Grover Norquist: Father of the Blood Oath

National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Add to Briefcase
Shane Goldmacher
Oct. 2, 2013, 2 a.m.

The de­fund-or-bust pos­ture among Re­pub­lic­ans that pre­cip­it­ated this week’s gov­ern­ment shut­down is only the latest lit­mus test to gum up the gears of gov­ern­ment. Politi­cians of both parties are in­creas­ingly asked to pledge fealty to this cause and that, lock­ing them in­to po­s­i­tions that for­bid the kind of give-and-take that un­der­pins bi­par­tis­an le­gis­lat­ing.

In the last quarter-cen­tury, no pur­ity test has held as much sway as the one craf­ted by an­ti­tax ad­voc­ate Grover Nor­quist. His pledge is a simple 65 words, in­clud­ing the sign­er’s name. Those who sign — 219 cur­rent House mem­bers and 39 sen­at­ors, ac­cord­ing to Nor­quist’s tally — vow nev­er to raise taxes. “The pledge,” as it is known, is meant to last a life­time.

It’s been wildly suc­cess­ful. Few Re­pub­lic­ans — and over­whelm­ingly the 1,100 sign­ers in elec­ted of­fice across all 50 states are Re­pub­lic­ans — ever stray. Those who do are pun­ished at the bal­lot box. The res­ult: an an­ti­tax grip on le­gis­la­tion in cap­it­ols across the coun­try, though few are as fierce as the one in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where few party lead­ers com­mand the in­flu­ence that Nor­quist holds.

“This,” an ex­as­per­ated Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., de­clared on the floor last year, “is the Grover Nor­quist Con­gress.”

Nor­quist’s an­ti­tax ideo­logy was in­grained at an early age. As a child, his fath­er would buy him and his sib­lings ice-cream cones, only to steal bite after bite from them. “In­come tax,” his fath­er would say. “Sales tax.” Nor­quist says it’s not why he be­came a Re­pub­lic­an, but the les­son stuck: “The gov­ern­ment keeps com­ing back for more.”

Nor­quist went on to be­come a lead­er of the Col­lege Re­pub­lic­ans and, later, the founder of Amer­ic­ans for Tax Re­form in 1985 (at Pres­id­ent Re­agan’s re­quest, he said). He had 120 pledge sign­ers by 1986 and has been gath­er­ing more ever since.

His as­cend­ency was on dis­play in an Au­gust 2011 pres­id­en­tial primary de­bate, when all the Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates were asked if they would ac­cept a po­ten­tial budget deal that in­cluded 10 dol­lars in spend­ing cuts in ex­change for just one dol­lar in new taxes. “Who on this stage would walk away from that deal?” asked the mod­er­at­or. Without hes­it­a­tion, every Re­pub­lic­an on stage raised their right hand, just as they would when tak­ing the oath of of­fice.

Nor­quist had won.

That presents a prob­lem for good gov­ernance, says Sen. Tom Coburn of Ok­lahoma, one of the Sen­ate’s most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers and a one­time sign­er of Nor­quist’s pledge who has since be­come an out­spoken crit­ic. “Your oath is to up­hold the Con­sti­tu­tion,” Coburn says. “Lit­mus tests play on short-term polit­ic­al in­terests. If you don’t do this, ‘We’re go­ing to do this to you, in your next elec­tion.’ That doesn’t help. It doesn’t solve the prob­lems of the coun­try. What it does is po­lar­ize us.”

It’s one of the reas­ons that talk of a budget­ary “grand bar­gain” — a blend of spend­ing con­straints on fast-grow­ing en­ti­tle­ments like Medi­care and tax hikes — re­mains an idea kept alive only in cloistered Wash­ing­ton think tanks. To score the back­ing of lib­er­al con­stitu­en­cies needed to win primar­ies, Demo­crats must pledge nev­er to tinker with en­ti­tle­ments. And nearly all Re­pub­lic­ans take the pledge.

The res­ult: re­cord de­fi­cits, un­rivaled ran­cor, and en­dem­ic grid­lock.

Which is fine by Nor­quist, so long as Demo­crats hold power and the al­tern­at­ive is a com­prom­ise that would in­clude taxes. The budget fight of 2011 is an ex­ample. It ended with a dead­locked su­per com­mit­tee that was sup­posed to reach a grand bar­gain. In­stead, se­quest­ra­tion — in­dis­crim­in­ate, across-the-board cuts that were de­signed to be so loath­some as to nev­er go in­to ef­fect — is now the law of the land.

Nor­quist loves it. “We won. They lost. I un­der­stand why they’re pissed,” he says. “It was a 10-year bend­ing down of the cost curve. It was tre­mend­ous pro­gress. It is dif­fi­cult to im­possible to see how you could have got­ten a bet­ter spend­ing lim­it through a Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate and a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent.”

But, in a fas­cin­at­ing twist, this fath­er of lit­mus-test polit­ics is held in less-than-hon­or­able es­teem by the next gen­er­a­tion of no-com­prom­ise con­ser­vat­ives he has helped birth. He’s a squish, they say, com­plain­ing he hasn’t joined the de­fund Obama­care fight (in­stead, he’s tossed cold wa­ter on it), that he backed the GOP lead­er­ship in the 2011 budget fight (in­stead of push­ing for an un­real­ist­ic con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment cap­ping spend­ing) and, chiefly, that he ac­qui­esced to rais­ing taxes on the rich in Janu­ary when the Bush tax cuts ex­pired.

“Grover has lost a little of his cachet with the con­ser­vat­ive grass roots be­cause he’s fought too of­ten on the side of the es­tab­lish­ment,” said one seni­or con­ser­vat­ive strategist, who de­clined to be named be­cause the per­son still works with Nor­quist.

Nor­quist, who has heard the grumbling, said he has re­mained faith­ful to the pledge. His crit­ics live in a “fanta­sy­land,” he says. “Stat­ing your fer­vent be­lief in Tinker Bell does not make you hard­core. It makes you a be­liev­er in Tinker Bell.”

Taxes would have gone up on every Amer­ic­an this Janu­ary if Con­gress did noth­ing. Vot­ing to make per­man­ent 85 per­cent of the Bush tax cuts was a huge win, he says. As for the cur­rent show­down between con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans and Pres­id­ent Obama, he was dis­missive of those who’ve led the GOP in­to battle without a plan for vic­tory.

“Guys, you don’t win by whin­ing about how much you want,” Nor­quist said. “You win by get­ting more than you have.”

Few have done that bet­ter than he has. And Wash­ing­ton is all the more knot­ted be­cause of it.

Who do you think broke Wash­ing­ton? Tell us here.

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