“When midgets play miniature golf, do they know?” That’s how antitax activist Grover Norquist, who moonlights as a stand-up comic, began his opening statement at a debate this week on the efficacy of the antitax pledge he created. A single sentence, its hold on the Republican Party has been far-reaching since it was introduced in 1986, commanding adherents to “oppose any and all efforts to increase marginal tax rates and oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing the tax rate.”
Only 14 Republicans have failed to sign the pledge—seven in the Senate, six in the House—and its grip on the GOP was demonstrated anew when the congressional supercommittee declared failure last week. Facing Norquist in the debate Tuesday to argue the virtues of compromise—a tiny tax increase in exchange for big spending cuts—was conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Each of the contenders displayed his strength: Norquist, the over-the-top language of an activist; Douthat, the intellectual wordplay of a columnist.
They were never going to agree, but each appeared to relish the exchange organized by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank where the debate about taxes is raging as fiercely among Republicans as it is between the two parties. Norquist boasted that his pledge “changed the nature of the Republican Party” and moves the GOP “within striking distance” of putting into practice the no-tax and small-government policies it’s been preaching all these years.
Referring to the surprise announcement from Massachusetts liberal Barney Frank that he would not run again, Norquist said, “Barney Frank would not walk away from power. He’s walking away from 10 years in the minority.” Confident of his party’s ability to hold the House, and looking at a Senate map where he believes the GOP is “getting close to getting 60,” a veto-proof majority, Norquist declared, “Now we play for president—a Republican president who says we will not raise taxes has a chance of winning.” Warning against even the tiniest exemption to raise revenue, Norquist summed up his argument by insisting, “We can’t be the party that mostly will not raise taxes.”
Douthat countered that there is “real political danger for Republicans” if they’re seen as a party never conceding to any tax. He agreed that the pledge has been politically effective, but said it fails by Norquist’s own standard, which was to starve government of revenue in order to achieve his goal, which he has said is a government “small enough to drown in a bathtub.” During the time frame the pledge has been in effect, from 1986 to the present, tax loopholes have increased 86 percent, and “once those loopholes are in the code, it’s impossible to remove them because it’s scored as a tax increase,” Douthat said. The result is “a government we can’t afford and a public conditioned to an entitlement state without having to pay for it.”
Douthat agreed that deals struck in the past with Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush are “cautionary tales for conservatives” because the tax increases those presidents agreed to were implemented while spending cuts never took effect. Even so, he argued that a deal that achieved major cuts in exchange for a small tax increase is a deal worth making. A questioner agreed, hypothesizing a 100-to-1 ratio of cuts to taxes, and asking, “Isn’t that better than nothing?”
“And I prefer purple unicorns to gold unicorns,” Norquist snapped, noting that it was “the 73rd time” he’d gotten that question. He dismissed fellow Republican Pat Toomey’s proposal to the supercommittee to raise some new revenue in exchange for lowering the top tax rate as “fantasy,” and he accused President Obama of plotting a campaign of “class hatred and envy and greed.”
“Doesn’t that just lead us into a pit of existential despair?” Douthat observed quizzically, conjuring up a Norquist-like future in which the Democratic Party disappears as a force in American politics and the Republican Party passes sweeping legislation of questionable popularity. Douthat ended on a note that sounded more like science fiction than politics, musing about “introducing a virus of a tiny tax increase that poisons the host.” It was the same debate that stumped the supercommittee, just livelier.