Washington is full of advocates and lobbyists, working in organizations both large and small. The ones that we think of as the most powerful, like the AARP or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are huge operations with armies of people swarming Capitol Hill and deluging reporters with press releases. Then there's Grover Norquist. One guy (actually a guy with an organization, Americans for Tax Reform), with one issue who has done such a spectacular job of bending Washington to his will that he has become a national figure. In the upcoming Congress, there will be 234 Republicans, 219 of whom have signed The Pledge, the promise never to raise taxes. In the Senate, there will be 45 Republicans, 39 of whom have signed. The Pledge (you can see it here; it's all of 60 words) commits its signatories not only to "oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses," but also to "oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates." While a few Republicans have come out in the last few weeks to say they will consider reneging on The Pledge as part of a deal to avoid the upcoming Austerity Trap, this debate is still constrained to an extraordinary degree by Norquist and the rules he has set.
Of course, it's not as though by getting Republicans to oppose tax increases Norquist is forcing them to do something they're not inclined to do already. But The Pledge is a brilliantly conceived tool. It takes Republicans' existing opposition to tax increases and reifies it into something that shapes both policy-making and campaigns. It does so by imposing a practical cost on anyone who doesn't toe the line. Refuse to sign it in the first place, and your credentials as a tax-cutter will be called into question by your Republican primary opponents. So almost all of them sign. And then once they sign, if they don't stick to it, they can be branded as liars and traitors to the cause.
The Pledge's genius isn't the only thing that makes Norquist so effective. ATR is well-funded, yet extremely focused. In 2010—the last year for which their tax forms are available—the group raised $12.4 million, which makes them mid-sized for an organization of this type. Yet they have a small staff, because they don't need a large one. They aren't performing complicated research or trying to run grassroots campaigns. They do one simple thing: force Republican members of Congress to sign, and then hold to, The Pledge. That's really it. They have a couple of other little projects (like the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which aims to put Saint Ronnie's name on a bridge or building in every county in America), but basically all they do is talk about how taxes are evil.
Perhaps most critically, they're in it for the long haul. Their funding isn't going to dry up, because there will always be rich people and corporations eager to keep taxes low. And from the beginning, Norquist understood this battle as one that is never actually won or lost. It just goes on forever, and that's perfectly fine with him. And even though there will probably be an increase in taxes at the end of this year, as Ezra Klein argues, Norquist has already won. Despite the fact that Democrats just won a huge victory at the polls, in the upcoming deal everyone is acknowledging that there will be dramatic spending cuts, but even the most modest increase in taxes is being portrayed as an enormous concession by Republicans, one that should naturally be met with something like a revision to the country's most cherished social programs.
There are advocacy groups that have specific policy goals, and advocacy groups whose goal is often stated as "changing the debate." For the latter, it can often be difficult to see (and justify to funders) just what practical impact a changed debate has. But in Norquist's case, it couldn't be clearer. He'll naturally decry whatever small increase in upper-income taxes we see once the Austerity Trap is all sorted out. But the GOP is still his party.