There was a time when the president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) was frequently described as the most powerful man in Washington — the Oz-like overlord who secretly controlled the Republican party.
Beginning in 2011, when the GOP took control of the House, Democrats never missed an opportunity to blame him for the “gridlock” on Capitol Hill. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) spent the better part of the last two years deriding Norquist as the “one obstacle standing between Congress and compromise,” a man whose “brand of ideological extremism has been bad for Congress, and even worse for the country.”
Media outlets penned countless profiles of “the tax lobbyist with an iron grip on the GOP” (the Guardian), who “has been responsible, more than anyone else, for rewriting the dogma of the Republican party” (60 Minutes). Arianna Huffington famously dubbed him “the dark wizard of the Right’s anti-tax cult.”
That hasn’t been the case in 2013, at least since the January standoff over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” which resulted in a tax-rate increase — though by far less than what was scheduled to occur automatically — that Norquist’s critics were eager to hail as a defeat for ATR’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. (In truth, the unique nature of the “cliff” gave Norquist sufficient wiggle room to declare a partial victory, or at least a draw.) Until then, Norquist and the GOP’s committed opposition to tax increases had frustrated Democrats at every turn and resulted in a series of spending-cuts-only budget deals, most notably the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Since then, Norquist hasn’t exactly disappeared, but his usefulness as a political bogeyman for Democrats (and a sympathetic media) has certainly waned. When Democrats mention his name these days, it is usually in a different, largely positive context, often preceded by the word “even.” Even Grover Norquist supports comprehensive immigration reform. Even Grover Norquist disagrees with Ted Cruz on the Obamacare defunding strategy.
At the same time, he has earned some scorn from the right. Norquist “has emerged as the Republican establishment’s leading crusader and mouthpiece,” Breitbart News noted disapprovingly following the recent government-shutdown battle, which pitted him against the Democrats’ latest bogeyman, Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas).
“Democrats like to pick out targets that serve their purposes most effectively in a given legislative fight,” says a senior GOP aide. “Grover was a useful villain in 2011 when the goal of Democrats was to raise taxes. Cruz is the villain of the day because of the shutdown. Their villains change as their goals change.”
Republicans say that the Democrats’ constant search for a political punching bag — whether it’s Norquist, Cruz, the Tea Party, the Koch brothers, and so on — stems at least in part from their inability to make a villain out of one of the (nominally) most powerful Republicans in Washington: House speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio). The current speaker is no Newt Gingrich, whose eccentric personality and love of the spotlight made him an easy target for the opposition.
Especially when it comes to issues such as taxes, on which Republicans have typically enjoyed a political advantage, Democrats have sought to personalize the debate rather than argue their position on the merits. “They tried to do that with the pledge,” Norquist tells National Review Online. “They tried to make it so that opposing tax increases was just one man’s opinion and not a principle — it’s just some lobbyist twisting arms, telling you what to do.”
Reid’s near-obsession with the ATR pledge, Norquist argues, was not only an effort to shape the media narrative, but also a “mind game” designed to play on the insecurities of Republicans lawmakers who don’t appreciate being told what to do, much less being “bullied” by a powerful lobbyist. But despite two years of constant pressure on Republicans to break the pledge, he says, Democrats are still lacking a decisive victory on taxes. Yes, they got $600 billion in new revenue from the fiscal-cliff deal, but at the price of permanently extending most of the Bush tax rates. “I didn’t break, the pledge didn’t break, members didn’t cut and run, we held,” Norquist says.
He aims to keep it that way, and argues that Republicans are in an even stronger position to oppose tax increases in the budget debates to come. Democrats want the sequestration spending cuts rolled back but will likely have to give up something in return, such as reforms to entitlement programs. Republicans will have very little incentive to budge on taxes, and even prominent liberals such as Ezra Klein are advising Democrats to throw in the towel, at least temporarily.
But Norquist fully expects the pledge to be tested again. “Democrats are like teenage boys on prom night, asking the same question over and over again, and even if they stop asking, it doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about it, they’re just waiting for the right time,” he says. “As soon as they think there’s a weakness, they will be at our throats again asking for tax increases, and I’ll be back to being Darth Vader.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.