Norquist's Demise Exaggerated

The media can't hide their glee over new pressures on the antitax crusader. It's left them blind to the seriousness of the coming fiscal debate.

Flickr/Gage Skidmore.The late Senator Eugene McCarthy once famously said political reporters are like blackbirds on a telephone wire: Whenever one flies off to alight upon another wire, all the others follow. The Washington press corps was in full McCarthy flight the past week after Grover Norquist, founder and leader of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform and custodian of the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” signed by hundreds of congressional members, appeared for lunch at the Center for the National Interest. The press corps promptly pounced upon Norquist with glee.

The central point hailed by the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times on the day after Norquist’s luncheon remarks was that this month’s presidential election and today’s politics of fiscal desperation have combined to send a potentially crushing force toward Norquist’s famous Pledge and hence his political standing. The reasoning goes like this: With Congress grappling with the “fiscal cliff” wrought by its earlier abdication of duty in creating the “sequestration” showdown in the closing days of this year, a compromise will be necessary to avert disaster; any compromise inevitably will have to include tax increases as part of the mix; that will mean many signers of Norquist’s Pledge will be forced to repudiate same; and that will cut the legs out from under Norquist and his entire organization.

In full disclosure, it should be noted that Norquist is a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for the National Interest, publisher of The National Interest, and an occasional TNI contributor. But his political predicament, and the media’s response to it, offers an intriguing case study in the dynamics of Washington politics in these times of governmental deadlock. The nature of the coverage following Norquist’s luncheon remarks is particularly noteworthy in this regard.

The L.A. Times piece, by columnist Doyle McManus, for example, carried the headline, “Grover Norquist the has-been” and proclaimed that “even he can’t ignore the signs that his hold is slipping.” The Post’s Dana Milbank, after quoting Norquist’s insistence that congressional Republicans will adhere to their anti-tax heritage even in the face of today’s fiscal crisis, writes with a smirk, “Also, the dog ate Norquist’s homework.” He adds that Norquist’s confidence on the matter suggests he has “been on a long trip in a remote location.” The New York Times piece, a front-page news feature rather than a column, took a more dispassionate approach but suggested that Norquist “finds himself in a tricky spot.”

It’s true: Norquist is in a tricky spot. But only the New York Times bothered to note that, as the paper put it, his “long record of success is a rarity in Washington.” The others didn’t add any such perspective on the man’s remarkable political history. Perhaps that’s because they agree with Arianna Huffington’s characterization of him as “the dark wizard of the Right’s anti-tax cult.”

Further explication can be found in an interview heard recently on American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” in which host Kai Ryssdal sought insights on America’s presumed anti-tax sensibilities from Jill Lepore, the New Yorker writer who also teaches history at Harvard. Listening to them over the airwaves, you could almost see them scratching their collective head in utter bafflement over Americans’ incomprehensible aversion to taxes and their inexplicable inability to understand why they are so important to any functioning society. There must be some explanation for this, Ryssdal pleaded. Well, yes, there is, replied Lepore; it’s because the anti-tax people have been so good at marketing their nefarious point of view in the political arena whereas their opponents—her people and, apparently, Ryssdal’s—simply defaulted on the task of selling the American people on the civic necessity of taxation.

There was no hint of any curiosity over what might be the optimal tax rate in any given polity at any given time; no hint of an understanding of the impact of tax rates on business activity or productivity growth (and certainly no perceived connection between productivity growth and GDP growth); no hint of an awareness that within the taxation debate was a more fundamental debate over the size and scope of the federal government—a debate, incidentally, that has swirled through American political history since the country’s inception.

It’s as if Lepore and Ryssdal wanted listeners to understand the issue as one between those who simply oppose taxation in absolute terms because they don’t understand how society works and those who understand that, as Lepore puts it (quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.), “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” It’s probably believable that such a view of the debate could be sincerely held by someone who divides her time between the New Yorker and Harvard. But considering the interview was conducted by a man who has gained national attention as the host of a heralded radio show on business, Ryssdal’s questioning was remarkably fatuous.

For further insight into all this, one can go to Lepore’s article in the current New Yorker. It purports to be a history of taxation in America, and like nearly all New Yorker pieces, it contains an abundance of serious information. But, also characteristically, the information is presented and ordered in ways to finesse elements of the story and present what is ultimate a distorted picture.