Ayatollahs seem to just appoint themselves and then start enforcing their own brand of orthodoxy. Grover Norquist has been doing that in the Republican Party for years.
Mr. Norquist has never been elected to anything. Nobody ever said he should be in charge of the GOP's true religion (although he claims President Ronald Reagan urged him to found his lobbying group, Americans for Tax Reform). But he certainly has been the Republicans' key political theologian who made opposition to tax increases the party's central tenet for more than 25 years.
He got 95 percent of Republican candidates for Congress, the presidency and state offices to sign a pledge never to raise taxes, and he enforced it by getting retribution at re-election time on any who failed to keep their promise. Now, though, he is facing a dramatic rebellion in the ranks. The country is teetering on the so-called fiscal cliff thanks to Republican-backed legislation from 2011 that will automatically begin slashing the federal budget and raise taxes on January 1 if an alternative plan is not adopted by Congress. This has everyone a bit freaked out, including quite a few GOP senators and representatives who have expressed a willingness to consider revenue increases for the sake of making a budget deal with the Democrats.
Mr. Norquist calls such ruminations "impure thoughts." He has said anyone who thinks them is "an idiot" and has warned that those who abandon the pledge will pay at the polls. Speaker of the House John Boehner continues to take a no-tax-increase stance, and he is the Republicans' key player in this confrontation with President Barack Obama. Yet, even Mr. Boehner has opened a tiny bit of wiggle room by saying more revenue could be found by closing loopholes and trimming deductions. When asked if Mr. Norquist might reckon that as heresy, Speaker Boehner said he could not let "some random person" call the shots.
Mr. Norquist has never been random -- he has been the specific guy who kept Republican officeholders in line. He is still trying to play that role, insisting that his guys will hold firm while the president caves under pressure and allows all the Bush era tax cuts to live on. But Mr. Obama never has to run for office again. He has political capital to burn while plenty of Republicans know they will inherit a heap of blame if a deal is not reached and the economy goes into a nosedive.
Ayatollahs enforce their authority by threat. In the past, Republican candidates were acutely aware of Mr. Norquist's clout and avoided crossing him. Today, the bigger threat may be what will happen if they fail to reach a budget compromise. The election of 2012 revealed a country in transition and polls repeatedly show a big majority of voters would not be offended if the richest Americans got bumped up to the tax rates they paid in the Clinton years. Minds may be changing and, if the faithful no longer heed his call, Ayatollah Norquist will be demoted to just another Beltway lobbyist.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.