As president of Americans for Tax Reform, the right-wing activist and lobbyist Grover Norquist defers to nobody in his zeal to slash government spending and cut taxes, no matter the consequences. His organization’s famed “anti-tax pledge” bears the signature of nearly every Republican member of Congress — and all of them evidently fear that he would denounce them for violating its stringent terms.
Yet as the White House, Senate and House leaders struggle to reach agreement on spending and taxes before the August 2 debt limit doomsday, even Norquist appeared to waver — suggesting to the Washington Post editorial board on Tuesday that he wouldn’t attack Congress for letting the Bush tax cuts expire, before following up with strong statement Thursday indicating the opposite.
If Norquist is flipping and flopping, the reason is simple. Unlike the Tea Party Republicans, but much like his supporters in the business community, he is troubled by the potential consequences of an impending and unprecedented default. As Norquist told The National Memo today in an interview:
“I am not an advocate or adherent of the position I have heard some state, that a default would be ‘not a big deal’ or ‘would strengthen the hand of those arguing for limited government.’ I worry that handing the executive branch control over what bills to pay is not a wise move….even when they would have less cash to spend.”
Norquist went on to say that “a ‘shutdown’ or ‘default’ or ‘wobbly walk around the rim of default’ would be, as my mother would say, ‘unhelpful.’ How unhelpful? I don’t know, [and I’m] not real interested in finding out. Let’s experiment on a smaller country.”
Leaving aside his trademark flippancy, Norquist’s concern that a default “experiment” might go badly wrong puts him in direct conflict with Tea Party Republicans — such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), now a leading presidential contender — who insist they won’t vote to raise the debt limit and don’t fear the consequences. Clearly, he is concerned by the consequences, as are many business leaders at companies that have donated heavily to Americans for Tax Reform.
At the same time that Norquist acknowledges the dangers of default, he bristles at the notion of tolerating any tax increase on anybody as part of a debt limit deal. He sounds as if he means to hold House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to the pledge, even as reports of their negotiations with the White House claim that the Republican leaders are considering a deal that would include revenue increases.
“I support Boehner and McConnell’s stated positions that they want significant, real, enforceable spending restraint and no tax hike in return for a hike in the debt ceiling,” said Norquist. “They are willing to compromise on the size of the spending restraint. Not on the tax hike.” He obliquely warned both leaders that “it is key for the GOP not to be seen putting their fingerprints on a tax hike or phony spending cuts. That would make it difficult to go to unaffiliated voters in 2012 and argue that [Republicans] are the antidote to Obama spending.”
But there is a contradiction in Norquist’s position as well as the positions taken by Boehner and McConnell — if only President Obama were willing to draw it out rather than surrender to his opponents, as news reports suggest he is now preparing to do. Anyone who regards default as perilous to the nation’s economic health and safety, including even the most anti-tax conservatives, should be willing to reach an honest compromise with Democrats to avert that fate.
In a poker game, Norquist’s admission that he worries about default would be considered a “tell” — the involuntary signal of a bluff. Neither he nor the Republican leaders on Capitol Hill want to take the country over the default cliff. But the president doesn’t seem to be able to see past all the huffing and bluffing.