Has Grover Norquist Made Himself Unnecessary?

You should read Tim Dickinson's long article in Rolling Stone about how the GOP became the party of the one percent. Essentially, the story is that while there was once a real substance to the idea of "fiscal conservatism"—that Republicans really did care about balancing the books and being good stewards of the public's tax dollars—the last 20 years have brought the Republican Party to a much different place. While they once saw taxes as simply the way to pay for the things government does -- they shouldn't be too high, since conservatives want limited government, but they shouldn't be so low that we run up deficits -- they now see them as an outright evil that really has nothing much at all to do with deficits. Deficits are a handy tool to use when there's a Democrat in the White House to force spending cuts, but not much more. Dickinson puts Dick Cheney at the center of this story, which one could quibble about, but there's something here that I think calls for some discussion:

In retrospect, the true victor of the midterm elections last year was not the Tea Party, or even Speaker of the House John Boehner. It was Grover Norquist.

"What has happened over the last two years is that Grover now has soldiers in the field," says [Bruce] Bartlett, the architect of the Reagan tax cuts. "These Tea Party people, in effect, take their orders from him." Indeed, a record 98 percent of House Republicans have now signed Norquist's anti-tax pledge – which includes a second, little-known provision that played a key role in the debt-ceiling debacle. In addition to vowing not to raise taxes, politicians who sign the pledge promise to use any revenue generated by ending a tax subsidy to immediately finance – that's right – more tax cuts.

We often use this kind of language when talking about special interests, that members of Congress are "taking orders" from one group or another, but it can be misleading. It's true that part of the genius of Norquist's pledge is that it imposes a potential cost on any Republican who either refuses to sign it or votes for a tax increase after they have signed it. That cost is the risk of a well-funded primary campaign from the right, and many Republicans certainly fear it. But more important is that today's Republicans, particularly the younger ones, believe it. You don't have to threaten them to get them to keep working to cut rich people's taxes, because they want nothing more. They came up through the party at a time when tax cuts for the wealthy was moving closer and closer to the center of conservative ideology. Today, there is nothing—not a belligerent foreign policy, not opposition to legal abortion, not support for large military budgets, not support for gun rights—that goes deeper to the core of conservative identity. The Republican Party will tolerate some small measure of dissent on almost anything else (there are still a few pro-choice Republicans hanging around, for instance), but not on tax cuts. If you don't think the rich should pay less than they do, then you can't call yourself a conservative in 2011.

Grover Norquist played a very important role in pushing along the evolution in the party that led them there. But at this point, his pledge is almost unnecessary. He acknowledges that himself: "'It's a different Republican Party now,' he says. Norquist even goes so far as to liken the kind of Republicans common in Reagan's day—those willing to raise taxes to strengthen the economy—to segregationists. The 'modern Republican Party,' he says, would no sooner recognize a revenue-raiser than the 'modern Democratic Party would recognize George Wallace.'"

And it's likely to stay that way for some time. If you're a young Republican rising through the ranks -- let's say you've got your eye on a state rep seat, and you hope to run for Congress in 10 years—you're marinating in a conservative world where tax cuts for the wealthy are the highest good. You don't need to be threatened or cajoled into believing it. You've been convinced.