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June 06, 2011 8:45 AM The GOP ‘brand’ mustn’t be ‘tainted’

By Steve Benen

Lori Montgomery has an interesting piece today on the evolution of “anti-tax orthodoxy” in the Republican Party. It’s almost depressing to read about how responsible GOP leaders used to be.

Eisenhower kept wartime tax rates in place through the 1950s in order to dramatically reduce the debt. When JFK proposed large cuts, many Republicans balked — they feared large deficits. Nixon supported extending a surtax, and Ford rejected a permanent tax cut in 1974 for fear of excessive deficits. George H.W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge in order to close the budget gap.

“That party,” Montgomery explained, “is long gone.”

It’s been replaced by a contemporary Republican Party that, with remarkable unanimity, refuses to consider any policy that raises any tax on anyone by any amount at any time for any reason. Period. Full stop.

This orthodoxy is now woven so deeply into the party’s identity that all but 13 of 288 GOP lawmakers in Congress have signed a formal pledge not to raise taxes. The strategist who invented the pledge, Grover G. Norquist, compares it to a brand, like Coca-Cola, built on “quality control” so that Republican voters know they will get “the same thing every time.”

Loyalty to the brand is so strong that no Republican has voted for a major federal tax increase since 1991, Norquist says. […]

On Capitol Hill, Norquist has admonished [the Gang of Six’s] Coburn (Okla.), Crapo (Idaho) and Chambliss (Ga.) for suggesting a tax option for tackling the debt: reducing credits and deductions worth an estimated $1 trillion a year. Although most of the cash would be used to lower tax rates for everyone, a portion would be dedicated to restoring national solvency.

No good, says Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform. Under the pledge, raising revenue in any way requires an equal tax cut elsewhere to avoid expanding the size of government. And, yes, that sometimes means protecting tax breaks that Republicans view as bad public policy, Norquist and his supporters say.

That last part was especially noteworthy. Republicans are required to protect tax policies they don’t even like, because the larger ideological point is more important than public policy and even the GOP’s own substantive goals.

The article goes on to note that, for Norquist, “the modern Republican Party’s worldview” is paramount. Paraphrasing Norquist, the piece added, “The work of reducing the national debt must be done entirely by shrinking government, he said. Any compromise that includes taxes would hinder that goal and taint the Republican brand.”

It’s tempting to respond to this by raising substantive points. One could explain that the economy benefited after Reagan and Clinton raised taxes. One could note that tax cuts fail to generate economic growth. One could highlight the ways in which tax cuts that Republicans don’t even try to pay for create deficits the GOP pretends to care about.

But the substantive points are clearly irrelevant. Indeed, Norquist doesn’t even try to keep up appearances — he admits this is about brands and worldviews, not public policy.

This reminds me of the overarching fight about parties and pragmatism.

I can imagine a scenario in which President Obama hosts a big meeting with all the congressional leaders, and suggests it’s time to review the economic recovery efforts of the last two years, looking closely at what worked and what didn’t, and then working on what to do next. For Dems, the task would be fairly straightforward — let’s do more of what was the most effective, and less of what was the least effective.

For Republicans, it doesn’t work quite that way — they have ideological ideals that outweigh evidence. GOP leaders could be shown incontrovertible evidence that the most effective methods of creating jobs and improving the economy are aid to states, infrastructure investment, unemployment insurance, and food stamps, and they’d still say spending is bad and tax cuts are good. Why? Because their ideology and commitment to brand identity dictates those answers.

Jon Chait had a terrific piece on this larger dynamic several years ago.

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy — more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition — than conservatism.

Now, liberalism’s pragmatic superiority wouldn’t matter to a true ideological conservative any more than news about the medical benefits of pork (to pick an imaginary example) would cause a strictly observant Jew to begin eating ham sandwiches. But, if you have no particular a priori preference about the size of government and care only about tangible outcomes, then liberalism’s aversion to dogma makes it superior as a practical governing philosophy.

As for 2011, Republicans’ abandonment of pragmatism makes compromise all but impossible. They say they want a stronger economy, but won’t strike a deal on stimulus. They say they want less debt, but won’t compromise on revenue.

It’s painful to think how much better off the country would be with the old Republican Party.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • Miscellanneous on June 06, 2011 9:00 AM:

    "…a contemporary Republican Party that, with remarkable unanimity, refuses to consider any policy that raises any tax on anyone by any amount at any time for any reason."

    Um, no, they are just fine with policies that raise taxes on the poor and middle class. It's about not raising taxes on the rich, period, full stop.

  • c u n d gulag on June 06, 2011 9:00 AM:


    I thought the word "TAINT" IS the Republican brand.

    I'm 53, and I've watched the sea-change in Conservative 'thought' - if you can call it that.

    Republicans now have a herd mentality. And the only things they're for are:
    -Anything that pisses off Liberals & Democrats.
    -No tax increases.

  • just bill on June 06, 2011 9:06 AM:

    frankly, i don't think we were that well off with the old republican brand either.

  • ComradeAnon on June 06, 2011 9:08 AM:

    Again I wonder what type of blackmail Norquist holds over these people.

  • martin on June 06, 2011 9:13 AM:

    So at what point have we shrunk government enough that we can drown Grover Norquist in a tub?(rhetorically speaking).

  • Kathie on June 06, 2011 9:16 AM:

    Pardon my French, but who the fuck elected Grover Norquist?

  • zeitgeist on June 06, 2011 9:18 AM:

    I wonder what type of blackmail Norquist holds over these people

    easy: he has conditioned a small but sufficient pack of dogs to loyally salivate at the ringing of his bell to make electoral life miserable for a Republican running for election. these groupthinking lemmings who ironcially see ruggedly nonconforming Howard Roark when they look in their fun-house mirrors will, if Norquist says a candidate is unworthy, withhold their vote, or vote for a primary challenger, taking away the thing that elected Republicans most cherish -- a cushy, well-paid, high-status job where they have to say no a few times a week, get their ass kissed on Fox, grope a page or two, and inflict their moral philosophy (such as it is) on anyone who they have a greivance against.

  • SW on June 06, 2011 9:31 AM:

    This is why all the reaching across the aisle, bipartisan bullshit is just a bunch of self defeating masturbation. You have to beat these people. And after you beat them, you have to burn the corpse.

  • kevo on June 06, 2011 9:33 AM:

    When Adam Smith sought out man's motive of self-interest, he did not have in mind Grover Norquist's perversion - wherein the dear Grover has interpreted Smith's observation as selfish-interest!

    What a sad community Norquist and his lot live in! -Kevo

  • berttheclock on June 06, 2011 9:33 AM:

    What power does he hold?

    It is called Republican Primaries, where only the purest of the pure decide who will carry the torch forward. The zealots controlled by Norquist are the King and Queen makers of the primaries. Now, that the TPers have joined with them, they control the destiny.

    Remember, during the Shrub years, Grover held daily meetings at the White House in a room provided for him. One does not need to be elected in order to have immense power. If only he and his minions were as inept as the "Soggy Bottom Boys" being the "Power behind the throne, so to speak". Sadly, they are not.

  • slappy magoo on June 06, 2011 9:55 AM:

    The Democrats need to change their way of thinking and go in attack mode, constantly. But do it in a controlled precise way. The current Republican Party can not be part of a bipartisan process, and their policies can only doom us if given the sorts of power they "earned" in the 2000 election. An unfettered progressive vision of growth in America is the only thing that hasn't been tried lately. Nothing else is working. Maybe we can convince 50% of the voters plus 1 it's time to give that a shot. If only we had a leaders in the White House & Congress who believed it, instead of bipartisan cover seekers and cowards who are afraid to even have convictions let alone stand up for them

  • Mark on June 06, 2011 10:06 AM:

    What's striking is Norquist's admission that his pledge occurred to him when he was 14 years old (!) and was rooted in a tactic to win elections -- it had nothing to do with running a successful economy. It was based on no theory whatsoever (no matter how backward). Just an adolescent prank, unleashed to sink a nation.

  • jjm on June 06, 2011 10:08 AM:

    Pledging allegiance to Grover Norquist disqualifies an elected official from holding office.

    Where in the Constitution is it set forth that an elected official can have divided loyalties?

    I think it should be considered pure treason to bow before a king like Grover, especially one who is clearly mad.

  • Grumpy on June 06, 2011 10:09 AM:

    George H.W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge...

    ...Which he only made because the GOP's tax-aversion was already entrenched by 1988.

  • Grumpy on June 06, 2011 10:16 AM:

    For Republicans, it doesn�t work quite that way � they have ideological ideals that outweigh evidence.

    Have Republicans or conservative commentators ever tried to engage with this criticism? Do they accept it, embracing it as the natural order, or do they deny it and accuse liberals of putting ideology before evidence?

  • paul on June 06, 2011 10:28 AM:

    I wonder whether this is just a return of the "pie in the sky when you die" doctrine that the economic royalists of the pre-WWI era preached. If you believe that your policies are morally right, and your base also believes in an afterlife, then it's a fairly easy matter to justify an arbitrarily large amount of suffering in this world on the grounds that (right-thinking, at least) sufferers will eventually see their reward from a higher power.

    Of course, this attitude is much easier to take if you're not suffering at all now.

  • shpilk on June 06, 2011 10:31 AM:

    Lowering taxes on the rich can temporarily cause economy to react positively,but the waste of speculation creates bubbles which burst.Clinton rode the wave Reagan created;hundreds of thousands were 'employed' in high tech companies that never produced a meaningful product.

    The tech bubble,housing bubble are direct results of massive injections of wealth into the hands of the rich.

    In the 80s,the rest of the world followed as Reagan [with help of Democrats in Congress] massively reduced taxes on wealthy.
    Abandoning conservative economic values in favor of get quick rich schemes,which is what America did in the 80s has put capitalism in grave danger;we need to get back to strong real conservative economic policy of progressive taxation which rewards sustainable investment and discourages wild speculation.

  • Stephen Stralka on June 06, 2011 11:13 AM:

    I'd say it's long past time the general public knew something about Grover Norquist. How many voters know that this one man has somehow acquired a veto over the nation's tax policy? Letting them know that the entire Republican party jumps when this man cracks his whip might not be a bad electoral strategy for the Democrats.

  • Rick Massimo on June 06, 2011 11:18 AM:

    Gee, I wonder what the reaction would be if every Democrat in Washington signed a pledge to the unelected leader of a think tank promising to raise the top tax rate 2% a year in accordance with said unelected think tank leader's stated desire to bleed the rich until they're weak enough to drown in a bathtub?

    Call me crazy, but I think Our Media Stars would consider it A Thing.

    It’s been replaced by a contemporary Republican Party that, with remarkable unanimity, refuses to consider any policy that raises any tax on anyone by any amount at any time for any reason.

    McConnell and Boehner have both floated the notion that what we really need is to "broaden the tax base" so that "more people are contributing" - in other words, raise taxes on non-rich people. For some reason, this has not earned them a quick denunciation from Grover Norquist. I absolutely positively cannot imagine why not.

  • Bless on June 06, 2011 11:25 AM:

    I'd like the President, and the Democratic majority reestablished in next year's elections God willing, to "ram down the throats" legislation significantly increasing the tax liability of households making over a million. Seems to me since every thought by the Obama administration is going to be characterized with vitriol and convenient oversimplification, it'd be pretty easy to turn it around by educating the American people when asked why are you going after the upper class, simply reply, "Because it's the responsible thing to do."

  • Roddy McCorley on June 06, 2011 11:40 AM:

    One more time: The entity that currently calls itself the Republican Party is not a political party at all. At best, it is a pathology. (What else can one call an obsessive dismissal of fact and reality?) At worst, it is an active conspiracy to dismantle the legitimate government of this nation, if not the nation itself.

    But it is not a political party. Its utter disregard for the laws, institutions, security, economic health, and people of the United States of America should make that abundantly clear.

  • Kathryn on June 06, 2011 11:50 AM:

    It's a tiny bit encouraging that this article made the front page of the Washington Post, a slight whimper for tax sanity in a major corporate newspaper.

  • Gene Ha on June 06, 2011 11:54 AM:

    Republicans are perfectly happy to raise taxes on health insurance plans that cover abortion. And on union negotiated "Cadillac" health plans. But a carbon tax that used to be GOP orthodoxy in 1995? That's socialism.

  • wvmcl2 on June 06, 2011 12:29 PM:

    "Politico," had a profile of Grover Norquist a year or two ago in which Grover mentioned that he doesn’t like music.

    It made me think of those great lines from Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice" (V,i,83-88):

    The man that hath no music in himself,
    Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
    Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
    The motions of his spirit are dull as night
    And his affections dark as Erebus:
    Let no such man be trusted.

  • yellowdog on June 06, 2011 12:35 PM:

    There is at least one tax a lot of folks in the GOP would love to implement: a poll tax. I wish I could say it's not true, but it is.

  • Redshift on June 06, 2011 1:39 PM:

    Steve, I have to disagree; the "no taxes" pledge isn't just an article of ideological faith, divorced from GOP policy objectives. Look up "The Two Santas." The purpose of the no taxes orthodoxy is to allow the GOP to give "goodies" in the form of tax cuts when they're in power, while preventing Democrats from giving "goodies" in the form of government programs and services when they're in power.

    It's the result of an extremely twisted worldview that sees the effective governing and constitutional "promote the general welfare" actions as nothing but attempts to "buy votes." Thus in their own minds, this both justifies conservative attempts to "buy votes" by handing out tax cuts that accomplish nothing but enriching the already-wealthy recipients, and lets them think there's something noble and principled about their complete disinterest in actually governing.

  • Dan on June 06, 2011 1:42 PM:

    Who is Grover Norquist? By that I mean, who the fuck is Grover Norquist? Who the fuck elected Grover Norquist to anything? What the fuck is Grover Norquist doing dictating policy? What fucking idiot is doing Grover Norquist's bidding (we know the answer to that) and why (we don't know the answer to that)?

    And why can't someone tell Grover Norquist to go fuck himself?

  • MuddyLee on June 06, 2011 2:39 PM:

    Who contributes to the "think tank" that employs Grover Norquist? Is he one of the people paid by the Koch brothers? Are there any products we can boycott to hurt the people who help Grover Norquist ruin our government? Can we get MSNBC to publicize what Norquist is doing? Can we get Matt Taibi to write an article about him for Rolling Stone?
    We need to talk about Norquist MORE than conservatives talk about George Soros.

  • Sean Scallon on August 20, 2011 2:18 PM:

    The old Republican Party was also a minority. Few politicians want to go back to a time when they were powerless.

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