Listening to Democrats and the media, you could be forgiven for thinking the point of a deal over the looming "fiscal cliff" wouldn't be to reduce the deficit so much as to reduce the influence of one man, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.
Known to one and all simply as Grover, he is the keeper of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge signed by almost all Republicans committing themselves not to raise taxes. For this offense, Grover is deemed the enemy of all that is right and just.
The pollster and ABC News commentator Matthew Dowd said on "This Week" that "Grover Norquist is an impediment to good governing. The only good thing about Grover Norquist is that he was named after a character from Sesame Street." Not everyone has been as juvenile as Dowd, but he captured the gleeful spirit of the anti-Norquist pile-on.
The idea that we'd have "good governing" only if more tax increases were thrown on top of poorly designed, out-of-control entitlements, wasteful subsidies, rotten schools and an ever-growing mess of regulation is fanciful. Obamacare increased taxes by more than $500 billion, and our governing did not noticeably become better as a result.
Grover has three insights that are absolutely correct: 1) Revenues from tax increases will almost invariably be spent. Does anyone believe that if George W. Bush had not cut taxes early in his first term that the Tom DeLay and Nancy Pelosi Congresses wouldn't have, in their collective wisdom, found ways to spend the additional revenues? 2) The typical structure of the Washington budget deal is tax increases now in exchange for promised spending cuts over time that don't materialize. 3) The Republican brand is dependent on its status as the anti-tax party.
These aren't alien beliefs foisted on the Republican Party, but represent GOP orthodoxy. Nonetheless, everyone acts as if Grover is the instrument of the party's Babylonian captivity. If only the dastardly Norquist didn't make Republicans say they won't raise taxes - and put it in writing - the party could fulfill its role in the "good governing" of Washington, namely joining Democrats to raise taxes.
The proof of the supposed perversity of Grover's influence is the widely cited hypothetical example of a Democratic offer to cut $10 in spending for every $1 in new tax dollars. Of course, it's all academic because such a deal will never, ever be on offer. Hypotheticals work both ways, or they should. What would Democrats be willing to accept in exchange for signing off on a premium support plan for Medicare? Nothing.
What makes this time different than prior budget showdowns is that Republicans can remain technically compliant with the pledge by doing nothing, and taxes would still go up on everyone automatically at the end of the year. A deal, then, could make sense, depending on the parameters. As the cliff approaches, all the pressure within Washington and within the media will be for Republicans simply to cave to the president. Grover will make it as painful as possible for them to do it, and should wear the resulting elite obloquy as a badge of honor.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review, a magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr., featuring conservative commentary on American politics.