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November 30, 2012

Democrats Stop Blaming Bush and Start Blaming Grover Norquist


In their endless quest to blame someone other than their own policies for the country’s economic ills, liberals are focusing less on former President George W. Bush and more on Grover Norquist, founder and president Americans for Tax Reform and creator of the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”

In the pledge, which has been signed by more than 1,200 state legislators, 238 members of the House of Representatives and 41 senators (mostly Republicans but also some Democrats) according to ATR’s website, the elected representative promises to oppose or vote against any net new tax increases.

And raising taxes on the wealthy has become the Democrats’ only solution to every problem.   Their 20 new taxes in ObamaCare, many of which hit the middle class, was just a downpayment.

If only Republicans had the courage to break the pledge and vote for Obama’s tax increases, Democrats fume, fiscal stability would return to the country and Washington would become a more congenial place.  The mainstream media appear to agree.

That economic fantasy got a boost recently when several Republicans asserted that they would not be constrained from raising taxes by having signed the pledge.  So perhaps a little perspective would help.

A newly elected member of the House of Representatives, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, recently told a group of state legislators at a conference in Washington that he did not run for office to become the tax collector for Barack Obama’s welfare state.  When that congressman refuses to vote for the Democrats’ tax increase proposals, it won’t be just because he signed the pledge.

I have attended Norquist’s Wednesday Meeting, a weekly gathering of about 150 conservative activists, many times.  (Full disclosure: I’ve known Grover for 20 years.)  Candidates running for office show up regularly to introduce themselves to the conservative community, and virtually everyone begins his or her short presentation by proudly boasting that of having signed the pledge.

No one forced them to sign it; they do so because they want their constituents and other conservatives to know that they can be trusted to oppose tax increases.  But the pledge also reinforces a fundamental policy difference: conservatives believe the government spends too much and liberals don’t.

The Heritage Foundation recently released several charts that expose the spending problem.  Between 1970 and 2010, median household income has grown from $41,358 to $51,360, an increase of 24.2 percent.  Total federal spending, by contrast, grew from $926 billion to $3.6 trillion, an increase of 287.5 percent.

To be sure, the big spenders are a bipartisan lot.  Look at the Heritage graph and it is clear that while government spending expanded rapidly in the 1990s under a Republican Congress and President Bill Clinton, it accelerated in 2001, when Republicans controlled both Congress and the White House.

In 2006, the voters booted the big-spending Republicans out, in part because Democrats promised to be more fiscally responsible.  It turns out they were even worse than Republicans.

When Obama was elected in 2008, Democrats went into a spending frenzy, which is the primary reason we have added $5 trillion in new debt over the past four years.

Yes, the recession reduced government revenues, dropping from an average of about 18 percent of GDP to a little more than 14 percent.  And they are still down, at about 16.1 percent.  For most families, when their revenue drops significantly they cut their spending.  Most states, also faced with a revenue shortfall, do the same thing.

Not so the federal government under Obama.  It supercharged spending, to about 25 percent of GDP.

As a result, a number of states are recovering from the recession; the federal government is only sinking deeper.

Several Republican congressmen have told me they learned their lesson.  Between 2001 and 2006 they talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.  They talked about limiting the size of government but voted to grow it.  They’ve said they will not make that mistake again.

Grover Norquist is not keeping them tied to the tax pledge, their principles are.

If those Republican pledge signers who are now criticizing the pledge are having second thoughts, they are free to change their positions.  But in fairness to their constituents, they should resign their office and run again in a special election.  That’s what then-Representative Phil Gramm of Texas did.  As a Democrat in the House, it became clear that the leadership would ostracize him for his conservative views.  So he resigned his seat and ran as a Republican in a special election—and won.

For the past four years—12 years, really—Democrats have blamed all the country’s problems on George W. Bush.  But recently they have started to blame Grover Norquist, too.  Grover certainly does his best to encourage new candidates to sign the pledge and those who have signed it to keep that commitment, but he is only the manifestation of a larger principle embraced by conservatives: It’s the government spending, stupid.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas.  Follow at


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