The Rise and Fall of Anti-Tax Terrorist Grover Norquist

Republicans flee his sinking ship.

Exactly one year after I called anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist to task for holding Congress hostage on the issue of new revenues, it’s beginning to look like the captives may finally be ready to remove their blindfolds. 

Over the past week, the nucleus of GOP defectors bidding adieu to Norquist and his “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” has continued to grow, with Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) joining apostates like Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.), and Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tom Coburn (R-Ok.) in hinting that they would be willing to break the pledge—“for the good of the country”—if tax increases on the wealthy are part of a wider bipartisan agreement that includes entitlement reform.

Republican leaders have signaled that they too have seen the writing on the wall—and it is no longer framed by the Americans for Tax Reform logo.

Earlier this month House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said they would be open to “more revenue” as part of a deal to avoid the across-the-board tax hikes and spending cuts set to clobber the American economy on January 2, 2013.  Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on Monday: “A lot has been said about this pledge, and I will tell you when I go to the constituents that re-elected me, it is not about that pledge, it really is about trying to solve problems.”

William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, told Fox News Sunday earlier this month: “It won’t kill the country if we raise taxes a little bit on millionaires … It really won’t.” Even billionaire Republican donor David Koch admitted in August that some tax increases may be necessary to reduce the deficit.

But Norquist, ever vainglorious, has shrugged off the mounting opposition. How could he not? The lifelong lobbyist, who turned 56 last month, has wagered his reputation—his entire identity, really—on a single dogmatic premise whose viability is constrained by economic factors well outside of his control. To admit as much would mean not only conceding defeat, but admitting that the whole bloody thing has been a farce.

On CNN Monday, Norquist dismissed his GOP detractors as having “impure thoughts”—as if asking the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share to avoid national catastrophe is akin to drooling over your neighbor’s 16-year-old daughter. He insists that the politicians who break his pledge are not shirking their commitment to him, but to the voters in their states.

Norquist is right about one thing: The pledge is not made to him; it’s made to the faceless cabal of anonymous millionaires who fund his group—the same ones who fund the campaigns of the candidates recruited to challenge, and in many cases unseat, those politicians brave enough to defy him. In the past, that veiled threat has given him all the leverage he’s needed to protect his fiefdom; and he is fairly confident the walls will hold this time too.

“It’s been 22 years since a Republican voted for a tax increase in this town,” he said in a recent interview. “This is not my first rodeo.”

But it’s only a matter of time before Grover gets bucked. A lot has changed since he locked his first three pledges—signed by Jack Kemp, Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich—in a fireproof safe a quarter century ago. The federal government borrowed billions of dollars to finance George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has spent billions more keeping the country from slipping into a second recession. We are deep in the red. Of course, new revenue alone won’t be enough to dig us out, but Democrats are ready to get to work and, thankfully, every day more and more Republicans appear ready to join them.

Like a school bully, Norquist is blind to the fact that his power ends at the playground and the rest of America doesn’t really care what he or his wealthy benefactors think. Poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans support higher taxes on wealthy Americans—who currently pay among the lowest rates on their earnings in the history of the federal income tax.

But don’t expect him to go down without a fight. The man who famously said he wanted to shrink government enough so that he can “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub” sees compromise as a virus that politicians need to be “inoculated” against.

At last count there are still 219 House members and 39 senators who remain committed to the pledge, according to Norquist. All but three of them are Republicans. Norquist will work overtime to circle the wagons and keep his obstructionist coalition together. However, as TIME’s Joe Klein pointed out last year: “There is one serious problem with Norquist’s antitax fetishism … It makes more sense as a marketing ploy than as public policy.”

And it’s that simple truth that will ultimately prove to be Norquist’s downfall.