Grover Norquist is either an irrelevant, "random person" or the fire-breathing puppet master of the Republican Party and the only thing standing in the way of a solution to the nation’s fiscal woes, depending on who you ask.
The debate over Norquist’s political influence has critical implications in relation to the ongoing negotiations over the "fiscal cliff," the term used to describe more than $600 billion in automatic spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to occur on Jan. 1, 2013.
As president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), Norquist is a favorite bogeyman among Democrats and the mainstream media due to the group’s "Taxpayer Protection Pledge."
More than a thousand federal and state lawmakers have signed the pledge, which serves as a formal vow to their constituents to "oppose any and all efforts" to raise taxes.
"Since its rollout with the endorsement of President Reagan in 1986, the pledge has become de rigeur for Republicans seeking office, and is a necessity for Democrats running in Republican districts," ATR writes on its website.
Norquist’s critics charge that the pledge promotes partisan gridlock in Congress and is the primary obstacle to a bipartisan solution to the country’s ongoing fiscal crisis.
At a breakfast discussion hosted by Politico on Wednesday, Norquist disagreed.
"The Republican brand is the party of not raising taxes," Norquist said. "The pledge allows people to credibly commit that they’re not going to raise taxes."
In the wake of President Barack Obama’s reelection victory earlier this month, some Republicans have expressed a willingness to offer new revenue in exchange for significant spending cuts and entitlement reform in a deal to avert the fiscal cliff.
The mainstream media has since latched to a narrative: Republicans are finally turning their backs on Norquist and his pledge.
"The media loves tax increases and they love intramural fighting in the Republican party," said Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center. "They’re going to feed that beast as much as they can."
Leading Democrats have sought to fuel the media’s fire.
"Republicans in both the House and Senate are deciding they no longer want to be married to this pledge," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y). "Republicans are saying they want a divorce from Grover Norquist."
Obama hinted as much during remarks Wednesday.
"I’m glad to see, if you’ve been reading the papers lately, that more and more Republicans in Congress seem to be agreeing with this idea that we should have a balanced approach," he said, referring to a budget compromise that includes both tax increases and spending cuts.
Norquist dismissed the notion of widespread Republican dissent on taxes as "a handful of people having impure thoughts."
He argued that the conditions under which Republicans touted as pledge dissenters would agree to violate the pledge are so unlikely as to render the issue moot.
"I’ve talked to [Sen.] Lindsey Graham on the phone after some of his pronouncements, and he’s said: ‘Oh, I would need 10-1 [ratio of cuts to tax hikes], and it would have to include permanent, unalterable entitlement reform,’" Norquist told Slate. "I said: ‘Lindsey, if that’s what it’s going to take to get you to raise taxes, I’m not going to worry about you. You are not in danger of being offered a silver unicorn, because unicorns don’t exist.’"
Still, Norquist hedged when asked directly whether Republicans could support a potential deal that included tax increases.
Republicans should first insist that the fiscal cliff talks take place on C-SPAN, as Obama originally had promised to do with the negotiations over health care reform, he said.
"If Republicans are being unreasonable the whole world will see it; if Obama’s being unreasonable the whole world will see it," Norquist told the Washington Free Beacon last week. "Let’s have an actual honest, transparent discussion, and not have to wait a year for Bob Woodward to write a book about it."
Norquist also suggested that any deal should be posted online for at least seven days before lawmakers vote on it. He said Republicans must "stop negotiating with ourselves" on taxes and instead work to shift focus onto what Democrats are willing to offer in terms of spending cuts and entitlement reform.
"Obama hasn’t put anything on the table that passes the laugh test," he said, referring to the president’s most recent budget proposals. Zero Democrats in the House have supported Obama’s budgets and Senate Democrats have failed to offer a budget proposal for more than three years.
"We haven’t seen a viable plan from Democrats," Sen. Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) said. "I don’t want to see Republicans continue to negotiate with ourselves until the president shows us his plan."
"Grover is right to be worried that if you agree to revenue without spending cuts, you're going to get screwed," said one Republican aide. "Unless there are substantial spending cuts and entitlement reform up front, Republicans should never agree to any kind of revenue increase."
The GOP aide said Grover’s alleged influence over the party was largely a creation of the media.
"Grover has never had the level of influence the media says he has," the aide said. "The media created this rise and fall."
Democrats have spent the better part of two years casting Norquist as a cruel dictator who strong-arms reluctant Republican politicians into supporting his anti-tax crusade.
"The truth is [Republicans] are terrified to violate the infamous Grover Norquist tax pledge even though they know Norquist is wrong—or if they don’t know, they should know," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said in November 2011. "They’re in a thrall, my Republican colleagues, they’re in submission to a man whose singular focus is keeping taxes low for the very, very, very wealthy no matter what the effect on the nation."
Republicans are quick to dismiss this portrayal of Norquist’s authority.
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) deflected a pointed question about Norquist’s influence last November, saying: "It’s not often I’m asked about some random person in America."
"We’re not against raising taxes because of one man or one pledge," a House Leadership aide said. "We're against it because it’s bad for the economy and kills jobs. We’ve been fighting against tax hikes for four years."
However, aides acknowledge that Norquist maintains plenty of strong allies within and outside of Congress, many of whom regard the pledge as a solemn oath to voters that lawmakers dare not break.
"If the Republican leadership does that it's going to spell disaster for the Republican Party," Bozell said. "All these stories about Republicans breaking with Norquist say they are valiant, brave, principled, doing the right thing, when they are really betraying, turning their backs on, defrauding the voters they made a pledge to."
Those voters ultimately will decide whether or not their elected officials break the pledge, Norquist said Wednesday. He gamed out how the GOP might salvage a long-term victory from the current fight over the budget even if the immediate outcome is less than favorable.
"You can lose a fight, and end up with the issue significantly stronger," he said, predicting that Obama was about to "overplay his mandate" just as he did after 2008. That overreach helped produce the Republican midterm wave of 2010.
Norquist predicted that if Obama gets his way on taxes the reaction from small businesses would "make the Tea Party look tame."
However, Republicans would not be in a position to benefit from the backlash if they "have their finger prints on the murder weapon," meaning a bad deal that raises taxes, he said.
Norquist’s critics within the GOP argue that his primary concern is self-preservation. They also say he frequently changes the meaning of the pledge, and of what constitutes a "tax increase," to avoid ever having to admit defeat.
"He’s a smart man and he's a survivor," one aide said. "He’s going to bend, and he is bending."