Let’s hope U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn and anti-tax fanatic Grover Norquist continue their feud if only so that it creates a discussion over one reason Washington Republicans have become so obstinate and paralyzed in recent years.
Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, is a political extremist who urges Republican politicians to sign his Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which is a promise not to vote to raise taxes. This is one of his infamous quotes: “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.” Unfortunately, that remark can be seen as an intellectual center of the GOP these days.
Many political observers, especially on the left, believe Norquist holds the Republican Party hostage to a short-sighted and extreme view of the supposed evils of government. Norquist’s starve-the-beast pledge leaves no room for compromise and generates mindless sloganeering and reductionist clichés. More importantly, Republican politicians who have taken the pledge may well have abdicated their rights as independent, thinking leaders.
Lately, however, Norquist has come under fire for defining a tax hike in extreme terms. A tax hike, under Norquist logic, could also be as simple as getting rid of tax loopholes. This has angered some Republicans, and Oklahoma’s junior senator, in particular, has apparently had enough. After Norquist opposed Coburn’s effort to end some tax earmarks for the ethanol industry, the senator fired back with a New York Times op-ed, arguing the “‘starve the beast’ strategy to shrink the size of the federal government by cutting revenue but not spending was a disaster.” Coburn writes:
Senate Republicans – and many House Republicans – have repeatedly rejected Mr. Norquist’s strict interpretation of his own pledge, a reading that requires them to defend every loophole and spending program hidden in the tax code. While most Republicans do, of course, oppose tax increases, they are hardly the mindless robots Democrats say they are.
That’s strong language to which Norquist, who always seems available for a quote of the absurd, responded by suggesting Coburn had “gone native or developed Stockholm Syndrome” because of the influence of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat.
Obviously, Coburn and Norquist aren’t getting along these days. Yet as much as Coburn wants us to believe that ideologues and “mindless robots” don’t control the Republican Party right now, the paralysis in Washington tells us otherwise.
Norquist is just part of the problem. The Republican leadership in both the House and Senate has taken a stance to oppose virtually any major initiative presented by the administration of President Barack Obama. For example, Republicans in the House have voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act an astonishing 33 times. The votes are meaningless displays of ideology, encouraged undoubtedly by Norquist-like dogma and Norquist-like obstinance.
The fight in the Republican Party is far from over, and it will probably get worse before demographics, modernity and pragmatism (or perhaps more financial calamity) move the GOP back to a more sane version of conservatism. It’s difficult to believe that Coburn, for a number of reasons, will be a major part of the Republicans’ journey back to at least some rationality, but his criticism of Norquist could become a starting point.