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Why Republicans Became Anti-Tax Extremists

How did the GOP become so unreasonable on the issue? Here's a hint: Grover Norquist had nothing to do with it

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It was led by Newt Gingrich, the second-ranking House Republican. He had designs on Michel’s job, and saw the tax deal as the perfect opportunity to make his move. Declaring it a sellout of conservative principles that would wreck the economy, Gingrich declared his opposition to the plan and urged Republicans to join him. Most of them did – enough to deliver Bush a humiliating defeat when the package first came to the House floor, but not quite enough to sink the revised version that emerged a few weeks later. Still, Gingrich had made his point: Most of the party was with him, not Bush.

Two years later, Gingrich and every other Republican who’d savaged the ’90 deal got to claim vindication, too, when Bush was defeated for reelection. In the story they told, Bush’s tax hike had caused the early ‘90s recession, thereby guaranteeing his loss at the polls. In reality, the recession had already begun when the tax deal was struck, and it actually ended months after it was implemented. But when voters went to the polls in the fall of ’92, most didn’t feel like the economy was recovering. Never mind all of that, though; the takeaway for conservatives from ’92 was this: Not only is raising taxes a violation of our values – it’s also bad politics. This was the fourth key moment.

And it flowed neatly into the fifth, which took place during the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Clinton had campaigned on a pledge to raise taxes on high incomes, arguing that the affluent had disproportionately benefited from the prosperity of the ‘80s and that the middle class had been left behind. As president, he followed through, pushing for the creation of new 36 and 39.6 tax brackets for high-income earners. He got his way, but without a single Republican vote. The 1993 budget passed the House by the barest margin – 218-216 – and made it through the Senate on the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Al Gore. Republicans  guaranteed that it would ruin the fragile recovery, plunge the country into a new recession, cost millions of jobs, and fail to reduce the deficit. Because of the experience of 1990, even normally pragmatic members of the party had no wiggle room; anti-tax absolutism had become orthodoxy.

Of course, none of the dire predictions about Clinton’s budget panned out. As it happened, the rest of the decade was marked by declining unemployment and strong growth. And, thanks to the combined effects of Clinton and Bush tax hikes, this translated into a revenue windfall, resulting in budget surpluses in the final years of Clinton’s second term. But Republicans never really grappled with this, preferring to create a  revised history that credited the strong economy to the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 and to Clinton’s willingness to sign a capital gains tax cut in 1997. Nor was there much pressure on them to grapple with reality. Thanks to the surpluses of the late ‘90s, it was easy for George W. Bush to run in 2000 on a call for deep tax cuts.

Clear through the Bush years and Barack Obama’s first term, the GOP’s posture on taxes remained unchanged. But in the wake of his reelection, Obama  now has considerable leverage to force Republicans to sign off on rate increase of some sort. It’s still far from clear they will, but some of them have been making noises recently that no one in the party has made for more than two decades.  If Republicans do end up voting to increase tax rates, it will obviously be a big deal. But it won’t represent a failure on Grover Norquist’s party any more than the anti-tax absolutism of the last 22 years has represented a success on his part.

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