A "campaign promise" is not exactly an oxymoron, but of all the pledges a person can make—wedding vow, blood oath, playground pinkie swear—it's the least dependable. Promises made with certainty a dozen times a day on the stump rarely survive their collision with the complications of actual governing. Ronald Reagan promised to slash the federal budget deficit. George W. Bush promised not to get involved in nation-building abroad. Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo in his first year in office. They all sounded pretty good at the time.
Recent American politics has had one remarkable exception to the rule: the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Administered by the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform and created by the organization's founder, Grover Norquist, the pledge binds its takers to oppose "any and all efforts" to increase marginal income tax rates and to protect tax deductions and credits. Two hundred thirty-three of the 240 House Republicans have signed it, as have 40 of the 47 Republican senators. Two House Democrats and one Senate Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, are signatories, as well as 1,252 state legislators who signed a less specific pledge. All of which would be meaningless without the omertà-like fidelity with which pledge takers stick to their vows once in office. Any time a proposal is floated to increase taxes in any way—not just income taxes or trimming tax credits, but capital-gains taxes and even excise taxes on gasoline or tobacco—it's a safe bet that Norquist's army will line up against it.
As the federal government brushes against the debt ceiling, putting at risk everything from the nation's ability to provide prescription drugs for its seniors to a robust national defense, politicians on all sides agree that failure to reach a compromise could be catastrophic. Yet congressional Republicans have remained nearly monolithic in opposing tax increases as part of the solution. The deficit, they insist, must be closed entirely through spending cuts. It's a triumph for Norquist's pledge and the worldview it represents and reinforces: that government spending is, by its nature, a corrupting force on individual liberty and the free market, something to be fought whether the government is in the black or in the red. "Anyone who says we have a deficit problem is either a Democrat who wants to raise taxes," says Norquist, "or a Republican who's dimwitted and doesn't understand what he's talking about."
This moment is a triumph for the 54-year-old Norquist, too. For decades he's worked Congress and cable news studios to promote his single issue, promoting those who sign his pledge and punishing those who even consider breaking it. "He's a little bit like the old Roman emperor, turning the thumbs up and thumbs down," says Bruce Bartlett, a domestic policy adviser and Treasury official during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations. "He has an enormous amount of power, more than he's ever had before."
Yet even as it demonstrates Norquist's power, the budget crisis threatens to undermine him. In recent weeks, Norquist and his organization have engaged in a very public dispute with Dr. Tom A. Coburn (R-Okla.), perhaps the most uncompromising spending hawk in the U.S. Senate, over the senator's willingness to entertain tax revenue increases—not rate hikes, but the elimination of certain deductions and tax credits—as part of the so-called Gang of Six deficit deal. Coburn and GOP colleagues Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Mike Crapo of Idaho have been negotiating with Senate Democrats on a potential compromise, and they have argued that the yawning budget gap is impossible to close with spending cuts alone. To Norquist, entertaining the idea of a tax increase at the very moment when the deficit is forcing Democrats to consider deep spending cuts is snatching defeat from the jaws of political victory. Who wins the argument will determine whether the current deficit debate is the apotheosis of Norquist and his pledge or the moment their influence begins to wane.
Norquist—who was raised in the Boston suburb of Weston, Mass., educated at Harvard University, and early in his career worked as an economist and speechwriter for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—doesn't shy away from attention. He is a gifted polemicist, famous for insisting that he'd like to shrink government to the size "where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." His true influence, though, has been organizational. His Wednesday morning meetings at ATR's 12th Street offices are legendary in Washington. They bring together politicians and activists from all over the conservative movement: family-values campaigners and gun rights activists, military hawks, small-government libertarians, and corporate lobbyists. The meetings have helped to coordinate campaigns and instill a sense of esprit de corps among people who might not otherwise think to speak to each other. And in hosting the meetings, Norquist makes his cause the tent pole of that big tent.
"He knows that a lot of these issues have no chance on their own. Their only chance is if they're part of a package," says Bartlett, who used to attend the meetings but is now a critic of Norquist's unyielding stance. "You help people on some issues you may not have interest in or even agree with. In return, they support you on your issues."
Norquist drew up his pledge—a few lines on a single sheet of paper—in 1986. Two years later it blew up the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. In the New Hampshire Republican primary, then-front-runner Bob Dole refused to sign it and was steadily attacked by his rivals for holding out. George H.W. Bush, who had signed, came from behind to win New Hampshire and then the Presidency. Bush, of course, famously broke his promise once in office, raising taxes to deal with a budget deficit that would rise during his Presidency to 4.7 percent of gross domestic product. (Last year the deficit was just under 9 percent of GDP.) In so doing he incurred the wrath of Norquist and other conservative activists and lost crucial support during his failed 1992 reelection campaign. Thus the pledge was cemented as the one campaign promise politicians best make ironclad.
Over the years, Norquist has taken it upon himself to punish pledge breakers by organizing and fundraising for their opponents in Republican primaries. When reelection isn't looming, he hectors them. Asked about his disagreement with Coburn, he says, "He wants to raise taxes and he promised in a signed statement that he won't. I told him that he ought to keep his word."
Coburn, currently on a self-described "sabbatical" from the Gang of Six negotiations, thinks Norquist has hijacked the debate and imperiled the country. "We don't have the luxury of taking [Norquist's] position right now, because we can't solve our problem unless we get an agreement to trim spending," says Coburn. "Here's the thing I would say: If you're in Congress right now, and you allow somebody like Grover Norquist to tell you how to vote—you have an opportunity to really fix what's wrong with the country, and if instead you do what special interest groups say—you don't have any business being up here."
Coburn's argument touches on a larger criticism of Norquist's pledge, which is that a myopic focus on taxes actually allows elected officials to punt on spending. After all, today's deficit is largely the legacy of the Bush Administration's taste for simultaneous tax cuts and spending increases (future deficits will be increasingly dominated by Medicare and Social Security spending). Norquist sees it differently: Taxes and spending are two different things, he concedes. "But a politician who can raise taxes never discusses spending less." Ruling out tax increases "is a necessary but not sufficient condition to cutting spending."
Ultimately, for Norquist, the deficit is somewhat beside the point. The problem for him isn't government debt, it's government spending. "The deficit is the tip of the iceberg, it's the small thing on top of the bigger total spending," he says. Norquist's goal is to keep the temperature high enough so that the whole thing melts away.