“The only pledge I’d sign is a pledge to sign no more pledges.” That bit of wisdom came from Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, during his successful run for a U.S. Senate seat. Now a few of his more courageous colleagues are taking the same path and renouncing the politics of purity.
For more than 25 years, most Republican officeholders have bowed to the browbeating of one unelected, unappointed lobbyist named Grover Norquist, who demanded that they sign a pledge to never, ever raise taxes of any kind. That vow ranks as one of the worst ideas to infect Washington in the last generation, so the “no more pledges” movement is an especially heartening development.
A total ban on new taxes cripples the ability of the government to meet its mounting fiscal obligations. Every sane person in the capital knows that additional revenue must be part of any deal to diminish the deficit. So no new taxes means no deal. Ever. Period.
But Norquistism is even worse than that. It epitomizes the larger idea of politics as theology, as holy war. Orthodoxy is demanded and enforced. Heretics are burned at the stake (or at least challenged in primaries). Compromise, one of the noblest words in the political language, is denounced as caving in and selling out.
Principles are essential in politics. So are goals and demands and negotiating positions. But this is a vast country that encompasses a wide diversity of races and nationalities, religions and ideologies, geographical and economic interests. It cannot function without compromise. It cannot function if one group says it has the truth, its principles must prevail, and it will never negotiate.
Norquistism is essentially undemocratic, because democracy depends on a decent respect for differing opinions and viewpoints. Without that respect, Democrats and Republicans become Sunnis and Shiites, and Washington becomes Baghdad without the car bombs.
The great genius that separates us from Europe (to say nothing of the Middle East) is the essential pragmatism of the American spirit. We do what works. We live in a real world, not an ideological fantasyland.
That’s why the last few days have been so encouraging. A growing number of Republicans have been willing to say: The Emperor Grover has no clothes and no power, as long as enough Republicans stand up and defy him.
Here’s Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina: “I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country ... the only pledge we should be making to each other is to avoid being Greece.” Rep. Peter King of New York: “The world has changed, and the economic situation is different ... We should not be taking ironclad positions.” And Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia: “I care more about the country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge. If we do it (Norquist’s) way, then we’ll continue in debt ... I’m willing to do the right thing and let the political consequences take care of themselves.”
But this outbreak of realism has to work both ways and cross party lines. Graham is right to say that he’ll support new taxes only “if Democrats will do entitlement reform.” Yes, Obama won the election, and, no, the Democrats don’t have anyone as doctrinal or domineering as Norquist. But liberal interest groups are massing to defend every dime of existing benefits, and the president and his allies have to be willing to take them on, to show the same level of pragmatism and flexibility they expect from the Republicans.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said it well: “The election didn’t give either party a mandate. What voters gave both parties is a work order. They told us to work together to solve this problem fairly and wisely.”
That kind of cooperation will be hard to accomplish. Along with their “work order,” voters sent back a Congress more polarized than ever. Forty-one percent of those voters called themselves moderates, and yet the center is shrinking on Capitol Hill. Reasonable Republicans such as Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine (who retired) and Richard Lugar of Indiana (who lost a primary) will be gone come January. The Blue Dog Democrats, a group of House centrists that once numbered more than 40, will shrink to about 15 members.
“Congress seems to be going in the opposite direction of the country, just as the country is screaming for solutions to gridlock,” Democratic strategist Phil Singer told The Associated Press.
Leaders have to lead. The grown-ups have to take back control. And the “no more pledges” movement has to gain traction — in both parties.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.