Grover Norquist: Father of the Blood Oath

National Journal
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.

What We're Following See More »
AT LEAST NOT YET
Paul Ryan Can’t Get Behind Trump
8 hours ago
THE LATEST

Paul Ryan told CNN today he's "not ready" to back Donald Trump at this time. "I'm not there right now," he said. Ryan said Trump needs to unify "all wings of the Republican Party and the conservative movement" and then run a campaign that will allow Americans to "have something that they're proud to support and proud to be a part of. And we've got a ways to go from here to there."

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Preet Bharara Learned at the Foot of Chuck Schumer
9 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin gives Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the longread treatment. The scourge of corrupt New York pols, bad actors on Wall Street, and New York gang members, Bharara learned at the foot of Chuck Schumer, the famously limelight-hogging senator whom he served as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee staff. No surprise then, that after President Obama appointed him, Bharara "brought a media-friendly approach to what has historically been a closed and guarded institution. In professional background, Bharara resembles his predecessors; in style, he’s very different. His personality reflects his dual life in New York’s political and legal firmament. A longtime prosecutor, he sometimes acts like a budding pol; his rhetoric leans more toward the wisecrack than toward the jeremiad. He expresses himself in the orderly paragraphs of a former high-school debater, but with deft comic timing and a gift for shtick."

Source:
DRUG OFFENDERS
Obama Commutes the Sentences of 58 Prisoners
9 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama has announced another round of commutations of prison sentences. Most of the 58 individuals named are incarcerated for possessions with intent to distribute controlled substances. The prisoners will be released between later this year and 2018.

STAFF PICKS
Trump Roadmapped His Candidacy in 2000
10 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The Daily Beast has unearthed a piece that Donald Trump wrote for Gear magazine in 2000, which anticipates his 2016 sales pitch quite well. "Perhaps it's time for a dealmaker who can get the leaders of Congress to the table, forge consensus, and strike compromise," he writes. Oddly, he opens by defending his reputation as a womanizer: "The hypocrites argue that a man who loves and appreciates beautiful women (and does so legally and openly) shouldn't become a national leader? Is there something wrong with appreciating beautiful women? Don't we want people in public office who show signs of life?"

Source:
‘NO MORAL OR ETHICAL GROUNDING’
Sen. Murphy: Trump Shouldn’t Get Classified Briefigs
10 hours ago
THE LATEST
×