Like kissing babies and wearing a flag pin, taking Grover Norquist’s pledge was once considered a necessary step for Republicans seeking spots in Congress.
Norquist — the founder of the Americans for Tax Reform who once famously quipped “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” — authored the so-called “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which opposes all efforts to increase the income tax and opposes elimination of any deductions, unless they are matched by a tax cut.
Prior to November’s elections, 95 percent of Republican members of Congress had made the pledge, but support for Norquist’s hard-and-fast opposition is softening.
After sailing to re-election, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker simply went on Charlie Rose’s show and said he was not obligated to follow the pledge. With the country heading towards the fiscal cliff, Corker outlined a proposal: broadly, it reduces deductions for very high earners, coupled with money-saving changes to entitlement programs.
Corker isn’t the only Republican backing off the pledge. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, as well as John McCain, have both said they are “open” to limiting deductions. Even the hawkish Rep. Peter King said the pledge was no longer relevant.
Norquist, though, is holding firm, arguing this pledge is binding for life, not subject to the hemming and hawing of politicians. It seems a bit that Norquist thinks his pledge is more powerful than it actually is. That it is somehow Talmudic.
Americans applaud and revere politicians who stick to their principles, but we are still a pragmatic people, despite the cynics who claim compromise is dead.
Holding firm to a black-and-white ethic is one thing, but America also loves politicians willing to take a step back and seek compromise, who realize that almost nothing in the world is solved by intransigent clinging.
Tennessee has produced a fair number of politicians willing to buck convention and seek the greater good. Howard Baker may be the best senator the state produced in the 20th century.
He was a bridge builder and seeker of solutions. It was he who famously asked what and when President Nixon knew. He is a man unafraid to challenge the hardliners within his party.
Corker is now seeking his own legacy in his second term. He’s emerging as a foreign policy voice and now he’s presenting solutions to a dire economic situation. He’s not bound by Norquist’s pledge — indeed, he told Rose his only obligation is to his constituents.
It’s the kind of statement of which Baker would be proud.
“The only thing I’m honoring is the oath I take when I serve when I’m sworn in this January,” Corker said.
There’s cover now for Corker and his cohort as they flee from Norquist to embrace other solutions to averting crisis. Braying against tax increases may be good politics, but it’s bad governance, especially when the balance sheet is so out of whack.
There is, indeed, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend.
And there’s a time to look at those who came before and had the courage of pragmatism. A time for Corker to be like Baker.