A rift over the GOP's tax pledge?

Over the past generation, the GOP's pledge to introduce no new taxes has become the essential conservative credential. But some Republicans are refusing to sign.

Lauren Victoria Burke/AP/File
In this April 2011 file photo Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Some newly elected Republicans are refusing to sign Norquist's tax pledge, formerly a rite of passage for the GOP.

Rosalind Helderman of the Washington Post reports in Saturday’s paper that a “Faint rift opens in GOP over tax pledge”–referring to the pledge that Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist has compelled virtually all Republican policymakers to sign.  Helderman explains how the ground seems to be shifting:

In GOP activist circles it is known simply as “the pledge,” and over the past generation it has become the essential conservative credential for Republicans seeking elective office. Of the 242 Republicans in the House today, all but six have signed the pledge.

But now, an increasing number of GOP candidates for Congress are declining to sign the promise to oppose any tax increase, a small sign that could signal a big shift in Republican politics on taxes.

Of the 25 candidates this year promoted by the National Republican Congressional Committee as “Young Guns” and “Contenders” — the top rungs of a program that highlights promising candidates who are challenging Democrats or running in open seats — at least a third have indicated they do not plan to sign the pledge authored by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.

Why the change in heart?  For one reason, because the lopsided, no new revenues (not just no new higher tax rates) stance just doesn’t make policy sense to many of these Republicans, who can’t see how spending-side-only approaches are easier than approaches involving a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases:

Republican candidates declining to sign generally indicate that they nevertheless oppose tax hikes. But some chafe against the constraint on eliminating tax loopholes, believing those restrictions limit Republicans’ ability to negotiate seriously with Democrats on a deal to tackle the nation’s mounting debt.

In Pennsylvania, Republican state Rep. Scott Perry said he was disappointed to see his party’s presidential candidates — all but one of whom signed the pledge — uniformly indicate in a debate last year that they would reject a deficit reduction deal that paired $1 in revenue increases for every $10 in spending cuts.

“I just think it’s imprudent to hem yourself in where you can’t make a good agreement that overall supports the things you want to do,” said Perry, who said he generally opposes tax increases but recently won a Republican primary in a conservative district over candidates who had signed the pledge. “I just don’t see what the point of signing would be for me. .?.?. I’ve got a record, and everyone who wants to know where I’ve been and where I’m at can look to that.”…

“I don’t want to get tied up in knots,” said Richard Tisei, an NRCC Young Gun and former Republican state senator in Massachusetts who is running against Democratic Rep. John F. Tierney. “If there’s a loophole that can be closed that ends up generating additional revenue that can be used specifically to pay down the national debt, I’m not going to lose sleep. And I don’t want to be bound by the pledge not to close it.”

The refusals among some new candidates come as a handful of incumbent Republicans who signed the pledge when they first ran for office also are publicly rejecting it.

Freshman Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), who signed the pledge in 2010, recently posted an open letter to constituents indicating that he would not renew the promise as he runs for reelection. He said he fears it could stand in the way of an everything-on-the-table approach to tackling the mounting debt.

“Averting bankruptcy requires us to grasp the severity of our fiscal condition and summon the courage to speak boldly about the difficult steps needed to increase revenues and sharply decrease spending,” he wrote.

For another reason, it seems that voters don’t find a candidate’s blind allegiance to one man’s idea of the best fiscal policy very attractive:

[A]fter months of Democratic attacks on ATR and Norquist as obstacles to a debt deal, some Republican candidates report that they are hearing from more voters who want them to reject the pledge than the opposite.

Gary DeLong, a member of the Long Beach City Council who is labeled a “contender” for a House seat by the NRCC, said he is routinely encouraged on doorsteps and at town halls and candidate coffees to avoid the pledge.

Voters “ want me to represent them and not special interests,” said DeLong, who will compete next month in California’s unusual mixed-party primary for one of two spots on the November ballot in a newly drawn district.

What is it that has kept so many Republican policymakers so enthralled with Norquist, despite all the evidence to the contrary that “no new taxes” just makes no sense–and (perhaps the most puzzling part) despite Norquist’s lack of charisma?  Senator Coburn has certainly been working to get his colleagues to snap out of the Norquist trance; the Post article concludes with this:

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a fiscal conservative who has tangled with Norquist, said he believes candidates are starting to understand that the ATR pledge’s power has been exaggerated by Norquist and the media and that Norquist is wrong when he asserts that it is nearly impossible to win a Republican primary without signing the pledge.

“That’s him patting himself on the back,” Coburn said. “And I think it’s bull crap.”

[UPDATE 3 pm Sunday:] And this just out from another Republican who’s even more fed up than Coburn about Norquist… Former Senator and co-chair of President Obama’s fiscal commission, Alan Simpson, had this to say today on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS (as reported on Talking Points Memo):

“For heaven’s sake, you have Grover Norquist wandering the earth in his white robes saying that if you raise taxes one penny, he’ll defeat you,” [Simpson] added. “He can’t murder you. He can’t burn your house. The only thing he can do to you, as an elected official, is defeat you for reelection. And if that means more to you than your country when we need patriots to come out in a situation when we’re in extremity, you shouldn’t even be in Congress.”

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