Commentary Magazine


Topic: Grover Norquist

Why Jeb Bush Is Right and Grover Norquist Is Wrong

According to an article in Politico:

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According to an article in Politico:

Jeb Bush has a tax problem.

The former Florida governor has said he could accept tax increases in a hypothetical deficit-cutting deal. Never mind that he added that would come only in exchange for major federal spending cuts, or that he repeatedly cut taxes as governor.

Tax hikes are still apostasy in Republican circles, and the stance could be a big problem for Bush if he decides to seek the party’s presidential nomination in 2016.

Bush’s views are already pitting him against one of his party’s most influential activists, Grover Norquist, the high priest of anti-tax orthodoxy who’s convinced nearly every elected Republican to sign a pledge not to raise taxes.

“Mind-boggling,” Norquist said of Bush.

Actually, it isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

Set aside for the moment your view of Jeb Bush and the 2016 presidential race. Let’s instead examine this broader argument with some care, beginning with putting the story in context.

As Politico points out, during a June 2012 House Budget Committee hearing, Bush was asked about a theoretical deficit plan that would actually cut $10 in spending in exchange for a dollar in tax increases. This was a question first posed to Republican presidential candidates by Byron York and Bret Baier and was rejected by all eight of them. (I criticized that response at the time.) Governor Bush’s response was different than the Republicans running for president. “If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have $10 of spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement — put me in, Coach,” he said.

Note well what Bush didn’t say. He didn’t say he believed we as a nation are under-taxed. In fact Bush, as governor of Florida, had a sterling tax-cutting record, having cut them every year he was governor (a period covering eight years and totaling nearly $20 billion). What Bush said is that if you could actually get a 10-to-one ratio in spending cuts to tax increases–that after all was the premise of the thought experiment–he’d do it. So, I would think, would any conservative interested in limiting government.

I not only understand the case for lower taxes; I support tax cuts. But it’s not an inviolate principle. The question on these things is always context. Higher taxes in exchange for what? Which taxes are we talking about? And what else might be considered in any such deal (e.g., reforming Medicare by replacing the current fee-for-services system with a premium support one)?

People I respect believe the no-new-tax pledge has done more good than harm, that without it Republicans would be far more inclined to raise taxes. That’s not an unreasonable stance. But for conservatives to say, as many now do, that there’s no scenario in which taxes could ever be raised–and to pledge to oppose a tax increase regardless of circumstances–strikes me as misguided. Nor do I believe most Republicans, if you had a long, honest conversation, would be that absolutist. The right level of taxation is a prudential, not a theological, matter; it needs to be seen in the context of other economic conditions and possible gains in other areas.

This debate highlights a danger for conservatism, which is that certain policies are elevated to dogma, to canon. It takes a reasonable starting point in a negotiation and turns it into a non-negotiable end point. Vin Weber, a principled conservative, said Bush’s answer on the tax issue “was totally right, and if we’re ever going to deal with the long-term debt question, Republicans are going to have to come to grips with that.”

This debate also exposes a mindset that views compromise per se as unprincipled, a capitulation, a sign of weakness. This is a deeply unconservative attitude and quite at odds with what James Madison and the other Federalist founders believed. The Constitution itself was the result of a whole series of difficult, reluctant, remarkable compromises. That’s why it’s so odd that those who consider themselves “constitutional conservatives” are often the ones who react most strongly against even the idea of compromise.

One other thing. If the attitude many of those on the right have toward taxes today existed in the 1970s and 1980s, Ronald Reagan would have been considered a heretic. I say that because Reagan himself signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”; and as president he signed a tax increase (TEFRA) that at the time was the largest in American history. As president Reagan, in fact, raised taxes multiple times.

Now my own view is that Reagan’s record, including his record on taxes, needs to be seen in whole–and seen in whole it was outstanding. He was responsible for cutting the top rate from 70 percent to, when he left office, 28 percent, which helped catalyze our economy; and his 1986 tax reform plan was a tremendous achievement. Yet Reagan did raise taxes.

It’s true that President Reagan came to regret his 1982 tax increase. But it’s important to keep this in mind: He agreed to it, he said, assuming he’d get $3 of spending cuts for every dollar in tax increases. (He didn’t, though the reality is somewhat complicated.) If that result had in fact come to pass, would the deal have been wrong? Would today’s anti-tax advocates torch him for his apostasy? Would he be vilified as a RINO? Would he be vulnerable to a primary challenge?

It tells us something about some currents within conservatism that a governor with a sterling tax cutting record, in expressing support for a theoretical deal far more conservative than what Ronald Reagan was willing to accept, would be the object of harsh criticisms.

My guess is that this kind of approach to politics, while still embraced in some quarters, is losing influence. At least I hope so. Not because I want higher taxes, but because I don’t think conservatism is a rigid, adamantine ideology; that the quest for political purification is fraught with danger; and because conservatives shouldn’t assume that any deal that gives you less than everything is a bad deal. Conservatives shouldn’t treat a debate about tax rates as a metaphysical matter.

We all have roles to play, and governing is different than critiquing those who do. The former certainly need to be prodded now and then by activists and commentators; I do a fair amount of that myself. But activists and commentators need to understand that while we need to strive for the ideal, the ideal can’t become the standard by which we judge politicians. Nor is every issue a hill to die on. And, as the greatest American conservative of them all warned, there’s not a lot to be won, and even a lot to be lost, by going over the cliff with our flags waving.

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Conservatism and the Search for Apostates

During a recent interview on NBC’s The Today Show, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was asked whether the Republican Party should put revenue increases on the table in order to reach a grand bargain.

Governor Bush said it’s hard to imagine that, after the tax increases that went into effect earlier this year, one could argue we have a revenue problem. When pressed by Matt Lauer, however, whether there was any “wiggle room,” Bush said, “There may be [room for revenue] if the president is sincere about dealing with our structural problems.” And he went on to speak about the importance of growth as a way to increase revenues.

It didn’t take long for Bush’s critics to strike. As a story  in the Washington Post put it:

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During a recent interview on NBC’s The Today Show, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was asked whether the Republican Party should put revenue increases on the table in order to reach a grand bargain.

Governor Bush said it’s hard to imagine that, after the tax increases that went into effect earlier this year, one could argue we have a revenue problem. When pressed by Matt Lauer, however, whether there was any “wiggle room,” Bush said, “There may be [room for revenue] if the president is sincere about dealing with our structural problems.” And he went on to speak about the importance of growth as a way to increase revenues.

It didn’t take long for Bush’s critics to strike. As a story  in the Washington Post put it:

[Bush] drew a sharp critique from anti-tax activist Grover Norquist… Norquist likened Bush’s comments to “throwing marbles at the feet” of GOP lawmakers. “If you’re trying to introduce yourself to the modern Republican Party outside of Florida, probably best not to start with a discussion about how much you could be talked into a tax increase,” Norquist said. “People are looking for someone who’s tough, and you’re saying, ‘I’d fold.’”        

Craig Shirley, in the context of a broader attack on Bush writes, “A Bush speaking at the Reagan dinner [the annual Conservative Political Action Conference dinner] is for True Believers mind-boggling.” Shirley goes on to say, “Jeb Bush might also explain his call this week for even higher taxes on the American worker.”

Now both Norquist and Shirley have, in different ways, made useful contributions to the conservative cause–Norquist on policy and Shirley through his fine book on the 1980 Reagan campaign. I’ve had cordial communications with both; but in this instance their criticisms strike me as misguided.

For one thing, Jeb Bush was a highly successful conservative governor. To therefore characterize an invitation to Bush to speak at CPAC’s annual dinner as “mind-boggling” is itself a bit mind-boggling. (It’s worth noting that Bush spoke last week at the Reagan Library where he was warmly welcomed.)

In addition, Bush was not calling for higher taxes on American workers; he was saying that if Barack Obama was serious about dealing with our structural problems–meaning our unsustainable entitlement system–there may be room for an increase in revenues, which could be done by closing loopholes and deductions instead of increasing tax rates. Bush wasn’t saying he expected the president to tackle entitlements in a serious manner; he was merely answering a hypothetical in a reasonable way.

But the main point I want to underscore is the danger to conservatism when someone like Jeb Bush (or Mitch Daniels, or Bob McDonnell, or Chris Christie) is considered an apostate.

Let’s consider Bush’s record as governor. While Bush never signed an anti-tax pledge, he never raised taxes. In fact, he cut taxes every year he was governor (covering eight years and totaling $20 billion). 

Ronald Reagan, by contrast, signed into law what his biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”–one four times as large as the previous record set by Governor Pat Brown–as well as the nation’s first no-fault divorce law and legislation liberalizing California’s abortion laws, which even people sympathetic to Reagan concede “led to an explosion of abortions in the nation’s largest state.” (Reagan didn’t anticipate the consequences of the law and deeply regretted his action.)

Now imagine the Norquist and Shirley standard being applied to Reagan in the 1970s. If Jeb Bush’s comments unleashed heated attacks, even given his sterling anti-tax record, think about what Reagan’s support for unprecedented tax increases–including higher taxes on top rates, sales taxes, bank and corporate taxes, and the inheritance tax–would have elicited. The Gipper would have been accused of being a RINO, a pseudo-conservative, unprincipled, and a member of the loathsome Establishment. Fortunately for Reagan (and for America) the temptation to turn conservatism into a rigid ideology was not as strong then than it is now.

To be clear: I consider Reagan to be among the greatest presidents of the 20th century and a monumental figure in the conservative movement. He shaped my political philosophy more than any other politician in my lifetime, and working in his administration was a great privilege. I’m just glad he was judged in the totality of his (conservative) acts, which were enormously impressive, and not marked out as unprincipled or a heretic because of his transgressions against conservative orthodoxy. 

What is sometimes forgotten about Reagan, I think, is that he was not only a man well grounded in political theory; he was also a supremely great politician who made thousands of decisions and compromised throughout his career, usually wisely but sometimes not. And on those rare occasions when he was criticized by movement conservatives, he was known to complain about those who wanted to go “off the cliff with all flags flying.”

It tells you something about the times in which we live that some of those who consider themselves to be the torchbearers of Reaganism are now employing a standard of purity that Reagan himself could not have met and would never have insisted on.

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More on the GOP’s Intellectual Unfreezing

In reaction to my post on the intellectual unfreezing of the GOP, I received an e-mail from Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.

His argument to me (which he said I am free to share) is that the Republican Party and the conservative movement has in fact developed sound policies without a president pushing and pulling it and that we’re beyond waiting for the next Ronald Reagan, having developed many Jack Kemps.

What Norquist means by that is that there are exciting and encouraging developments that are occurring in the House (see especially Representative Paul Ryan’s last two budgets) and in the states, where Republican governors are advancing reforms dealing with taxes, pensions, education and more. Mr. Norquist’s broader point is that Members of Congress, governors, and state legislators are making real progress in the “new ideas” department, and that deserves to be recognized.

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In reaction to my post on the intellectual unfreezing of the GOP, I received an e-mail from Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.

His argument to me (which he said I am free to share) is that the Republican Party and the conservative movement has in fact developed sound policies without a president pushing and pulling it and that we’re beyond waiting for the next Ronald Reagan, having developed many Jack Kemps.

What Norquist means by that is that there are exciting and encouraging developments that are occurring in the House (see especially Representative Paul Ryan’s last two budgets) and in the states, where Republican governors are advancing reforms dealing with taxes, pensions, education and more. Mr. Norquist’s broader point is that Members of Congress, governors, and state legislators are making real progress in the “new ideas” department, and that deserves to be recognized.

I don’t disagree with that at all, as anyone who has read my writings at Contentions over the years knows. In fact, I’m not sure there are many people who have been more vocal in their support for what Ryan is doing on entitlement reform, as well as tax reform.

My point in writing the piece was to welcome what I call the “unfreezing” of the GOP – meaning its willingness to entertain new and creative ideas from a variety of places. I do think it’s a fair to say, however, that in my post I should have acknowledged what’s occurring at the national and local level. And now, as an addendum, I have. 

I should add, though, that however good those ideas may be, a good deal more work needs to be done, both substantively and symbolically. Because, as Michael Gerson and I argue in our essay in the March issue of COMMENTARY, in the 2012 election Republicans did poorly in an election they should have done well in and the current trends for the GOP – demographic and otherwise — are not encouraging.
 
Gerson and I offered our thoughts on five areas the GOP is vulnerable, along with specific recommendations about what to do about it. We say explicitly in the essay that the agenda we sketched out is neither comprehensive nor definitive, but is intended as a spark for discussion. If it helps a bit in that regard, count me pleased.

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Nearly Half of Republicans Say Obama Has “Mandate” on Taxes

Another day, another bad “fiscal cliff” poll for the GOP. Bloomberg finds that nearly half of Republicans agree that the presidential election has given Obama a mandate to raise tax rates on the top income bracket:

The president goes into talks with Republicans amid broad public sentiment that his victory is a sign the electorate has spoken in favor of his positions on taxes and entitlements.

Sixty-five percent of Americans say the Nov. 6 results gave Obama a “mandate” on his proposal to raise tax rates on income over $250,000 and “to get it done.” Forty-five percent of Republicans agree.

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Another day, another bad “fiscal cliff” poll for the GOP. Bloomberg finds that nearly half of Republicans agree that the presidential election has given Obama a mandate to raise tax rates on the top income bracket:

The president goes into talks with Republicans amid broad public sentiment that his victory is a sign the electorate has spoken in favor of his positions on taxes and entitlements.

Sixty-five percent of Americans say the Nov. 6 results gave Obama a “mandate” on his proposal to raise tax rates on income over $250,000 and “to get it done.” Forty-five percent of Republicans agree.

At what point do Republicans get so fed up that they just give up and let the Democratic Party take the blame for the fallout from raising taxes during an economic downturn? For Senator Rand Paul, it sounds like that time has come

“I think what we should do first of all is put forward what we’re for. So if you’re in the House, the House leadership should put forward something that extends the Bush tax cuts forever and has significant spending cuts. And I think they pass that. If the Democrats won’t accept that and we’re unwilling to stay by our position, then I would say, let them pass a tax increase on the upper income folks, but let them do it with their votes not our votes. Republicans vote present in the House. Democrats can pass the tax increase with only Democrat votes. And then, the Democrats are the party of high taxes and the Republicans, we’re the party of lower taxes. And I think that’s the way it should be. …

Don’t give in by splitting the baby. Give in by voting present, let the Democrats pass an increase in the upper tax brackets. it comes over to the Senate, Republicans vote no, and it becomes a Democrat tax increase but not a Republican/Democrat tax increase, which I think is a mistake for Republicans.”

That would seem to pass Grover Norquist’s “no fingerprints” test. Republicans in the Senate will be attacked for voting no on a middle-class tax cut extension, but at least they won’t be saddled with blame over the top bracket tax hike. Also, the fact that Rand Paul is endorsing this proposal might make it a bit more palatable for Tea Party groups.

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A Clash of Mandates

All throughout the debate over Obamacare, polls showed the public opposed to the bill. That did nothing to stop Democrats from pushing the legislation through Congress, of course, and voters responded by staying true to their word: they voted out congressional Democrats in historic numbers in the next election. Democrats and the national media generally ignore inconveniences like voters when the opportunity arises to pass far-reaching legislation, but that instinct has kicked in on other matters as well.

For example, the New York Times has discovered that the current “fiscal cliff” negotiations pose something of a problem for democratically elected representatives whose constituents don’t want them to raise taxes. It turns out that Democrats are right when they say “elections matter”–though not only the presidential election. Now that the push for some tax increases as part of a final deal is gaining momentum, Republicans elected by voters who oppose such tax hikes are caught between representing the will of their electors and what liberal editorial boards tell them is the good of the country:

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All throughout the debate over Obamacare, polls showed the public opposed to the bill. That did nothing to stop Democrats from pushing the legislation through Congress, of course, and voters responded by staying true to their word: they voted out congressional Democrats in historic numbers in the next election. Democrats and the national media generally ignore inconveniences like voters when the opportunity arises to pass far-reaching legislation, but that instinct has kicked in on other matters as well.

For example, the New York Times has discovered that the current “fiscal cliff” negotiations pose something of a problem for democratically elected representatives whose constituents don’t want them to raise taxes. It turns out that Democrats are right when they say “elections matter”–though not only the presidential election. Now that the push for some tax increases as part of a final deal is gaining momentum, Republicans elected by voters who oppose such tax hikes are caught between representing the will of their electors and what liberal editorial boards tell them is the good of the country:

“We ran aggressively talking about taxes and growth and spending, as did the president,” said Representative Sean P. Duffy, a first-term Republican from Wisconsin, who despite being a top target of Democrats easily won re-election by 12 percentage points. “The president keeps talking about his mandate. Well, he doesn’t have a mandate in the Seventh District.”…

“My constituents want me to stand firm on cutting spending. I campaigned on that issue. That’s why they elected me,” said Representative Ted Poe, Republican of Texas, who won re-election with 65 percent of the vote. “I don’t see any scenario where raising tax rates, in any combination of compromise, will solve our problem.”

Of the 234 House Republicans who will sit in the 113th Congress, 85 percent won re-election with 55 percent of the vote; more than half of next year’s House Republican Conference won more than 60 percent. And virtually every one of them ran on holding the line against tax increases and the Obama agenda.

This is not a simple problem for the lawmakers; polls do indeed show national support for some tax hikes. In Duffy’s case, Obama did win his state running on a platform of soaking “the rich.” Duffy can honestly respond that he won his district by promising to be a check on Obama’s agenda, and that his district is what matters to him, since he doesn’t represent the whole state.

I’m betting you can guess what the Times wants him to do:

Given the electoral dynamics, the lawmakers who are broaching the possibility of raising tax rates as a way to strike a deal and prevent the possibility of a recession are beginning to appeal to House members with a term not heard often in the House — the national interest.

It’s the “national interest” vs. those pesky voters. The article does offer some clarity, though. This, combined with the Politico/George Washington University poll released yesterday, proves the utter silliness of the Democrats’ argument that Republicans are simply doing the bidding of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. Sure, Republicans have signed a pledge not to raise taxes, but their voters haven’t–and they still don’t want the tax hikes. In fact, not only did they not sign a pledge to Norquist, they generally don’t even know who he is. From the Post’s Chris Cillizza:

For all the focus in Washington on Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist, he remains an almost entirely unknown figure nationally.  More than six in 10 (61 percent) of those tested had never heard of Norquist while another 15 percent had no opinion of him.  Among those who did have an opinion, eight percent regarded him favorably while 18 percent viewed him in an unfavorable light.  The idea that the fiscal cliff fight is a proxy war over Norquist then seems far-fetched.

Well, yes. It does more than seem farfetched. It was ever thus. But you didn’t need a poll to tell you that. Just listen to Norquist himself. When he was criticized by Senator Tom Coburn over the pledge, Norquist said: “He took the pledge — not to me, to the voters.” And as Ezra Klein reported here, the pledge helps Republicans get elected–and keeping the pledge helps them stay elected. If opposing tax increases were a losing issue with voters the pledge simply wouldn’t have that effect.

This is not an argument on behalf of taking the pledge. But when discussions of the pledge and of Republicans (especially in the House) who are reluctant to raise taxes exclude the voters, they miss the point. It may or may not be the right thing to do to raise taxes as part of the effort to stave off the fiscal cliff. But as even the Times has come to realize, Obama is not the only one with a mandate.

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Thoughts on the Anti-Tax Pledge

With negotiations over how to avoid going over the “fiscal cliff” intensifying, there’s a lot of attention on Grover Norquist and his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” in which lawmakers who sign it pledge to taxpayers that they will (a) oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and (b) oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

On the pledge, I have several thoughts.

1. Mr. Norquist has basically been a force for good, since he raises the price of tax increases and allows Republicans to get more in return for them. That said, I have never liked the idea of politicians signing pledges beyond their oath to support and defend the Constitution. It locks a person into a position that may seem reasonable at the time but eventually becomes unwise. I support lower tax rates, but they are not a talisman. And whether or not one should agree to higher taxes depends on what one is able to get in return.

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With negotiations over how to avoid going over the “fiscal cliff” intensifying, there’s a lot of attention on Grover Norquist and his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” in which lawmakers who sign it pledge to taxpayers that they will (a) oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and (b) oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

On the pledge, I have several thoughts.

1. Mr. Norquist has basically been a force for good, since he raises the price of tax increases and allows Republicans to get more in return for them. That said, I have never liked the idea of politicians signing pledges beyond their oath to support and defend the Constitution. It locks a person into a position that may seem reasonable at the time but eventually becomes unwise. I support lower tax rates, but they are not a talisman. And whether or not one should agree to higher taxes depends on what one is able to get in return.

What taxes are we talking about? How much are the increases? For how long? And in exchange for what? Genuine spending cuts and/or structural reforms in entitlement programs? Those things may not be achievable; but to say in advance that taxes should never, under any scenario, be increased is to elevate a prudential judgment to a sacred principle. And that is the kind of dogmatism that is antithetical to genuine conservatism.

2. I’m sympathetic to the qualities we should look for in a representative and which Edmund Burke referred to in his speech to the electors of Bristol: “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience.” In addition, in a letter to Samuel Span in 1778, Burke—in taking up the issue of a union between Britain and Ireland—made this observation: “It is a settled rule with me, to make the most of my actual situation; and not to refuse to do a proper thing, because there is something else more proper, which I am not able to do.” What Burke is arguing for, I think, is a certain independence of judgment and prudence in politicians. 

It seems to me that pledges run somewhat counter to both. Politicians should offer their vision and agenda and ask for the public’s trust to carry those things out in a reasonable, if imperfect, way. If they fail, voters have a recourse, which is called an election.

3. What about Members of the House and Senate who signed a pledge not to raise taxes but have now changed their mind? That isn’t an easy judgment to make, since violating a pledge is a serious matter. But if one believes doing so really advances the common good, then he needs to be straightforward with the public and admit to having been mistaken in signing the pledge in the first place, rather than engage in contortions in an effort to justify his decision. And then it is up to the public to decide what the consequences ought to be.

My own view is that one should take public officials in the totality of their acts and that reneging on an unwise commitment isn’t by itself disqualifying. For example, if Ronald Reagan had signed the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” (he didn’t) and raised taxes during his presidency (he did), I don’t believe it would have warranted a primary challenge. And whatever one thinks of Reagan’s decisions to raise taxes—and he regretted some more than others—he remains a monumental conservative figure.

I happen to believe that in our present circumstances, tangible steps toward structurally reforming entitlements are a higher priority than not increasing revenues. I wouldn’t be inclined to do the latter without getting firm guarantees on the former; and even then, it would be less than ideal. But we ought to make the most of our actual situation and not refuse to do a proper thing, because there is something else more proper, which we are not able to do. 

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Norquist Doesn’t Want GOP “Fingerprints” on Tax Hikes

Grover Norquist spoke at a Politico breakfast this morning, and it sounds like he’s leaving the door open for some creative tax compromises from Republicans. If tax rates go up, it would have to be without any active help from pledge-signers:

Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist said Wednesday Republicans need to have “credible” separation from any tax hike as part of a deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff — in order to make a case to voters in 2014 and 2016 that their vision is distinct from that of Democrats.

The party “can’t have their fingerprints on the murder weapon,” Norquist told POLITICO’s Mike Allen at a Playbook Breakfast. … 

Norquist said by having negotiations in public, Republicans would be able to “change the conversation” from raising taxes to holding Democrats feet to the fire over spending cuts.

“We have a spending problem, not a failure to raise taxes problem,” Norquist said.

He would not directly answer Allen’s questions if there was wiggle room for Republicans to raise taxes with out breaking his no-new-taxes pledge. But he did call Rep. Tom Cole’s proposal for Republicans to agree to a tax cut for 98 percent of Americans and negotiate the top rates later “an interesting tactic.”

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Grover Norquist spoke at a Politico breakfast this morning, and it sounds like he’s leaving the door open for some creative tax compromises from Republicans. If tax rates go up, it would have to be without any active help from pledge-signers:

Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist said Wednesday Republicans need to have “credible” separation from any tax hike as part of a deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff — in order to make a case to voters in 2014 and 2016 that their vision is distinct from that of Democrats.

The party “can’t have their fingerprints on the murder weapon,” Norquist told POLITICO’s Mike Allen at a Playbook Breakfast. … 

Norquist said by having negotiations in public, Republicans would be able to “change the conversation” from raising taxes to holding Democrats feet to the fire over spending cuts.

“We have a spending problem, not a failure to raise taxes problem,” Norquist said.

He would not directly answer Allen’s questions if there was wiggle room for Republicans to raise taxes with out breaking his no-new-taxes pledge. But he did call Rep. Tom Cole’s proposal for Republicans to agree to a tax cut for 98 percent of Americans and negotiate the top rates later “an interesting tactic.”

As the Wall Street Journal argued yesterday, reforming the tax code without lowering the rates is a possible compromise. Another is the proposal from Rep. Tom Cole, which Norquist actually didn’t close the door on. It would entail Republicans agreeing to a tax cut extension for those making under $250,000 immediately, and then hashing out the tax extension for those making over $250,000 afterward: 

Republican Rep. Tom Cole urged colleagues in a private session Tuesday to vote to extend the Bush tax rates for all but the highest earners before the end of the year — and to battle over the rest later.

The Oklahoma Republican said in an interview with POLITICO that he believes such a vote would not violate Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge and that he’s not alone within Republican circles.

Cole’s position is striking because he’s hardly a “squish” — Norquist’s term for a weak-kneed lawmaker — when it comes to Republican orthodoxy. Cole served as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee and in other official posts within the party.

He might also provide cover for other Republicans looking to make an agreement to avoid a sharp fall off the so-called fiscal cliff. 

This would, at the very least, take away the Democratic Party’s most potent political argument that the GOP is holding middle class tax cuts hostage in order to extend breaks for the wealthy. It would also allow Republicans to make a more pointed case against tax hikes on upper-income earners, and its impact on the economy. 

However, a chance to make the case may be all Republicans would get in return. Agreeing to an immediate extension of 98 percent of the cuts would probably kill any chance the GOP has of negotiating for tax reform, and basically guarantee that rates will go up for the upper 2 percent. But, per Norquist’s criteria this morning, Republicans wouldn’t have their fingerprints on the tax hikes.

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Norquist: GOP Can’t “Weasel Out” of Pledge

Grover Norquist isn’t about to let Republicans off the hook on his no-tax pledge, but he seems to be getting ruffled by them. His criticism of potential pledge-breakers got personal last night:

“The pledge is not for life, but everybody who signed the pledge including Peter King, and tried to weasel out of it, shame on him,” Norquist said on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” on Monday, adding, “I hope his wife understands that commitments last a little longer than two years or something.” 

Norquist’s comments came as King and some other top Republicans said they were willing to end their commitment to the pledge as Washington scrambles to find a deal that will fend off the looming fiscal cliff. On Sunday, King said that the “taxpayer protection pledge” — first offered in 1986 from Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Reform — isn’t binding today.

“Hey, if you think a commitment is not for as long as you make it for, the commitment for the pledge, as Peter King well knows when he signed it, is that as long as you’re in Congress, you will [rein in] spending and reform government and not raise taxes,” Norquist said. “It’s not for 500 years or two generations. It’s only as long as you’re in the House or Senate. If he stayed too long, that’s his problem. But you don’t tell the bank, ‘Oh, the mortgage, wasn’t that a long time ago?’

“If you make a commitment, you keep it,” he continued. 

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Grover Norquist isn’t about to let Republicans off the hook on his no-tax pledge, but he seems to be getting ruffled by them. His criticism of potential pledge-breakers got personal last night:

“The pledge is not for life, but everybody who signed the pledge including Peter King, and tried to weasel out of it, shame on him,” Norquist said on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” on Monday, adding, “I hope his wife understands that commitments last a little longer than two years or something.” 

Norquist’s comments came as King and some other top Republicans said they were willing to end their commitment to the pledge as Washington scrambles to find a deal that will fend off the looming fiscal cliff. On Sunday, King said that the “taxpayer protection pledge” — first offered in 1986 from Norquist’s organization, Americans for Tax Reform — isn’t binding today.

“Hey, if you think a commitment is not for as long as you make it for, the commitment for the pledge, as Peter King well knows when he signed it, is that as long as you’re in Congress, you will [rein in] spending and reform government and not raise taxes,” Norquist said. “It’s not for 500 years or two generations. It’s only as long as you’re in the House or Senate. If he stayed too long, that’s his problem. But you don’t tell the bank, ‘Oh, the mortgage, wasn’t that a long time ago?’

“If you make a commitment, you keep it,” he continued. 

As the Wall Street Journal argues today, it’s the voters, not the pledge, that Republicans will have to answer to. The problem for the GOP is that a plurality of voters do want to raise taxes on people making over $250,000, at least according to exit polls. So Republicans from moderate areas seem to face a choice between two bad options: oppose tax hikes and risk alienating voters, or break the no-tax pledge and potentially lose trust with voters.

Of course, there’s also a third way that the Journal outlines, which would require a compromise between Norquist and Republicans on tax reform. And while it would require eliminating deductions without lowering rates, it’s better than the alternatives of a.) voting to raise tax rates on those making over $250,000 a year, or b.) going over the cliff and getting blamed for tax increases across the board:

The Bush rates expire on December 31 unless Mr. Obama signs an extension, and he shows no inclination to do so except for anyone earning less than $250,000 a year ($200,000 if you’re single). The question is how Republicans should handle this reality while staying true to their principles and doing the least harm to the economy. 

This is where Mr. Norquist can give some ground. If taxes are going up anyway because the Bush rates expire, and Republicans can stop them from going up as much as they otherwise would, then pledge-takers deserve some credit for that. Mr. Norquist says it violates his pledge to eliminate deductions without lowering rates, but at the current economic and political moment it is also a service if Republicans prevent tax rates from going up. Speaker John Boehner deserves some leeway to try to mitigate the damage by negotiating a larger tax reform. …

Mr. Norquist’s tax pledge has been one of the few restraints over the years against those bad Beltway appetites. Democrats demonize Grover because they know this. They want to pit Mr. Norquist against other Republicans precisely so they can dispirit the tea party grass-roots and take away the tax issue as a GOP advantage. 

But this only works if the GOP appears unified on the issue. The more Republicans who attack Norquist’s tax pledge, the more leverage Democrats will think they have in getting their desired tax rate increase.

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Is Cantor Backing Off Norquist Pledge?

Lindsey Graham, Saxby Chambliss, Bob Corker, and Peter King have already distanced themselves from Grover Norquist’s pledge not to increase taxes, and now it looks like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is downplaying the pledge too:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) appeared to take a step back from anti-tax champion Grover Norquist on Monday, suggesting that a “no new taxes” pledge coordinated by Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform group wouldn’t determine his legislative duties regarding ongoing fiscal cliff negotiations.

“When I go to the constituents that have reelected me, it is not about that pledge,” Cantor said on MSNBC. “It really is about trying to solve problems.”

Asked if he could foresee a situation in which he would be willing to directly renounce the anti-tax pledge, Cantor dodged specifics, saying that he didn’t know because he hadn’t talked to Norquist.

This is the strongest challenge yet to Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, but it’s unclear whether any Republicans would actually follow through on the threats. Graham, for example, has said he’d go against the pledge in return for extensive concessions on entitlement reform from Democrats, which are unlikely to happen.

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Lindsey Graham, Saxby Chambliss, Bob Corker, and Peter King have already distanced themselves from Grover Norquist’s pledge not to increase taxes, and now it looks like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is downplaying the pledge too:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) appeared to take a step back from anti-tax champion Grover Norquist on Monday, suggesting that a “no new taxes” pledge coordinated by Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform group wouldn’t determine his legislative duties regarding ongoing fiscal cliff negotiations.

“When I go to the constituents that have reelected me, it is not about that pledge,” Cantor said on MSNBC. “It really is about trying to solve problems.”

Asked if he could foresee a situation in which he would be willing to directly renounce the anti-tax pledge, Cantor dodged specifics, saying that he didn’t know because he hadn’t talked to Norquist.

This is the strongest challenge yet to Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, but it’s unclear whether any Republicans would actually follow through on the threats. Graham, for example, has said he’d go against the pledge in return for extensive concessions on entitlement reform from Democrats, which are unlikely to happen.

But maybe it’s not just a bluff. Exit polls showed voters favor tax hikes on the wealthy, raising pressure on Republicans (especially ones like Graham, who are up for reelection) to consider it. Norquist promises he’ll target any member of congress who breaks the pledge:

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist said Monday that his group, Americans for Tax Reform, would work to unseat Republicans who break their pledge to never vote for higher taxes.

His vow came after prominent GOP lawmakers said over the weekend they would consider breaking the Taxpayer Protection Pledge in order to reach a deal with Democrats and President Barack Obama to avoid tumbling over the fiscal cliff – the combination of sweeping spending cuts and tax increases that would go into effect at the end of the year if negotiators can’t reach a deal on reducing the federal debt.

Norquist said his group would “certainly highlight who has kept their commitment and who hasn’t” when it comes time for lawmakers like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Peter King to run for re-election, though Norquist claimed voters generally decide on their own to oust elected officials who vote to raise taxes.

Most of Norquist’s influence in Congress stems from the pledge. But without enforcement, it’s just a piece of paper. If he can’t keep members in line, the pledge becomes meaningless. Then again, Republican leadership won’t appreciate him targeting pledge defectors in 2014, particularly when control of the Senate may again be up for grabs.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Wow: “Republicans are stepping up their efforts to persuade more House Democrats to switch parties and are zeroing in on a second-term Pennsylvanian who is not ruling out such a move.” And this is when the Democrats have a 258-seat . . . er. . . make that 257-seat  majority.

RealClearPolitics average on ObamaCare: 38.4 percent approve and 51 disapprove. So, are Democrats going to run on this in 2010 as their signature achievement? Might explain why there are potential defections.

Voters would rather their representatives be doing something else: “Voters, as they have all year, rate cutting the federal deficit in half by the end of his first term as President Obama’s number one budget priority. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 42% put deficit cutting in first place, followed by 22% who say health care reform is most important.”

Do we think she means it? “The Senate’s healthcare bill is fatally flawed, a senior Democrat atop a powerful committee said on Wednesday. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the House Rules Committee and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, said that the Senate’s bill is so flawed that it’s unlikely to be resolved in conference with the bill to have passed the House.”

Well, liberal journalists seem nervous: “Yet for all the justifiable celebrations of this achievement, it’s fast becoming clear—as it should have always been—that Democrats are still a long way from home free when it comes to the final enactment of health-care reform into law. That ironing out of the differences between the House and Senate incarnations of the bill is going to be no easy thing.” And the key stumbling block may well be abortion. Can Nancy Pelosi find votes to make up for Re. Bart Stupak and pro-life Democrats unwilling to roll over as Sen. Ben Nelson did? We’ll find out.

The bill is so bad it renders Sen. Chuck Schumer mute: “Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Paterson both slammed the Senate bill Monday, charging it would cost the city more than $500 million and rip a $1 billion-a-year hole in the state budget. Schumer, a veteran streetfighter for federal cash, has been suddenly recast as a defender of Washington—and a deal he helped cut that shafts New York. ‘He’s being uncharacteristically quiet in part because the numbers don’t look that good,’ said Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio. . . [Schumer] bristled at criticism that he stood by as other states won sweetheart deals.” Well, how come Nebraska got more than New York then?

Seems like there might be some legal challenges to the Cash for Cloture deals.

Not making this up: Grover Norquist and Jane Hamsher are demanding an investigation into Rahm Emanuel’s dealings with Freddie Mac. See, Obama is bringing people together.

Wow: “Republicans are stepping up their efforts to persuade more House Democrats to switch parties and are zeroing in on a second-term Pennsylvanian who is not ruling out such a move.” And this is when the Democrats have a 258-seat . . . er. . . make that 257-seat  majority.

RealClearPolitics average on ObamaCare: 38.4 percent approve and 51 disapprove. So, are Democrats going to run on this in 2010 as their signature achievement? Might explain why there are potential defections.

Voters would rather their representatives be doing something else: “Voters, as they have all year, rate cutting the federal deficit in half by the end of his first term as President Obama’s number one budget priority. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 42% put deficit cutting in first place, followed by 22% who say health care reform is most important.”

Do we think she means it? “The Senate’s healthcare bill is fatally flawed, a senior Democrat atop a powerful committee said on Wednesday. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the House Rules Committee and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, said that the Senate’s bill is so flawed that it’s unlikely to be resolved in conference with the bill to have passed the House.”

Well, liberal journalists seem nervous: “Yet for all the justifiable celebrations of this achievement, it’s fast becoming clear—as it should have always been—that Democrats are still a long way from home free when it comes to the final enactment of health-care reform into law. That ironing out of the differences between the House and Senate incarnations of the bill is going to be no easy thing.” And the key stumbling block may well be abortion. Can Nancy Pelosi find votes to make up for Re. Bart Stupak and pro-life Democrats unwilling to roll over as Sen. Ben Nelson did? We’ll find out.

The bill is so bad it renders Sen. Chuck Schumer mute: “Mayor Bloomberg and Gov. Paterson both slammed the Senate bill Monday, charging it would cost the city more than $500 million and rip a $1 billion-a-year hole in the state budget. Schumer, a veteran streetfighter for federal cash, has been suddenly recast as a defender of Washington—and a deal he helped cut that shafts New York. ‘He’s being uncharacteristically quiet in part because the numbers don’t look that good,’ said Baruch College political scientist Doug Muzzio. . . [Schumer] bristled at criticism that he stood by as other states won sweetheart deals.” Well, how come Nebraska got more than New York then?

Seems like there might be some legal challenges to the Cash for Cloture deals.

Not making this up: Grover Norquist and Jane Hamsher are demanding an investigation into Rahm Emanuel’s dealings with Freddie Mac. See, Obama is bringing people together.

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