November 22, 2012: Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, a member of the "Gang of Six" moderate senators who tried to negotiate a grand bargain on spending, told a local television station he was ready to violate the pledge. "I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge," Chambliss said. "If we do it his way then we'll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that." Asked whether he was concerned that his moderation would come back to bite him in the form of a primary challenge when his term ends in 2014, he said he knew it was likely but added, "I care too much about my country. I care a lot more about it than I do Grover Norquist."
November 25, 2012: A trickle became ... well, not quite a gusher, but a clear trend on the weekend after Thanksgiving. On Fox News Sunday, John McCain called for new revenues through closing loopholes. "When you're $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece, and Republicans should put revenue on the table," he said. "I agree with Grover, we shouldn't raise rates, but I think Grover is wrong when it comes to we can't cap deductions and buy down debt." On Meet the Press, Peter King repeated his criticism, saying, "I agree entirely with Saxby Chambliss." (Norquist's reply: "Congressman Peter King of New York knows full well that the pledge that he signed and others have, is for while you're in Congress. It's not for a two-year period." On ABC's This Week, Lindsey Graham also reiterated his willingness to drop the pledge, while former George W. Bush strategist Matthew Dowd quipped, nonsensically, "the only good thing about Grover Norquist is that he was named after a character from Sesame Street."
November 26, 2012: Bob Corker of Tennessee, also considered a moderate and leading GOP voice on fiscal matters, told CBS's Charlie Rose he would not be bound by his promise. "I'm not obligated on the pledge," he said. "I made Tennesseans aware, I was just elected, the only thing I'm honoring is the oath I take when I serve, when I'm sworn in this January."
So what does this all mean? The names of those who have come out against the pledge -- from the old-line, moderate Republican Poppy Bush to the quintessentially heterdox McCain -- are hardly surprises, and they're not enough to declare Norquist's influence dead. There are still 217 members of the House and 39 members of the Senate who are signatories. But Norquist may indeed lose this battle. He's already struggling with messaging. During an appearance at the Washington Ideas Forum on November 15, Chuck Todd repeatedly pressed Norquist on why there was no mandate to raise taxes on the wealthy. After all, President Obama had campaigned and won on raising taxes for the wealthy; a majority of respondents in exit polls and other surveys say they back the move. The normally pithy Norquist seemed to have no answer.
Some of these disavowals may be more bark than bite. Norquist, publicly at least, isn't sweating it. "I don't think between now and 2014 that either the South Carolina senator or the Georgia senator will vote for a tax increase," he told The Washington Post. While the lawmakers make great show of trampling on the pledge, few of them have expressly avowed their support for a tax increase. McCain, for example, said he favored closing loopholes. Norquist, at WIF, argued that lowering taxes was actually the way to meet moderate Republican desires and raise revenue -- although that relies on an economic theory that is disputed at best. And many of these dissenters have premised their willingness to violate the pledge on major reforms to entitlement programs, a vague and high bar that may be tough to achieve.
It's worth looking at these developments through a 2016 prism, too. Jeb Bush is already making noises about a run for president in four years. His family's past relationship with taxes is complicated. His father raised them in the name of fiscal discipline, and paid the political price. His brother, President George W. Bush, introduced the cuts that are due to expire at year's end, at the expense of greatly expanding the deficit. That deficit expansion makes the Bush name somewhat tarnished on fiscal matters; by disavowing the pledge, Jeb Bush can position himself as a pragmatic budget thinker, ready to reduce the national debt by all means necessary.