Grover Norquist demands that Republicans hold the line on taxes. He was winning, until the defections began.
Just a few months back, Grover Norquist was routinely being called "the most powerful man in Washington" -- or even America. But now the Americans for Tax Reform impresario seems to be in one of the tighter spots of his storied career as a campaigner for "starving the beast." As fiscal-cliff negotiations continue, with President Obama and Democrats holding a strong hand, more and more Republicans have announced their willingness to break the Norquist-sponsored pledge not to raise taxes that many have signed.
While there were several high-profile defections this weekend, the strife between ATR and elected GOP officials has been progressing in slow motion for months. Here's a timeline:
November 3, 2011: Setting the tone for the year ahead, Speaker John Boehner shruged off a question about Norquist's influence in the GOP caucus. "Our focus here is on jobs," Boehner said. "We're doing anything we can to get our economy moving again and get people back to work. It's not often I'm asked about some random person in America."
May 27, 2012: Professional maverick and former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, co-chair of the president's debt-reduction commission, kicked the door open on CNN with characteristic panache. "For heaven's sake, you have Grover Norquist wandering the earth in his white robes saying that if you raise taxes one penny, he'll defeat you," he said. "He can't murder you. He can't burn your house. The only thing he can do to you, as an elected official, is defeat you for reelection. And if that means more to you than your country when we need patriots to come out in a situation when we're in extremity, you shouldn't even be in Congress."
June 1, 2012: Testifying before the House Budget Committee, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush blasted the pledge. "I ran for office three times. The pledge was presented to me three times. I never signed the pledge," he said. "I cut taxes every year I was governor. I don't believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people. I respect Grover's political involvement. He has every right to do it, but I never signed any pledge." Norquist called Bush's comments "humiliating, embarrassing."
June 12, 2012: Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told ABC he believed lawmakers require more flexibility than the pledge provides, saying increased revenue is essential to paying down the national debt. "When you eliminate a deduction, it's okay with me to use some of that money to get us out of debt. That's where I disagree with the pledge," he said. "And if I'm willing to do that as a Republican, I've crossed a rubicon .... We're so far in debt, that if you don't give up some ideological ground, the country sinks."
July 13, 2012: Jeb Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush complained about unwillingness to raises taxes among his own party in an interview with Parade magazine: "The rigidity of those pledges is something I don't like. The circumstances change and you can't be wedded to some formula by Grover Norquist. It's -- who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?" In August, Norquist fired back at Bush, who lost his 1992 reelection bid after raising taxes, despite his memorable campaign pledge "Read my lips: no new taxes." Bush "lied" in doing so, Norquist said.
July 15, 2012: Tom Coburn, the staunchly fiscally conservative Oklahoma senator known as "Dr. No," took to the New York Times editorial pages (of all places!) to argue that Norquist is "increasingly isolated politically." Coburn says Democrats have used the ATR pledge as a political tool, claiming that congressional Republicans refuse to compromise because their hands are tied, when in fact Norquist has little influence inside the caucus.
October 10, 2012: Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, engaged in a tight race for Senate, claimed during a debate that he had not signed the ATR pledge. "The only pledge I'd sign is a pledge to sign no more pledges," Flake said. "We've got to ensure that we go back and represent our constituents in a way -- I believe in limited government, economic freedom, individual responsibility. I don't want higher taxes. But no more pledges." A spokesman later clarified that while Flake signed an earlier version of the pledge, the wording has since changed in such way as to invalidate his previous support. Flake went on to win the Senate seat.
November 11, 2012: While he didn't mention Norquist by name, Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol effectively called for demolishing the ATR pledge on Fox News Sunday. "The leadership of the Republican Party and the leadership of the conservative movement has to pull back, let people float new ideas. Let's have a serious debate," Kristol said. "Don't scream and yell if one person says 'You know what? It won't kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires.' It really won't, I don't think."
November 20, 2012: New York Rep. Peter King told The New York Times he regards his long-ago support for the pledge as no longer binding. "A pledge is good at the time you sign it," he said. "In 1941, I would have voted to declare war on Japan. But each Congress is a new Congress. And I don't think you can have a rule that you're never going to raise taxes or that you're never going to lower taxes. I don't want to rule anything out." Meanwhile, Rep.-Elect Ted Yoho of Florida explained why he refused to sign the pledge, likening it to an easily broken New Year's resolution.