You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Grover Norquist Isn't Losing Power: He Never Had It

An anti-tax activist in winter

Alex Wong/Getty Images

For years, Grover Norquist has been one of the right’s strictest disciplinarians on matters of taxes and spending. So naturally, with Congress on the verge of forcing Internet retailers to collect billions in state sales taxes, Norquist is denouncing the move as an assault on freedom. “Do you really believe there is a limit to the amount of abuse an Alabama tax collector can hurl on a New York or California or Maine business?” he recently said on Fox Business. “There are tremendous abuses that would flow from politicians taxing businesses that can’t even vote against them.” He has dubbed the bill the “Let People in Alabama Loot People in New York Act.”

And yet, when it comes to ensuring that Republicans in Congress actually defeat this license to loot, Norquist has been surprisingly Zen. His group, Americans for Tax Reform, refuses to say whether a vote for the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act would constitute a violation of the no-new taxes pledge it has persuaded almost every congressional Republican to sign. Last week, an ATR apparatchik said that no pledge-signer could support the bill in good conscience, but pointedly avoided vowing punishment for those who did.1

There are two plausible interpretations of this delicate parsing. The first is that Norquist is doing everything in his power to defeat the bill, but is simply hamstrung by the wording of his famous pledge, which doesn’t explicitly preclude it. The second is that Norquist trying to have it both ways—positioning himself to claim credit for the bill’s defeat, but to insist the pledge tied his hands if it passes. At the risk of being overly cynical, I strongly suspect it’s the latter.

Pundits and wishful-thinking Democrats have been predicting Norquist’s obsolescence for the better part of a decade. But the idea of Norquist losing influence misses the point. Norquist has never been powerful, at least not in the sense of commanding divisions or cracking heads on close votes. His talent has always been for creating the illusion of influence. For the 25 years in which anti-tax orthodoxy has reigned supreme in the Republican ranks, Norquist has distinguished himself mainly through his savvy at associating himself with the trend. Not surprisingly, now that some in the GOP periodically question the party’s anti-tax catechism (though they stop well short of abandoning it), Norquist’s chief preoccupation isn’t defending the faith. It’s protecting his image as a leader of the faithful.

In Norquist’s telling, the pledge was revolutionary because it eliminated the “weasel words” from politicians’ promises. Previously, politicians could vow to oppose tax increases, but voters had no reason to believe them. The pols could always wriggle out by claiming circumstances had changed. Post-pledge, on the other hand, there was no ambiguity. Voters could trust anyone who’d signed because the language was clear and categorical. “[It] tells you an awful lot of what you want to know about an elected official if they make that commitment in writing because they can't take it back,” Norquist has said.

But in practice, the pledge hasn’t eliminated weaseling. It’s simply shifted the burden of weaseling from individual pols to Norquist himself. Consider his evolving interpretation of the pledge last fall, after the election put some heft behind Barack Obama’s insistence on tax increases for the wealthy. When House Speaker John Boehner announced he was open to raising revenue by closing loopholes, Norquist initially issued a stern fatwa against the speaker. Closing loopholes without lowering rates “would be a tax increase,” he told Politico. There would be hell to pay for anyone who went along. “If you promise you weren't going to raise taxes and you do, we want to make sure people in your district are aware both that you made the commitment and that you broke it.”2

Two weeks later, it looked as if revenue increases were inevitable, at which point the hedging began. Suddenly it wasn’t tax revenue that was anathema per se, it was raising tax rates. (The pledge officially proscribes both.) “The fantasy is that the Republicans would cave on marginal tax rates,” he said. “They’re non-negotiable.” But a mere revenue increase of the variety Boehner had floated would be just fine. “Can Republicans raise taxes and not break your pledge?” Politico's Mike Allen asked in a late November Q&A:

Norquist: Difficult and-

Allen: So, that's not "no."

Norquist: Close to no.3

Curiously, by the time the negotiations reached their climax the following month, even the proscription against rate hikes had vanished. Asked on CNN about the Senate proposal to raise rates on anyone making over $450,000, Norquist allowed that the deal was kosher. “[I]t doesn't violate the pledge," he said. "This is progress, making 84 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent." (Norquist had  previously argued that only a full extension of the Bush tax cuts in late 2010 averted a tax increase.)

Norquist claims that the pledge is transparent and immutable—that’s the source of its power: “the pledge doesn't change over time. It doesn't change across state lines,” he told Allen. He speaks of the pledge as though it were some animate creature of which he is a mere passive admirer, the way Clark Kent talks about Superman. “Look, people vacillate between the pledge solves or creates all the world's problems, and the pledge only does certain things,” he explained. “It doesn't solve all the world's problems. It doesn't design tax reform.”

Alas, like Clark Kent and Superman, the ostensible distance between Norquist and the pledge is completely nonexistent. He is the pledge and the pledge is him. He has the power to unleash it, or to send it back to Krypton, never to be heard from again. And, as it happens, the determination is almost always driven by what it will take to preserve his Beltway bona fides. 

In particular, Norquist's efforts to maintain that status means his pronouncements on tax-hike orthodoxy must first and foremost please the party establishment. He is well aware that his rarefied position requires the indulgence of people like Karl Rove, whose Crossroads GPS gave Norquist’s group $4 million in 2010. It’s why, unlike truly influential conservative groups like the Club for Growth, Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform almost never initiates primary challenges to wayward Republicans.

It’s also why, in those rare instances when Norquist’s ideological pronouncements clash with party doctrine, he almost always abandons the former. A week after the election, Norquist mused that a carbon tax could be pledge-compatible if offset with an income tax cut. But the party’s fossil fuel interests complained bitterly, and Norquist abruptly retreated. “The creation of any new tax such as a VAT or energy tax … would inevitably lead to higher taxes as two taxes would be at the disposal of politicians,” he said in a statement.

As the energy tax episode suggests, there is nothing more terrifying to Norquist than those brief moments of ferment, when it’s unclear where the party will come down. And so it goes with the Internet sales tax. The political arm of the Heritage Foundation, whose president, Jim DeMint, spent eight years in the Senate demonstrating his preference for conservative crankery over Republican goodwill, has no such hangups. It has vowed to include the Internet bill as “a key vote on our legislative scorecard.”

But life is not so simple for Grover Norquist. With Republicans likely to provide a safe margin for passing the bill in the Senate, it’s unclear whether the House can be rallied to defeat it. And so Norquist, the anti-tax jihadi who’s been inveighing against this particular outrage for over a decade, has turned uncharacteristically … weasely. “At the very, very end of the day, do you think you can beat it back completely, so there is absolutely no Internet sales tax? … Can you do that Grover?” asked host Stu Varney on his recent Fox Business appearance. “Well, I’m not sure I can do it. I think the American people can do it if the House focuses on this,” was all Norquist could muster. And then he changed the subject. 

Follow @noamscheiber on Twitter 

  1. Contrast this with the post-election fiscal cliff debate, when Norquist immediately warned Republicans that raising new revenue through the tax code would violate the pledge

  2. Ironically, Norquist has always assumed a superficial humility on matters pledge-worthy. “The pledge is not to me. The pledge is to the people of their state and the American people,” he often says, as though more than a tiny fraction of the pledge’s ostensible beneficiaries are even aware of its existence.

  3. Around the same time, the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore asked Norquist whether it would violate the pledge to sign a tax cut for people making below $250,000 per year once the Bush tax cuts had already lapsed. "That's not for me to decide," Norquist responded. "Republicans will have to go to the American people and they will decide whether this was acceptable." This seemed to undermine the whole point of the pledge, which was to make it easy for voters to conclude whether or not a politician had raised taxes, so they wouldn’t have to wrestle with these complicated scenarios.