Has the Anti-Tax ‘Pledge’ Lost Its Edge?

For a middle-aged policy wonk, Grover Norquist sure provokes some powerful emotions: fear, loathing, reverence.

Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative nonprofit that advocates lower taxes and smaller government. It’s famous for getting legions of politicians to sign a pledge against raising taxes.

But as Congress and the White House struggle with how to deal with a debt load that threatens to cripple the economy, some of the Republicans who have stood staunchly with Norquist are starting to say they will consider voting to raise taxes. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), for instance, recently said, “I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge.”

The high-profile defections raise the question of whether Norquist’s spell has been broken.

Norquist, 56, has never been shy about pressing lawmakers to keep the pledge. Or about promoting his role in it. His organization’s website, on a page titled “Who Is Grover Norquist?,” playfully notes that he’s been compared to Madam Defarge and called “the dark wizard of the Right’s anti-tax cult.” (Norquist, incidentally, has been known to dabble in stand-up comedy.)

Norquist also runs an influential weekly meeting of conservatives and sits on the boards of the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union. He earned both his undergraduate and master’s degree in business at Harvard and worked in various conservative organizations before founding Americans for Tax Reform in 1985. He came to his convictions early – he started in politics as a teenager working for Richard Nixon.

But now, instead of amassing “Get out the vote” cards, he’s got a file of “Taxpayer Protection Pledges” signed by most of the nation’s most influential Republicans. The big question is how much political capital the pledges really represent.

“Nobody’s turning on me,” Norquist told reporters yesterday. But the defections are mounting.

Take, for example, Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who was just re-elected to a second term. “I’m not obligated on the pledge,” he recently told CBS News. “I was just elected. The only thing I’m honoring is the oath that I take when I serve when I’m sworn in this January.”