The lead editorial in today's Wall Street Journal throws a generous arm around Grover Norquist and assures readers he is not the problem in Washington. Elsewhere, liberal columnists are rejoicing over the perceived diminution of Norquist's power -- a result of a couple of Republican senators lately suggesting they won't be bound by the Norquist-sponsored pledge not to raise taxes.
The leader of Americans for Tax Reform (substitute the word "elimination" for "reform" and you capture the essence of the agenda), Norquist has genuine power as head of a group that made more than $15 million in independent expenditures in the 2012 campaign.
But Norquist is largely a figurehead. He is the most vocal and public monomaniac among a network of groups funded by Republican millionaires who oppose higher taxes on the wealthy. Spreading ATR's $15 million among dozens of House and Senate and gubernatorial races wouldn't produce a kingmaker. But if you add that $15 million to the generous flow of independent expenditures from Americans for Prosperity ($33 million), the Club for Growth ($20 million), FreedomWorks ($19 million) and Ending Spending ($15 million), to name a few of the big boys in the Don't-Tax-Me industry, you've got quite an arsenal. Enough, in fact, to make examples of a few politicians -- and thereby keep everyone else hewing to a policy that exposes the Republican Party to justified ridicule as a handmaiden to the wealthy.
As any Republican in Washington can tell you, some of the anti-tax lobby's vast sum of money is spent punishing Republican incumbents who are insufficiently radical. The Club for Growth bundled $330,000 in contributions to Richard Mourdock, the Republican primary opponent of Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana. The group spent another $1.45 million running radio and television ads against Lugar, attacking him for "bailouts" and "tax hikes" and for working with "liberals" in Washington. (Mourdock is a Club for Growth kind of guy: His definition of "compromise," which he described after his primary victory, consisted of "Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government.")
Mourdock lost in the general election. But what does that matter to a Republican currently contemplating voting for a tax increase? Mourdock may not be entering the Senate, but Lugar is most definitely exiting it.
Despite reports of Norquist's political demise, it's not at all clear that he and his band won't prevail. Many Republicans have come to believe that the nation's interests are indistinguishable from the interests of the wealthiest tranche. Others, being politicians, are fearful of crossing a gang that invests tens of millions -- hundreds of millions if you count the more traditionally partisan, less fanatical, contributions of Karl Rove's Crossroads groups -- in maintaining orthodoxy.
There is no similarly successful system for punishing Democrats who defy particular interest groups, which is why Democrats will have more leeway to fiddle with spending than Republicans will have to fiddle with taxes. Like many apparent Republican advantages -- conservative media that acts as an arm of the party, an electoral lock on Southern white conservative votes -- the rich infrastructure of conservative third-party political groups is proving to be as much a hindrance as a help, locking the party into irrational, unpopular positions.
The Journal is correct. Some guy named Norquist really isn't what's wrong with Washington. A bigger problem is that a few thousand very wealthy donors -- not all of them especially public spirited -- maintain a stranglehold on one of the two major political parties. If Republicans want to win national elections, more than a couple senators will have to acknowledge that power -- and confront it.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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