For years progressives have simultaneously envied and despised Grover Norquist for his ability to organize conservatives and keep them organized, and more recently for the power his anti-tax pledge has over Republicans. So it's understandable that we might celebrate the apparently cracks in Norquist's "wall" of anti-tax Republicans. However, we should careful not to get too carried away by "greatly exaggerated" reports of Grover's demise. Without progressives holding their feet to the fire, Democrats could let Republicans lead them over an ideological cliff of no return, with little more than an old shell-game trick.
The whispers that Norquist was losing his grip on the GOP started months before the election, but in the context of the post-election "fiscal cliff" hype, the whisper has turned into a full-throated, coordinated scream in the media. From pundits like Bill Kristol and Ben Stein, to lawmakers like House members Peter King, and senators Lindsay Graham and Saxby Chambliss, the very public defections of Republicans from Norquist's anti-tax coalition have led to headlines that the GOP is "breaking up" with Grover, that Norquist had "jumped the shark," and is losing his position of power as the defections signal a full-fledged "resistance."
Even for Washington, a town where hype could easily qualify as a Olympic event, this latest "orchestrated hissy fit" is impressive. But if you want to know how serious it really is, look at who appears to be un-impressed by it all: Grover Norquist himself.
Norquist has remained consistently unconcerned, telling reporters before and after the election: "Nobody's turning on me," "No one is caving," and "Taxes aren't going up." The reason? It's simple. Grover Norquist is many things, but dumb is not one of them. He's been paying close attention.
Slate's David Weigel asked Norquist to "to thumb through the key buzzwords and buzz-phrases and explain why they don’t spook him." Norquist obliged, explaining why he hasn't heard anything that's "spooked" him. The "buzzwords and buzz-phrases" Norquist highlights reveal what should be as apparent to Democrats as it is to Norquist himself. For Republicans, backing off Norquist's anti-tax pledge isn't an ideological shift. It's a tactic that could get the Republicans everything they want out of the "fiscal cliff" debate, but only if Democrats fall for it.
First, listen closely to what Republicans like Graham are saying about being open to raising new revenue, and you'll think you're hearing an echo. They're not talking about raising taxes, but are reviving a idea Mitt Romney tossed off during the campaign, about "capping deductions" as a means of raising revenue without increasing taxes on the wealthy, by "broadening" the tax base. The compromise could raise revenue without raising rates. It would also allow the GOP to have it both ways on taxes: appearing willing to raise taxes, but without actually raising taxes.
Second, Graham, Chambliss, King and the rest have been pretty explicit that they're willing to appear to compromise on taxes only if Democrats compromise on cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Their pseudo-compromise on taxes and revenue is merely a "bargaining chip" for cuts to programs that Republicans have always hated anyway — cuts that would weaken these programs, and ultimately set them up for elimination.
All they need is for Democrats to fall for it, and the GOP will have pulled off the ultimately coup: losing the election and getting the Democrats to implement Republican policies anyway. If Republicans are successful at portraying themselves are "reasonable," and casting Democrats as the uncompromising purists/extremists, they just might pull it off.
You can't blame their for trying. After all, post-election "shell-shock" notwithstanding, some Republicans can read polls. They know they've painted themselves into a corner on taxes, as polls — like our joint poll with Democracy Corps — show that the majority of Americans favor rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy, and oppose further tax cuts.
Now, they're trying to back Democrats into a corner. The same polls that show that the majority of Americans support increasing taxes for the wealthiest Americans, also show that Americans are overwhelmingly against cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
But the stakes are different for Democrats. While pulling back on an anti-tax pledge is a tactic of Republicans, Democrats' support for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid goes back to basic principles about the pubic good and the role of government.
The stakes are different for Democrats, because the stakes are different for Democrats' constituent groups. It's unlikely that wealthy Americans are will go hungry or go without medical care if their taxes increase. But it's very likely that many elderly, disabled, low-income, and middle- and working-class Americans will face such choices if Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are subject to deep cuts. These groups have traditionally supported Democrats, because the party could be counted on to defend these programs. That will change if they're convinced that they can't count on Democrats — or anyone else — to defend programs that are important to them
Appearing to retreat on taxes is not a "point of no return" for Republicans. But Democrats risk being led over an ideological "cliff," with no way to climb back up, if they fall for it.