The man who's giving Obama a taxing time on debt
The political fallout from America's debt ceiling brinkmanship won't be clear until next year's presidential and congressional sweepstakes. But one man can already claim victory: anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, whose quarter century crusade has the Grand Old Party quaking in its boots, and Washington more paralysed than ever.
Although never having held elected office, the leader of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) has been a player in Washington for decades. The Massachusetts native cut his political teeth working on Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign, but it was Ronald Reagan who set him on his current jihad by asking him to create ATR back in 1985.
Flush with the backing of America's tax foe posterboy of the day, Norquist's ATR steadily gained influence via its Taxpayers Protection Pledge, which commits politicians in Congress and the 50 state legislatures to oppose any and all tax increases. Today, according to ATR's website, 41 of the Senate's 100 members have signed the pledge, as have 236 of the House of Representative's 435 members.
Predictably, aside from a spattering of Democrats over the years, the vast majority of signatories have been Republicans.
Norquist, who seems to love the limelight as much as he hates taxes, makes no bones about the consequences of violating his pledge: electoral retribution in the form of ATR throwing its money and influence behind primary season opponents of pledge violators.
Like his idol Reagan, Norquist sees government as the enemy.
"I don't want to abolish government," he once quipped. "I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." Norquist believes that, by starving the federal government of tax revenues, its size can be halved by 2025, and then halved again by 2050. The portly 56-year-old drills home his ideology via weekly closed-door meetings at ATR's Washington headquarters where he moderates strategy sessions between 200-odd congressional Republicans, members of right- wing think tanks and lobbyists.
Still, some Republicans occasionally buck him. In June, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma led a bloc of 34 Republicans in the Senate in sponsoring a deficit-cutting bill to end $6bn in ethanol subsidies. Norquist -amp; Co branded the bill a tax hike and, with the help of ATR lobbying, the bill was eventually defeated.
Coburn later blasted Norquist saying, "What's more conservative? To fix the country and not let it go bankrupt, or to follow a pledge to Grover Norquist? We cannot allow one individual to have that kind of power over a vote that can help fix the country."
The Norquist-fearing GOP of today is a far cry from the party of 50 years ago.
Then, as the country emerged from the Second World War, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower kept taxes on the wealthy at 91%, and the country enjoyed widespread prosperity.
Polls show that a majority of Americans think Republicans deserve the lion's share of the blame for the debt ceiling debacle. And that fact may come back to haunt some of the more strident members of the Republicans' Tea Party caucus at the polls in 2012.
As for Grover Norquist, who pulled in $200,000 in 2009 for his ATR work (working only 24 hours week) he'll not be worried about the ire of voters.
After all, why bother with elections when you've already got Congress under your thumb?