Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has suddenly become liberal Public Enemy #1 as the media pressures Republicans to accede to rising taxes. Frank Bruni devoted one of his excessively personal New York Times columns Tuesday to demonizing Norquist: "Is Grover Finally Over?" The text box: "Pledges are for purists, who have no place in a democracy." Is that how the paper feels about regulatory activists like Ralph Nader?
I once took a long train ride with Grover Norquist. This wasn’t intentional. We found ourselves next to each other on the line to board an Acela from Washington, D.C., to New York, 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.
Norquist was evidently guilty of regaling Bruni with the case for Mitt Romney choosing the governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño, as his vice presidential nominee. Bruni used the tale to accuse Norquist of not being a serious policymaker.
Someday someone will write a dark history -- a farce, really -- of how he 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.
Senator 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,” Representative 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,” Senator 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 on Monday, when Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, appearing on CBS’s “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.
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.
Billionaire investor and liberal hero Warren Buffett also took a crack at Norquist in the latest of one of his many op-eds for the Times calling for higher taxes on the rich. The Weekly Standard took Buffett to task for hypocrisy:
Warren Buffett is by now no stranger to the national debate over federal tax policy. In 2009, he penned a New York Times op-ed calling for "truly major changes in both taxes and outlays." Two years later, he returned to the Times with a widely publicized call for large tax increases on the "super-rich," noting that his own effective federal tax rate (17 percent) was far less than his employees' rates (ranging from 33 to 41 percent). President Obama liked the idea so much, he called for Congress to pass "the Buffett Rule" in his 2012 state of the union address.
Given that long, well-publicized history, there isn't much news to be found in Buffett's latest Times op-ed this morning, calling once again for a minimum tax on millionaires. Except that Buffett opens this one with a rifle shot at Grover Norquist specifically, and supply-side economics generally:
Suppose that an investor you admire and trust comes to you with an investment idea. “This is a good one,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m in it, and I think you should be, too.”
Would your reply possibly be this? “Well, it all depends on what my tax rate will be on the gain you’re saying we’re going to make. If the taxes are too high, I would rather leave the money in my savings account, earning a quarter of 1 percent.” Only in Grover Norquist’s imagination does such a response exist.
It's a catchy opener, attracting headlines and guffaws from the expected quarters. But I'm struck by his opener because I can think of at least one real-world example in which a rich investor nearly spiked a deal due to taxes: Warren Buffett himself, as recounted in Alice Schroeder's terrific biography, The Snowball.
Norquist himself responded to Buffett on CNN's Piers Morgan Tonight on Monday: "And for Buffett to not understand that if you take money out of the economy it's gone is a little bit odd. He's willing to write it. If he wants to write a check, he should write a check and shut up about what everybody else should do."