Grover Norquist, the high priest of Republican tax-cutting, may not be as prominent as he was in the 1990s, but he is the reason that Joe Biden can’t afford to lose a single senator or more than a handful of House members without losing his entire economic agenda.
Norquist, who once said his goal is to starve the government down to the size “where we can drown it in the bathtub,” has been remarkably successful at shaping a political environment that makes it hard to even talk about, let alone succeed in, raising taxes. He’s in a tight corner now, but it would be dangerous to write him off as old news.
When President George H.W. Bush lost his re-election in 1992 after breaking his promise to not raise taxes, Norquist called it “a teaching moment.” Since then, he has held the sword of Damocles over politicians by having them sign an anti-tax pledge. In no small part because of that pledge, it’s unlikely a single Republican will support President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan which he would pay for by raising taxes on families with incomes over $400,000 and by increasing the corporate tax rate to 28 percent after President Trump slashed it from 35 to 21 percent.
In the last Congress, 45 senators and 212 House members signed Norquist’s pledge. “Even those few Republicans who don’t sign the pledge, everybody believes they did sign it,” Norquist told The Daily Beast. He points out there hasn’t been a tax increase since 1994, except when Democrats have the House and Senate and presidency. Democrats lost their congressional majorities after Bill Clinton’s first two years, and Barack Obama suffered what he called a “shellacking” at the two-year mark, losing the House and six Senate seats.
Now, Norquist is facing a huge test of his strength as Biden is promising a plan for good-paying jobs to build back America, and taxes to pay for those jobs. Polls show Americans favor taxes on the rich by wide margins, and that even many Republicans are open to them, but so far that hasn’t convinced their representatives.
“It takes a pandemic and Donald Trump to make this a different time,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart. “All the rules are changed, and those who can’t adapt to the world we’re going to see are going to be left in the dust. This is in many respects a transition from what we’ve been living with for over 25 years. We’re going to make investments in the future rather than rely on old shibboleths.”
Asked if he had any data to back up his optimistic assertion of a transformed political environment, Hart parried the question, saying lightheartedly, “I wouldn’t want to ruin the mystery of it with data,” then adding that his polling company would be back in the field soon to get a better sense of what he thinks is happening.
He explained that Biden took office with a 52-53 percent approval, low for a new administration but now is in the high 50s, which tells us a little more about the politics ahead, says Hart: “that the tribalism may be waning somewhat, and I would underline somewhat.”
The mythology around Norquist and the political danger posed by tax increases grew after Bush lost in 1992. “He didn’t lose because of taxes, he lost because there was a recession. It was just a yarn Grover spun to get people to send him money, and that congealed into Republican dogma,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. The aversion to taxes is less about Norquist than about Trump’s heavy hand, he says. “Republicans are afraid they’ll be denounced by Trump if they support any tax increase.”
What Biden has going for him is that the argument for raising taxes is persuasive, says Pitney. Voters understand that unlimited deficit spending is unsustainable, and the perception that rich people and corporations are getting away with highway robbery is what matters politically. “Republicans don’t want to cross Trump, while at the same time they’re trying to present themselves as a working-class party. It’s hard for them to argue against it (raising taxes on the rich and corporations) on the merits.”
Also, people love concrete, they love roads and bridges, says Pitney, who before he went into academia was legislative director for former New York Senator Alphonse D’Amato, nicknamed “Senator Pothole” for his assiduous attention to basic constituent services.
Even so, the decades-long resistance to taxes is far from over. Democrats shouldn’t rush to write off Norquist. He had the big idea of a “no tax” pledge that unified conservatives across varied causes from gun rights to evangelicals, home schoolers and anti-abortion activists. His Wednesday meetings are legendary and each week bring well over a hundred activists to the office of Americans for Tax Reform, the group he formed in 1985.
Borrowing Norquist’s strategy, the Koch brothers have been quietly circulating for some time through a conservative group they back, Americans for Prosperity, a “no tax on climate” pledge. According to a two-year study made public last week by the Investigative Reporting Group at American University, the pledge is gaining currency among elected officials not only in Washington but in state houses. There are currently 411 signers, which include the entire Republican leadership in the U.S. House, a third of House members, and a quarter of U.S. senators.
A bare knuckles fight lies ahead, but Democrats are bullish about their prospects in a way that they haven’t been for a long time. “What’s going to happen here, Biden is going to pass another major piece of legislation, and it’s going to be popular too,” says Jim Kessler with Third Way, a centrist Democratic group that once might have parted ways with progressives over a big spending program but has now joined the chorus for Biden to “go big” with infrastructure and to finance it mainly through taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
“We believe things should be paid for,” says Kessler. “If it’s worth having, it should be paid for. And we want an economy that is vibrant and where work pays. We’re undertaxed as a country.” Republicans will be hard-pressed to oppose raising taxes on the richest among us and on corporations now that their coalition relies on lower-income, blue-collar workers. “Their voters are a lot less wealthy than they were in Grover Norquist’s heyday,” says Kessler.
Norquist initially deflected questions from The Daily Beast about the continued relevancy of his anti-tax message, saying, “infrastructure is a French word for everything except roads.” He says Trump, who signed the pledge, was “generally fine on taxes… except for tariffs on China.” Tariffs are taxes, says Norquist, and their cost is passed on to American consumers. He predicts a higher corporate tax rate will come back to sting the Democrats “because taxes are a direct war on people in the suburbs who didn’t like the guy with the orange hair,” but also won’t like the drag on their 401-Ks when corporate profits are shaved by higher taxes. More than half the population (53 percent) has 401-Ks or an IRA, he notes, adding that “Biden’s guys don’t get who they’re poking, who they’re screwing.”
Actually, Biden’s guys know exactly what they’re doing, and what they’re up against. And they’re ready. The voters will decide whether they want “The American Jobs Plan,” and whether they want Amazon and Jeff Bezos to pay for it. Biden is making a good bet that the answer is yes, and we’ll know soon enough if government is too big to drown.
Editor's note: A previous version of this column quoted Norquist as saying, “Infrastructure is a French word for everything except votes.” That has been corrected to "everything except roads."