Was the big loser of this month's election Grover Norquist? It's starting to look that way, as an increasing number of Republicans in the House and Senate are announcing that they could be willing to violate the pledges they signed at the behest of the president of Americans for Tax Reform to never raise taxes under any circumstances. Nearly every Republican in Congress has signed the pledge at one time or another, but as President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats continue to insist that higher taxes on the wealthy be part of any deal to avoid the impending fiscal cliff, they may soon be worth no more than the pieces of paper Mr. Norquist reportedly keeps in a secret, fireproof safe.
Mr. Norquist has been branded as a boogeyman by Democrats, but in fairness to him, he was a symptom, not a cause, of the GOP's near-religious devotion to lower taxes as the cure for all ills. Mr. Norquist has been asking Republican candidates to sign his pledge for 25 years, and they have done so not because he has any inherent power — he has never been elected to anything — or because of his personal powers of persuasion. They have signed the pledge because of their belief that it would get them elected.
But in as much as Republican politicians seem to believe that whatever the nation needed at the moment Ronald Regan was elected in 1980 is what it needs now and forever more, voters realize that circumstances have changed. Ballooning deficits present a long-term threat to the economy, but the level of spending cuts that would be needed to get the nation's finances in order without increasing taxes would bring short-term devastation. Mr. Norquist may famously have championed the goal of shrinking the federal government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub," but that's not what the American people want — and to judge from their record the last time they controlled the federal government, it's not what Republican politicians want either.
Six in 10 voters interviewed as they left the polls on Election Day said they believe taxes need to go up. Fifty-five percent said they believe the American economic system favors the wealthy. And President Obama won a campaign in which he explicitly promised to raise taxes on top earners. Meanwhile, because the Bush tax cuts are set to expire automatically at the end of the year, Mr. Obama holds a powerful position. He can simply allow tax rates on everyone to go up on Jan. 1 and then start proposing tax cuts for the middle class and the poor.
It is this reality that prompted several prominent Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Bob Corker of Tennessee and Rep. Peter T. King of New York, to say over the weekend that they could be open to higher taxes as part of the right deal. Even Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader and an influential figure among House conservatives, played down the importance of the Norquist pledge in an appearance Monday on MSNBC.
The nation is going to have to make sacrifices in order to meet the difficult challenge of cutting the deficit without stifling economic growth, and simple fairness — not to mention economics — dictates that the rich, who control a greater share of national wealth than at any time since before the Depression, should be the first to do so. It is also important for Democrats to remember that raising taxes on the rich won't solve the problem by itself. It will require long-term budget constraint, and not just on military spending. It will also require efforts to control the rising costs of Medicare and Medicaid.
Progressive Democrats are now seeking to draw as strong a line in the sand around those programs as Republicans have previously on taxes. They are certainly right to object to proposals, like those contained in recent House Republican budget plans, to fundamentally restructure Medicare and Medicaid. But that doesn't mean they should be exempt entirely from budget cutting efforts. It is heartening to see Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and close ally of President Obama, making that point in a speech planned today at the liberal Center for American Progress. According to excerpts from his speech, Mr. Durbin is advocating against tying entitlement reforms to negotiations over the fiscal cliff — a stance that may not sit well with Republicans — but he is articulating the view that even liberals should support reforms to these programs as a means to ensure their long-term viability.
The White House and congressional Democrats should listen. After all, rigid inflexibility on entitlements is no more productive than the rigid inflexibility on taxes that Mr. Norquist has fostered for so long.