Grover Norquist occupies an odd position in American politics. He is not an elected official but he has had more influence over elected officials than arguably any other single person -- for he is the giver and keeper of "The Pledge."
Just as matrimonial vows cement a marriage, the Norquist promise binds the faithful to the most holy tenet of conservative ideology, something equivalent to an 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not raise taxes.
It actually is a little more verbose than that: The promise that members of the House and Senate make to their constituents is "ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates."
Mr. Norquist's role as a political puppeteer draws strength from his being president of Americans for Tax Reform. As its website boasts, "Since its rollout with the endorsement of President Reagan in 1986, the pledge has become de rigueur for Republicans seeking office, and is a necessity for Democrats running in Republican districts."
For years almost every Republican in Congress has taken the pledge -- until now. That's because the pledge has run into a hard piece of reality in the form of the so-called fiscal cliff, the harsh across-the-board spending cuts and higher tax rates that will occur if Congress can't reach a deficit-reduction agreement by the end of the year.
As it is generally agreed that the deficit can't be conquered by spending cuts alone but will also require new revenues (read: taxes), those who took the pledge find that they have painted themselves into a corner. How can they reach a compromise when one of the options is forbidden to them by their own rash promise?
In what might have seemed heresy until recently, some pledge-takers are having second thoughts. For instance, as the Associated Press reported, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, says the only pledge that he will keep is his oath of office. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, says he cares more about his country than sticking to the Norquist pledge. Of course, the real test will come when the results of the negotiations are known.
Never say never, according to an old saying, and the truth of that is confirmed by this crisis. It is one thing for a politician to promise that he or she will do everything possible to avoid raising taxes and will do so only as a last resort; it is another to let the country be wrecked for the sake of ideological purity. That hard-earned wisdom is no friend of Mr. Norquist and his unrealistic promise.