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:
Nov. 3, 2011: Setting the tone for the year ahead, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, 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 Sen. Alan Simpson, cochair 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 Gov. 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: Sen. 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 OK 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.
Oct. 10, 2012: Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, then 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.
Nov. 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."
Nov. 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.
Nov. 22, 2012: Georgia Sen. 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."
Nov. 25, 2012: A trickle became … well, not quite a gusher, but a clear trend on the weekend after Thanksgiving. On Fox News Sunday, Sen. John McCain of Arizona 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, 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."
Nov. 26, 2012: Sen. 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 Nov. 15, MSNBC's 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.