic nature of the pledge versus the real world of the economy.

Grover Norquist: No. The pledge is step one, don't raise taxes. Step two, and this is where George W. Bush messed up, stop spending so much money.

Jon Stewart: But where's that pledge? Because the first pledge is easy. Anybody will sign that.

Grover Norquist: That's frankly what the Tea Party did when they came in 2009 and 2010, and said to the Republicans - shook them up, primaried a number of Republicans who'd been spending too much money, and people lost on the spending issue. I mean, that's not an issue that people had lost elections on before.

Jon Stewart: Here's the problem. It's very easy - there is nothing people want to hear more than, 'You give us too much money, you should keep more.' That's the easy part. That's like, 'I've got a pledge. Ice cream and cake for everybody.' Here's my second pledge. 'You've got to exercise.' Oh, but I'm not going to enforce that one. But we're all gonna get thinner. So when you come out and say, we're never gonna raise taxes, I understand that's a great branding, but as a governing policy it seems too easy and pandering.

Grover Norquist: I understand. But the good news is, if people take The Pledge and keep it - and the reason that people take the pledge is that they don't want to raise taxes - they don't not raise taxes because they took The Pledge, it works the other way around. Candidates say, I don't want to raise taxes. The Pledge allows someone to credibly explain to voters, I mean it. And everybody watched what happened to George Herbert Walker Bush when he broke his pledge. He threw away a perfectly good presidency.

Yes, President George H.W. Bush's aversion to deficits caused him to break his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge, which was one of the reasons he lost the presidency. What I wonder is why Norquist, a conservative Republican, thinks losing the White House was a good thing. If subsequent Republican presidents had governed as staunch fiscal conservatives, having been chastened by Bush's departure from office, he might have a case. But as Stewart points out, George W. Bush kept The Pledge... and amassed a fiscal record that even conservatives regard as atrocious.  

This bears repeating until The Pledge is discredited: deficit spending is unambiguously worse than a tax increase to balance the budget. You've got to pay for deficit spending eventually. It effectively is a future tax increase. And you've got to pay interest too. You've meanwhile created the illusion that the services enjoyed by the public are less expensive and burdensome than is the case. Holding the line on taxes but not the deficit makes big government more palatable.

Thanks in part to The Pledge, the Baby Boomers have borrowed obscene amounts of money that my generation and my children's generation must ultimately pay back. But their taxes didn't go up. Thanks for that, Mr. Norquist. I'm not sure what to call it, but fiscal conservatism isn't it. In a subsequent portion of the interview, Norquist actually concedes that Stewart's critique of his position on fiscal matters would've had merit prior to the rise of the Tea Party, but that after the 2010 midterms, an election he describes as being won on the issue of cutting government, he's been vindicated. To which I can only say, to hell with calling a GOP win at the ballot box a victory for fiscal conservatism. When a balanced budget passes into law without tax increases, that is when Norquist can claim vindication. I very much doubt I'll live to see that day.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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