Grover Norquist and the Unbreakable Vow

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The Republican operator yields on his famous tax pledge. Will he rise again, or does this spell political death for Americans for Tax Reform?

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Norquist holding a copy of his pledge. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In the Harry Potter adventures, Ron tells Harry about the "unbreakable vow." By kneeling opposite each other and clasping their right hands together, two wizards can make a permanent oath. "What happens if you break it, then?" asks Harry. "You die," says Ron. In Washington, D.C., Grover Norquist has created his own unbreakable vow never to raise taxes -- but it turns out to be quite breakable.

Norquist is often seen as the unyielding sentinel of the anti-tax lobby. In a town of compromising milquetoasts, Norquist at least has a spine. In a metaphorical clasping of hands, the vast majority of Republicans in Congress have signed up for Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," promising to oppose "any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rate for individuals and business." No deduction or credit can be eliminated without a dollar-for-dollar cut in tax rates. Former Republican senator Alan Simpson summarized the pledge as: "No taxes, under any situation, even if your country goes to hell."

The pledge had power. In a Republican primary debate in 2011, the candidates were asked if they would accept a deficit reduction deal that included ten dollars of spending cuts for every dollar of tax increases. Every single candidate said no.

But now it seems that the unbreakable vow isn't as strict as we thought. Read my lips: Some new taxes are ok.

Norquist's group of anti-tax overseers, Americans for Tax Reform, announced that Republican Speaker John Boehner's proposal to increase tax rates for those earning over one million dollars would not break the anti-tax pledge. The ATR said the "sole purpose" of Boehner's plan is to stop tax increases for most Americans. Plus the Republican House has tried at other times to extend all the income tax rates. And "this tax bill contains no tax increases of any kind."

This reasoning doesn't pass the laugh test. Accepting a moderate tax increase to prevent a larger tax increase is still a tax increase. The fact that you voted previously to reduce taxes doesn't change what you vote for now (unless the ATR hands out Papal Indulgences to its most loyal acolytes). And, most importantly, Boehner's plan clearly does contain a tax increase. Rates will go up for the richest Americans. It breaks the unbreakable vow.

So, why has Norquist suddenly gone squishy?

Norquist's rigid façade belies a canny operator who's been around the block a few times. He knows when to bend with the political wind.

Norquist is playing a delicate game. He wants the vow to seem utterly unbreakable so that Republicans are deterred from raising taxes.

If one Republican breaks the oath, that's fine. Norquist can declare them a heretic, encourage a witch-hunt, and in political terms, they die.

But if Republicans broke the vow en masse, it would be a catastrophe for Norquist. Not only would taxes rise but Norquist would suddenly be marginalized and even irrelevant. The oath would be violated. The sky didn't fall in. What's the point of Grover Norquist?

So Norquist must stand alongside the majority of the GOP -- at almost any cost. Ideally, of course, everyone's in the trenches fighting the good fight against tax hikes. But if the House GOP retreats and accepts a rate increase, well, Norquist needs to find a way to retreat as well.

The oath -- and perhaps Norquist -- cannot survive a mass defection. The only option is to declare that 2 + 2 = 5, and a tax increase isn't really a tax increase.

If Boehner's million dollar baby was the Democrat's plan, Norquist would almost certainly claim it violated the oath.

But as the best option left, what is the anti-tax wizard to do?

Abracadabra! Norquist casts a spell and the unbreakable vow turns into a vague suggestion.

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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