“Grover Norquist has no credibility, so I don’t respond to him. He doesn’t deserve being responded to,” declared Saxby Chambliss, a Republican Senator from Georgia. The tight grip that Norquist has had on the Republican caucus is loosening. More and more Republicans are moving away from Norquist’s tent. After his involvement in the Jack Abramoff’s scandal, Republicans should have distanced themselves from Norquist many years ago. But the election result is finally forcing many Republicans to do just that. The president has been given a mandate to increase taxes on the super wealthy. Following their electoral defeat, Republicans have signaled that they are willing to consider revenue. After surviving the Jack Abramoff scandal, Norquist’s influence seems to be finally waning.
For almost three decades, Norquist has been at the head of the American for Tax Reform (ATR), an anti-tax outfit. The raison d’etre of the organization is to coax Republican candidates into signing his no-tax pledge. The pledge has become a rite of passage for Republican office-seekers. In case a Republican reneges on the pledge, ATR would campaign against him or her. The Republican Party has been synonymous with low taxation since the presidency of Ronald Reagan. By positioning himself as the enforcer of this deeply held ideology, Norquist has been very influential. In fact, he has been called the “most powerful man in Washington.”
A few years ago, Norquist was enmeshed in one of the most insidious scandals to hit Washington DC. An investigation by the Senate Indian Committee showed that Jack Abramoff, a then-influential lobbyist had defrauded many Native America tribes. The investigation further revealed that Norquist’s organization was used to “launder nearly $1 million from Abramoff’s Indian clients” to Ralph Reed, a prominent conservative with deep ties to Christian organizations. For his service, Norquist got a “cut” and Abramoff encouraged his Native American clients to contribute more than $1 million to American for Tax Reform.
This scandal should have completely tarnished Norquist’s reputation. Despite his involvement, Norquist’s sway over the Republican Party has barely diminished in the subsequent years. A substantial number of Republicans continue to sign his pledge to not raise taxes. In the wake of their major electoral defeat, however, some Republicans began to create some distance between themselves and Norquist. The deadline for the so-called fiscal cliff is approaching. If nothing is done to deal with this issue, the economy might be negatively impacted. Hence, it is likely that more and more Republicans might decide to move away from Norquist because polls show that they would be blamed if their negotiation with the president were to fail. Equally important, the presidential election exit polls show that most of the public supports a tax increase on the rich.
When it comes to the tax issue, Republicans are an untenable position. They could go against the public wishes by fighting tooth and nail to prevent the tax of the top 2% from going up in order to maintain their pledge to Norquist; or they could accept a balance approach, which would include an increase in taxation on upper income Americans. Knowing that the public would hold them responsible in case the country goes over the cliff, a large number of Republicans would most likely renege on the pledge.
Republicans should have abandoned their tax pledge once it was revealed that Norquist had dealings with Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist. But it seems that the time of reckoning has finally come for Norquist. The election result will likely force Republicans to accept a tax increase on the wealthy. Since such agreement will render his anti-tax pledge null and void, Norquist will probably need to start looking for another line of work.