North by Norquist
The GOP should move away from extreme positions in order to work towards a bi-partisan solution to the fiscal cliff
In the aftermath of election day a few weeks ago, my primary worry about the results was that the Republican majority in the House and the Democrats in the Senate and the White House would be unwilling and unable to compromise. I thought the Democrats might see the reelection of President Obama as a sign they don’t need to listen to Republicans, and that the GOP would react to their defeat by digging in and sabotaging any efforts at bipartisan action. While I hoped progress could be made on issues such as women’s health, gay marriage and immigration reform, my most immediate concern was with the enormous threat of the fiscal cliff. If either party was unwilling to compromise the consequences would be devastating. I was most worried about the Tea Party element of the Republicans, who almost derailed the debt-ceiling talks just over a year ago. I doubted they would be willing to discuss an increase in government revenue in negotiations, which would have made a deal almost impossible to reach.
I was pleasantly surprised during the past few weeks, however, as many prominent members of the GOP have expressed a willingness to compromise. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has publicly stated that he is “willing to generate revenue” while Rep. Peter King (R-NY) has said that “everything should be on the table.” Other legislators, such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), have expressed similar opinions. All of these lawmakers’ willingness to compromise is commendable and makes the likelihood of financial disaster significantly less.
Interestingly these Republicans have not had to defend themselves from the party itself. Rather, their statements have been making headlines because of Grover Norquist, an anti-tax lobbyist who runs the group Americans for Tax Reform. His group has pressured the vast majority of Republicans in Congress to sign a pledge promising to never raise taxes or eliminate deductions, a pledge the Congressmen mentioned above would be breaking by including revenue increases in a compromise. He has responded to their statements with a promise to work against the reelection of anyone who breaks his pledge. And he has the resources and political clout to make a significant impact on any race in the future.
Norquist’s inflexibility is a huge problem not just for Republicans but for the whole country — but the current situation is also an opportunity. If Graham, Chambliss and King can convince enough of their colleagues to follow their example and compromise, then Norquist’s power, which comes from his hold on an overwhelming number of Congressmen, would be devastated. He won’t have the funding or support to make an impact on a large number of elections, and the Republican Party could begin to reshape itself as the party committed to solutions over rigid ideology. If, on the other hand, Norquist is able to cow Republicans into leaving Graham and co. isolated in their positions, there is a chance he could succeed in knocking them out of Congress, leaving the GOP with even fewer members capable of finding bipartisan solutions.
The Republican Party has a real chance right now to distance itself from overly rigid positions that played a significant role in their defeat on election day. It has been widely acknowledged that extreme positions and statements on immigration, gay marriage and abortion, among other social issues, were costly; and in many cases prominent members of the party have begun to shift their views in response. But I think the issue of taxation was also a factor — more than 50 percent of Republicans believe the best solution to the debt is a combination of spending cuts and increased revenue. By moving away from Norquist, the GOP would not only be gaining legislative breathing room, but also would be sending a message that the party is unwilling to allow its outer-right elements to keep it from serving a nation much closer to the center. Norquist is just one of the more powerful lobbyists in Washington, a standout in a group that wields far too much power in both parties. If Norquist were to fall, Republicans would be setting an example as a party willing to learn from its mistakes and listen to the people as a whole rather than well-financed special interest groups.
The United States needs two healthy parties to function effectively, and at the moment the GOP appears to be sliding toward irrelevance. This is due to changing demographics, a failure to connect to women voters and changing views on social issues, and the GOP will have to deal with all of these issues in some capacity. But by standing with Graham, King, Chambliss, and its members who are willing to put the country before partisan posturing, the Republicans would make a significant step toward reclaiming their place as the party of responsibility and could open doors to a more efficient and less drama-filled legislative process.
Forrest Brown’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.