By FRANK BRUNI
New York Times News Service
I once took a long train ride with conservative activist Grover Norquist. This wasn’t intentional. We found ourselves next to each other on the line to board, and we fell into a conversation, by which I mean that he did a great deal of talking, in that faintly maniacal way of his, while I presented a captive audience.
He continued to talk as we walked along the platform and was still talking as we entered the train, so it was more or less unavoidable that we sit together. Besides which, I was genuinely fascinated, which is a very different adjective from amused.
This happened earlier this year, around the time that pundits galore were weighing in on whom Mitt Romney should choose as a running mate.
Someday someone will write a dark history — a farce, really — of how Norquist managed to bring nearly all of the Republican Party to heel, compelling legislator upon legislator to lash themselves to his no-new-taxes pledge.
Until then we’ll have to content ourselves with his misfortune over the last few days. No sooner had a nation digested its turkey than his goose began to be cooked. The spreading rebellion in the Republican ranks was manifest on the post-Thanksgiving Sunday talk shows.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina dissed Norquist on ABC’s “This Week,” saying that “when you’re $16 trillion in debt, the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid becoming Greece.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Rep. Peter King of New York also stressed that the country’s current fiscal woes trumped vows made in less debt-ridden times, and over on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. John McCain signaled a receptiveness to new revenue, another dagger to Norquist’s dark heart.
All three Republican lawmakers were echoing previous comments of their own and of a small but significant cluster of colleagues, whose numbers continued to grow Monday, when Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, appearing on CBS’ “This Morning,” pronounced himself “not obligated on the pledge.” It’s as if some spell has at long last been broken, and the formerly bewitched villagers are rising up to defy their evil overlord and insist on the possibility of life and even mirth without a deduction for corporate jets.
I celebrate this not because I think tax increases are some budget panacea. They’re not even close. In fact there’s a serious risk of focusing too much on them and too little on entitlement reform and other potential savings, and one of the real values of the Republican Party has been its insistence, in theory if not always in practice, on careful attention to expenditures.
But over recent years the party lost much of its credibility in this discussion, by dint of the lavish spending and escalating debt under George W. Bush and because of a sophomoric, gimmicky purity that’s incarnate in Norquist, who has done his party real damage. He might as well have been onstage during that infamous Republican debate in August 2011 when all eight candidates for the party’s presidential nomination said that they wouldn’t accept even $1 in tax increases for $10 in spending reductions. They had devolved into dummies, and Norquist was their ventriloquist.
There’s no place for absolutists and absolutism in a democracy, which is designed for give-and-take, for compromise. That’s one of the lessons of “Lincoln,” which moviegoers are thronging to and intellectuals are swooning for precisely because it illuminates and validates the intrinsic and purposeful messiness of our system. It exalts flexibility. It venerates pragmatism.
And I hope that Republicans and Democrats alike will keep those principles in mind as we approach the fiscal cliff. Norquist certainly hasn’t, but then he bears no responsibility for governing and is concerned less with voters and their welfare than with those of us in the news media, who have been too quick to summon him, rewarding his staged and reliable vividness.
In a recent appearance on a Times webcast, he joked that government did need some funding, for “a military strong enough to keep the Canadians on their side of the border,” har-har. And he called taxes “thoroughly icky.” Then he winked, as if this were all just fun and games. To him, maybe. But the fun is fading fast.