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Republicans wisely break with Grover Norquist

By John P. Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 1:32 PM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
A growing number of lawmakers are abandoning Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge.
A growing number of lawmakers are abandoning Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: A growing number of lawmakers are breaking with Grover Norquist's tax pledge
  • He says they won't to pay fealty to anti-tax activist; he hems them in on dealing with debt
  • He says if Dems are to deal on entitlements and GOP on raising tax revenue, pledge has to go
  • Avlon: Even Reagan closed loopholes, raised taxes; time to realize extreme stance no help

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- Who's afraid of Grover Norquist?

Fewer and fewer Republicans, thankfully.

In recent days, the declarations of independence from Norquist's absolutist anti-tax pledge have been coming fast and furious.

Add Southern Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Lindsey Graham to the growing list, along with Reps. Peter King, Steve LaTourette and Scott Rigell.

Chambliss kicked off the most recent outbreak of common sense by telling a Georgia TV station, "I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge." He added, "If we do it (Norquist's) way, then we'll continue in debt."

John Avlon
John Avlon

On ABC's "This Week," Graham doubled down by saying, "I agree with Grover, we shouldn't raise rates, but I think Grover is wrong when it comes to we can't cap deductions and buy down debt. ... I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country, only if Democrats will do entitlement reform."

King agreed with Chambliss on NBC's "Meet the Press," saying, "A pledge you signed 20 years ago, 18 years ago, is for that Congress. ... For instance, if I were in Congress in 1941, I would have signed a declaration of war against Japan. I'm not going to attack Japan today. The world has changed, and the economic situation is different."

And on CNN last weekend, LaTourette and Rigell told Ali Velshi that they thought the straitjacket pledge was an impediment to dealing with the deficit and the debt.

This post-election outbreak of pragmatism is welcome and needed. These senators and congressmen are profiles in courage for speaking out against the stranglehold that one self-appointed activist and lobbyist has had on bipartisan governing.

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Norquist, who leads the conservative activist group Americans for Tax Reform, is both a colorful character and committed ideologue, infamous for sound bites like this: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

The signature item for Americans for Tax Reform is a pledge that commits signers to oppose any tax increases at all, for all time -- not just tax rate increases, but any increases in tax revenue.

News: Graham says he'd break no-tax 'pledge'

This distinction makes a real difference in the current deficit and debt deal negotiations. Going back to the Bowles-Simpson Commission, the obvious common ground for negotiations has been for Democrats to compromise on spending cuts and entitlement reform and Republicans to compromise on increased tax revenue. This can be done -- as the Bowles-Simpson Commission demonstrated -- by potentially even lowering some tax rates but closing loopholes to raise revenue. This is what's known as a win-win.

The biggest stumbling block for tea party conservatives has been Norquist, who says any new revenue violates the pledge and promises to invite a primary challenge to any member of Congress who puts revenues on the table. Given the number of safe seats carved up in the rigged system of redistricting, a primary challenge from the wings is what most members of Congress fear most. The result is gridlock: an inability to reason together and make a long-term deal for the good of the country.

Norquist: Pledge not to me, to the people
GOP turning on Norquist?
Searching for compromise
Pledging no new taxes

It is an ironic problem in some ways: Tea party congressmen rose to power on a promise to deal with deficits and debt. Putting anti-tax absolutism ahead of that goal may play well with special interests, but it undercuts the ability to govern in the national interest. That's what is at stake.

These pronouncements from Chambliss, Graham & Co. put them in the company of party leaders like John Boehner, John McCain and Jeb Bush, who have publicly dismissed the pledge as a distraction from the business of governing.

"I ran for office three times," said Bush, who is already being discussed as a 2016 candidate. "The pledge was presented to me three times. I never signed the pledge. I cut taxes every year I was governor. I don't believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people."

This pragmatic statement in the summer of 2012 helped break the fever of groupthink. Norquist called Bush's comments an "insult."

In July in an opinion column in the New York Times, respected fiscal conservative Sen. Tom Coburn put Norquist's pledge in perspective: "What unifies Republicans is not Mr. Norquist's tortured definition of tax purity but the idea of a Reagan- or Kennedy-style tax reform that lowers rates and broadens the tax base by getting rid of loopholes and deductions."

Coburn's refusal to pay an oath of fealty to the pledge resulted in a sniping war by Norquist. Most recently, Norquist displayed his distorted perspective by tweeting: "Barney Frank, Alger Hiss or Tom Coburn? who said this? 'I'm all for the very wealthy paying more taxes' "

Comparing Coburn to Hiss -- a convicted traitor and KGB agent -- was both ugly and revealing: This is what happens when partisan politics starts to look like a cult.

The real fault line for Republicans is between Norquist-style radicals and Ronald Reagan, who presided over the bipartisan 1986 tax simplification deal by closing loopholes to raise revenues. As Reagan said at the time, "We're going to close the unproductive tax loopholes that have allowed some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share." In addition, the "sainted" Reagan oversaw some 11 tax increases during his administration. To be sure, his overall goal was to slash rates and simplify the system -- but he was not nearly as absolutist as his activist acolytes who do not have to deal with actually governing.

Norquist's hold on the GOP has been loosening as congressional leaders recognize that this extreme, unelected activist is helping to hold a balanced bipartisan deal hostage. The election is over. The time for hatred, ideological obstruction and overheated rhetoric has passed. Reasonable Republicans and Democrats need to take on their respective special interests to get a long-term deficit and debt deal done.

It's foolish to be afraid of Norquist. The only pledge members of Congress should take is the Pledge of Allegiance.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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