In the wake of their overwhelming defeat last week (at least relative to expectations a few months ago), Republicans are wondering how to improve their position in the next election. John Boehner has apparently told his caucus to “get in line” and support negotiations with the president over the “fiscal cliff” and the national debt. More shockingly, The Hill reported rumblings that Grover Norquist’s stranglehold over tax policy may be weakening, with one Democratic aide even saying, “As far as [Norquist’s] ability to sway votes, it’s gone.” Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge forbids lawmakers from voting for legislation that would either raise tax rates or increase tax revenues; if Republicans are questioning the pledge, that might pave the way for a bipartisan compromise to increase taxes.
Norquist’s response: “Nobody’s actually broken the pledge. That doesn’t keep me up at night.” He’s right not to worry. He has history on his side.
Let’s take a brief look at American political history since the 1970s, courtesy of the incomparable xkcd:
That picture shows the composition of the House of Representatives from the late 1970s to the 2010 election. (The full picture goes all the way back to 1789.) The colors indicate ideological positions as measured by DW-NOMINATE scores. Bright red is center-right, medium red is right, and dark red is far right. The major pipes feeding in from the right are net increases resulting from elections: note for example the wave elections of 1994 and 2010.
The modern conservative movement was founded on a marriage of principle and pragmatism. Back in the 1980s, Newt Gingrich realized that ideological purity could be a winning political strategy: by holding out for small government and low taxes, he attracted far-right groups that had been ignored by both parties for decades as well as rich donors who were looking for a new place to invest their money. His fundraising prowess, organizational discipline, cultivation of talk radio, and networking with grass-roots conservative groups made possible the Republican sweep of 1994. Over the next decade, the increasing influence of key conservative power brokers continued the purge of moderate Republicans and their replacement by extremists (note the disappearance of the bright red). (For the full story, see chapter 3 of White House Burning.)
But the key thing to note is what happened when the conservatives lost, notably in 2006 and 2008. One possible response would have been to realize that the party had become too extreme and tack back toward the center. We know that didn’t happen, as illustrated by the dark red influx of 2010. Between principle and pragmatism, Republicans chose principle.
Why do Republicans behave this way? There are many reasons. The funding that they need to win elections comes largely from a small number of extremely conservative power brokers such as the Koch brothers. Widespread gerrymandering means that elections are settled at the primary stage, where the power of far-right groups (Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, etc.) places a premium on ideological purity. (For whatever reason, the trend toward the extreme has been much weaker among Democrats.)
The anti-tax platform also possesses a self-reinforcing simplicity. The vision of small government and lower taxes is clear and compelling in the abstract (even if it could be devastating in practice). The “no new taxes” pledge is trivially easy to monitor and, once broken, provides a convenient bludgeon for a primary opponent to use. It’s not a position that easily accommodates compromise.
Finally, if you take the long view, there’s no reason for conservatives to back away from their absolutist anti-tax stance. So they lose an election or two. What happens? When it comes to taxes, Democratic majorities at best hold the line against further tax cuts. After their sweep in 2008, President Obama and his congressional allies passed a couple of modest tax increases to pay for Obamacare (and one of those, the excise tax on Cadillac plans, is one that conservative economists profess to like), but also extended the Bush tax cuts and added a few more tax cuts of their own; now Obama wants to make more than 80 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent, and last summer he offered up his own proposals for entitlement cuts. When the Republicans return to power, as they inevitably will, they can just pick up where they left off.
Sure, some Republicans will say that they don’t take orders from Grover Norquist. But for the last eighteen years, the hardline anti-tax position has been a huge winner for Republicans. Given that Democrats have shown exactly zero ability to punish them for it, I can’t see any reason why they should change their ways now.
If there is some sort of compromise in the next couple of months, it’s going to be one that Republicans can frame as a tax cut, not an out-and-out violation of the Grover pledge; one scenario is that the year ends with no deal, tax rates go up, and then Obama and the Republicans agree to cut them. Because at the end of the day, Peter Steiner is still right.