'Fiscal Cliff' Hype and the Future of Grover Norquist's Taxpayer Pledge
The renewal of President Obama's mandate showed Americans favor a more complex solution to US debt than just 'no' to taxes
There are many the similarities between Los Angeles and Washington, DC (the most true one having to do with DC being "Hollywood for ugly people), but the hullabaloo around the "fiscal cliff" – technically, a snorefest of sequestration agreements – brings to mind the importance of raising the stake every time you make a sequel. Just as the non-specific excitement of "Star Wars: A New Hope" gave way to the menace of "The Empire Strikes Back", and then the personal vengeance promised by "The Return of the Jedi", so must the muscular comity of the "supercommittee" morph into a joined-at-the-hip leap off the "fiscal cliff" – which, itself, in the manner of all trilogies, is followed by more of the same but with bigger explosions: that is, "Taxmaggedon."
At least the Star Wars titles have some bearing on reality. The supercommittee used its awesome powers of negotiation to put off negotiating – instead, abiding by a penalty if they did it again: a series of tax cuts and spending decreases so politically unpalatable that, surely, some future version of themselves would figure out a way out of them. In the walk-up to the penalty deadline, "unpalatable" somehow became "suicidal", and the phased-in policy changes – a slope of punishment – became a "cliff".
If nothing else, Washingtonians' hyperbole has proven another LA maxim: violence is good for ratings. More Americans followed the debate over the sequestration package than they did the Petraeus' own euphemistic scandal. Or at least, that's what they told Pew Research.
There will be no specific fiery crash come 2 January. There will be months to discuss implementation of the taxes, and agencies have some discretion in how to adjust to spending changes. But rather than deal with the consequences of hasty deal-making, both congressional Republicans and the White House seem ready to commence with further hasty deal-making. The White House has talked obliquely about concessions on Medicare and Medicaid, while select Republicans have inched their way toward Obama's line in the sand: increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
Obama's apparent willingness to concede on "entitlement reform" is a heresy against progressive orthodoxy, just as much as the GOP's consideration of tax increases is against conservative ideals. But there's a major difference in the immediate cost of these compromises. On the one hand, Obama just got re-elected. Boom. On the other: Grover Norquist, guardian of the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge", a promise to never raise taxes signed by something more than 90% of all elected Republicans but likely something of an enigma to actual taxpayers.
You'd think this would leave plenty of room for maneuvering on both sides. Obama faces zero electoral consequences, and loses no political capital for his loose talk on entitlement reform and Republicans only worry is this furry little lobbyist, the Rumpelstiltskin of the Potomac. Why have Republicans been so loath to cross him? The attention paid to defections from the side of the pledge by Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Saxby Chambliss and Bob Corker – and the way journalists rush to record Norquist's response – speak to his power.
Democrats may have a hard time understanding it. There is no single commentator or public figure on the left with the kind of intangible authority wielded on the right by Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform (a deliciously ironic moniker at the moment, as the current Republican party line on tax policy is to maintain the status quo at all costs). His luck in life began with being given the name of a Trollope character and has continued (until recently) with his ability to pass himself off as a representative of the nation's conservative voters, brandishing the pledge against anyone who steps out of line.
That Norquist wasn't elected to anything, that the pledge was born of a thinktank and not a movement – these things haven't mattered as much as Norquist's media savvy and fundraising prowess: ATR spends almost all of its money on supporting those who sign the pledge and trying to run out of town those who don't. His talent for self-promotion is, if anything, better than his propagandizing. He is as wryly subversive in his sense of humor as he is doctrinaire about policy, so I don't doubt that his description of GOPers playing footsie with the Obama administration as having "impure thoughts" was less an Akin-ish scold than an invitation to get quoted a lot.
The man knows what he's doing. He once clarified his personal political aim thus:
"I'm not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
It is a pronouncement that now carries the weight of prophesy, the fiscal conservatives' version of beholding a pale horse – a fitting enough frame of mind for those who sign onto the Taxpayer Pledge, as it is based less on a political philosophy than it is on superstition. What proof is there for the notion that any and all tax increases are bad – or even always at odds with conservative philosophy?
There are well-reasoned arguments, moral and political, against taxation in various forms. "No" is not one of them.
The slow shuffle of Republicans up to the bargaining table suggests that the real casualty of the fiscal cliff will be Norquist's influence, and it certainly should be: having signed onto tax increases that will take place if they do nothing, GOP lawmakers shouldn't pay a price for influencing the direction of those increases by doing something.
But there are other signs that Norquist's power will soon be bathtub-sized itself. One of the miracles of the Obama campaign was the validation of its faith in voters' ability to get to a second-level argument. Re-electing Obama meant that the campaign had to argue past an initial skepticism about, and even rejection of, the president's record: the campaign couldn't just posit optimism; it had to respond to distrust without invalidating it. This is not a simple message, and yet it worked.
Voters are ready to think about policies that can't be explained in a sentence or two. Maybe lawmakers are, too.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2012