Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, will go anywhere and eat anything for the opportunity to yammer against taxes. If you are serving breakfast, lunch or dinner -- or just coffee, tea or soda -- and have a TV studio, radio show or website, he will come to you. Can offer only a glass of water and a Twitter account? He may still come. (He had coffee today at Bloomberg's Washington bureau.) Norquist's influence stems in part from his accessibility. But the key to his power is that it has never really been challenged. We may soon find out what happens when it is.
Over the past 20 years or so, almost all Republican members of Congress have signed Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge. They have essentially promised -- crossed their hearts and hoped to die -- never, ever, ever to vote to raise taxes.
Republicans hardly need Norquist to discipline them; most would rather eat glass than raise taxes. But Norquist has melded that sentiment into a juggernaut as the keeper of a simple pledge, kept in a fireproof vault in his office, that has been signed by 279 members of the current Congress, all but three of them Republicans. They defy it at their peril.
The promise, Norquist insists disingenuously, isn't to him. It's to the American people. Cross him -- strike that, cross the American people -- and you will face a primary challenge from the right. That challenge now has a name. It is "Tea Party II," Norquist said, and he predicts its ability to defeat those who go squishy on taxes and spending will dwarf that of "Tea Party I."
No Republican, Norquist claims, has voted for increased taxes in 22 years -- so he hasn't had to make good on his threat to defeat them. Norquist prefers to make love, not war. Apostates are few and far between, and he speaks of them as lost sheep who have been temporarily led astray by the media. He has sympathy, he said over coffee, for someone trying to look "reasonable and thoughtful" whose remarks are taken out of context.
His sympathy persists even as a members of his flock wander off. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, recognizing that President Barack Obama isn't going to be rolled as easily in his second term as he was in his first, said he'll consider raising revenues. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee agreed. Representative Peter King of New York said the pledge is past its sell-by date.
Heretics, all of them. Norquist isn't used to being talked back to, but like the parent of a teenager whose control is waning, he knows to show some leniency, if only to save face. He calls breaches little "burps" or "impure thoughts." They didn't really mean it, he said, because their pre-conditions for new revenue -- for example, substantial entitlement reform -- won't be met.
Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, for example, got a later curfew and keys to the family car even though he said, "I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge." He and Norquist had a quiet phone call during which Norquist was reassured that the senator didn't mean to "imply they had major differences," and he should have been more clear and not "invoked my name," Norquist said.
Norquist doesn't admit it, but some members of Congress get TV-studio indulgences, allowing them to play above-the-fray statesmen, praising the sentiment behind the pledge (and maybe even Norquist himself) while lamenting their inability to honor the specifics of it. Everyone wins: Both the author of the pledge and the men breaking it get more famous.
The strength of the pledge lies in not letting it be tested. Like a nuclear weapon, it is most frightening when not deployed. What would the pledge be worth if Chambliss or Graham, both up for election in 2014, broke it and went on to win? Norquist has been through all this before. During the debt- ceiling debate last spring, some Republicans blinked as Norquist stared them down. "We ended up with $2.5 trillion in spending cuts and not a cent in increased taxes," he said.
Norquist has already articulated a flexible standard for those who want to play with wolves but stay in the fold. As long as Republicans don't have their "fingerprints on the murder weapon" -- that is, as long as they aren't the architects of any plan for new taxes -- he will judge them to have kept their pledge. They would then be free to "run against the Obama tax hike" without Norquistian interference in 2014.
That argues for a New Year's Eve scenario whereby the Bush tax cuts expire and are then restored -- fully for the middle class and partially for the wealthy -- moments after the champagne corks are popped. Republicans can say they delivered a tax cut to everyone, including the top 2 percent, and Obama and the Democrats can say they cut taxes for the middle class and raised them on the wealthy.
In other words, everyone gets what he needs. Especially Grover Norquist.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.