By Tom Baxter
To understand what it took for U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss to renounce the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge last week, let us revisit a happier day for Republicans, the 2001 presidential inauguration of George W. Bush.
By the luck of the media seat lottery, I was on the first row facing the Capitol steps. The two Clinton inaugurations had been noisy, Jacksonian affairs, but it was bitter cold when Bush took office and when he began to speak, about the need to restore civility to public life, to reform the schools and refit Medicare and Medicaid for the long term, the response from the Republican throng was the muted thud of heavily-gloved hands.
Then, a couple of pages into his address, Bush said, “We will reduce taxes, to recover the momentum of our economy and reward the effort and enterprises of working Americans.” And before the last words of the sentence had reached the far side of the National Mall, there arose a lusty and heartfelt roar that thundered down Pennsylvania Avenue.
That’s how central taxes had become to the party’s identity in the aftermath of the Cold War. It was not simply a core issue for the GOP. It was the single, defining doctrine around which everything else revolved.
Over nearly a dozen years, much has changed: 9/11, two wars, the recession and the election (twice) of Barack Obama. But the fierceness with which the Republican leadership has defended the Bush tax cuts at the brink of the Fiscal Cliff is a testament to the lasting influence of the rigid anti-tax policy embodied in the pledge to oppose “any and all” attempts to raise income tax rates on individuals or businesses, and any reduction of exemptions and credits without a corresponding cut in tax rates. Over the past two decades, that pledge has become a virtual requirement for Republicans both in Congress and in state legislatures across the country.
“The pledge I signed 20 years ago was valid then… It’s valid now, but times have changed significantly, and I care more about this country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge,” Chambliss said last week in a telephone interview with Macon TV station WMAZ, making a public break with Norquist.
Chambliss hasn’t always been successful in getting his colleagues to follow his lead on deficit reduction matters, but many a Republican lawmaker has chaffed under the Norquist pledge, and by the weekend several, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bob Corker of Tennessee, had joined him.
The backlash was not long in coming, either, with Chambliss denounced on conservative blogs as, among other things, a “big government statist.” Interestly, Norquist, in a television appearance Monday, took the position the wayward Republicans have not yet actually violated the pledge, but were guilty of publicly stating “impure thoughts.” Even if there was a little joke in that, it was a comment that reflected the religious zeal of the anti-tax movement, and Norquist’s sense of himself as its cardinal.
Chambliss said last week he was taking his stand for the good of the country and not for political reasons. But the political side of him may have reasoned that he was going to draw a challenge within his party anyway, and that as red as Georgia might be, the voters aren’t likely to punish him for allowing the rates to increase on the top 2 percent of taxpayers in exchange for concessions elsewhere.
The list of potential 2014 Chambliss challengers has some significant names already, including former Secretary of State Karen Handel and U.S. Rep. Tom Price. It would take only one hat in the ring for the list to grow much longer. After this year’s Indiana fiasco, Georgia Republicans may be less willing to turn out an incumbent for a conservative challenger. In any case, Chambliss knew he had a battle on his hand, and decided to stake out roughly the same ground a centrist Democrat like Sam Nunn might have taken, as a pragmatist interested in getting things done. The test of that strategy will be whether things actually do get done.
Is Georgia so red that the survivor of a Republican primary battle, no matter how bloodied, could win the general election handily? That would depend partly on who the Democratic opponent might be, and right now that party’s bench is badly depleted.
Just by the numbers, it’s an interesting question. Mitt Romney carried Georgia by a wider margin this year than John McCain in 2008, when Chambliss fell into a runoff with Jim Martin, which he won with 57 percent of the vote. But Romney’s winning margin, 53.30 percent, was the lowest of any of the Southern states he carried, excepting his razor-thin victory in North Carolina.
That’s enough at least to set some Democrats to dreaming of 2014 possibilities.