The Power of Grover Norquist

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Francis Wilkinson argues that it’s exaggerated:

Norquist is largely a figurehead. He is the most vocal and public monomaniac among a network of groups funded by Republican millionaires who oppose higher taxes on the wealthy. Spreading ATR’s $15 million among dozens of House and Senate and gubernatorial races wouldn’t produce a kingmaker. But if you add that $15 million to the generous flow of independent expenditures from Americans for Prosperity ($33 million), the Club for Growth ($20 million), FreedomWorks ($19 million) and Ending Spending ($15 million), to name a few of the big boys in the Don’t-Tax-Me industry, you’ve got quite an arsenal. Enough, in fact, to make examples of a few politicians — and thereby keep everyone else hewing to a policy that exposes the Republican Party to justified ridicule as a handmaiden to the wealthy. . . .

Some guy named Norquist really isn’t what’s wrong with Washington. A bigger problem is that a few thousand very wealthy donors — not all of them especially public spirited — maintain a stranglehold on one of the two major political parties.

The Club for Growth is the oldest and most established of these groups, and it has been a power in Republican politics for only a few years. Meanwhile, it has been more than 20 years since a congressional Republican voted for passage of a broad-based tax increase. If anything, the prominence of these groups has coincided with an increase in the number of Republican politicians who say they will vote to raise taxes.

It’s not mainly the power of monied interests that has kept Republicans from voting for tax increases, and it’s not Norquist either. It’s the fact that Republicans generally don’t want to raise taxes and don’t think voters–especially primary voters–want them to either. Last year Norquist told me that much of the value of the pledge for politicians was that it let unknown figures gain credibility with anti-tax voters. That may not exhaust its power, but it gets at the way that power actually works.

If Norquist insists that a deal that raises taxes above their 2012 level, but leaves them below their scheduled 2013 level, is a tax increase, will voters turn against Republicans who vote for it? Or will those Republicans be able to say that actually they prevented larger tax increases? My guess is that they would have a pretty good shot at prevailing, and that Norquist would have taken his pledge too far.