By David Walchak ’15
Volume XXXIV, Issue 3, December 14, 2012
Grover Norquist may not get what he wants in the coming months. The tireless tax cut crusader will almost certainly see a tax increase on the rich. Even worse, it looks like some of the Republican signatories to his anti-tax pledge will break their contract and vote for the tax hikes. Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, is about as divisive as any major political figure. He has been called a “dark-wizard” by Ariana Huffington and a “soldier” of the conservative movement by Mitch McConnell. Prior to the 2012 election, 95% of house Republicans had signed his anti-tax pledge, in which they vowed to never vote to raise taxes or increase net deductions. This pledge has been aggressively pushed, highly influential and strictly enforced since its inception. As we approach the deadline for a tax decision, Norquist has been popping up in the news once again, and the media has had a hard time distinguishing Norquist’s pledge from the man himself. All too often he is portrayed as a crazed fanatic, single-minded to a fault. This portrayal is unfair. He is simply uncompromising. And while that might make for bad politics, it makes for an admirable activist. This country could use more Grover Norquists.
I do not agree with Norquist’s pledge; I would probably not vote for anyone who signed it. But my liberal sympathies and disagreement with the pledge do not compel me to see Norquist as a buffoon. In fact, Norquist’s pledge makes perfect sense for a man with his views. Moreover, Republicans could learn a lot from his intellectual coherence.
There is nothing unreasonable about saying no to all new taxes. If one believes government is too big, taxes would be too high. The problem with saying no to new taxes is that most Americans who think government is too big do not actually want it to get substantially smaller. And since many Americans feel this way, the Republicans they elected reflect this view. These elected Republicans offer plenty of rhetoric about the size of government to appease their constituents’ ears, while still supporting expensive entitlement programs and other spending to satisfy their constituents’ desires. Norquist is different—he thinks government is too big and would really like it to be a lot smaller. There is nothing particularly radical about this opinion, but it certainly would’ve looked radical in the most recent election. Romney complained of big government and still promised not to slash Medicare or Social Security. He did not even promise a major tax cut. If the presidential nominee is supposed to represent the prevailing opinion of his party, Republicans do not for the most part seem to be demanding smaller government. They just want their candidates to say that government is “too big” every so often.
Saying no to new taxes might work if people genuinely wanted to cut government spending in any meaningful way. Instead, they want maintenance of the entitlement programs that necessarily mean government will get bigger. The programs of greatest concern are Medicare and Social Security. The problem with the pledge made by Republicans to never raise taxes is not one of principle, but one of practice. If taxes stay constant, government must actively shrink or the debt will grow. Without legislative action to cut entitlements, Republicans’ will not fulfill the entirety of Norquist’s mission. They are effectively pledging to run a high-spending state on a low-revenue budget. This is not the fault of Norquist’s pledge; rather, it is the fault of insincere complaints of big government from the mainstream Republican Party.
Realistically, the entire blame for this high-spending and low tax revenue problem cannot be placed on Republicans. Democrats have also brought about this current situation, but for reasons much truer to their ideological mission. They have ensured governmental growth by pushing more and more spending. Democrats, however, often want more government, so there’s nothing theoretically wrong with more spending and more programs. Further, Democrats have an advantage over their Republican counterparts. The “cool parents” know it’s easier to give their children things than to take them away— with constituents it’s no different. They want programs, and since government can borrow indefinitely (though not without economic harm), there is no reason this giving process has to end. Republicans can’t realistically be the parents who deny their kids candy for dinner and continue to get elected. They have the tough job. So they’ve decided to talk stern but rarely act, lest their children start preferring the cool parents with all their free healthcare and social safety nets.
In this mess of talk and inaction, Norquist is refreshing. He is a man whose ideas are coherent and reasonable: he wants to lower taxes and slash the size of government. He believes that to raise taxes is to lose the fight against more government; it is to surrender one’s money to government to expand its services or pay off the debt that those services brought about. But Norquist doesn’t want expanded services. He wants government to stop spending so much on his health care and his retirement. And the best way to make that happen is to force it to cut those programs—and cuts will be necessary (in some unclear form and at some indefinite point) if taxes never go up. I may not agree with Grover Norquist, but at least he makes sense.