Jeb Bush has a problem, and his name is Grover Norquist.
According to Politico, Bush has made some powerful enemies in his own party, especially among antitax purists. His problems derive not from his tenure as Florida’s governor, where he championed the requisite round of tax cuts. Rather, they seem to date from 2012, when he revealed his inner squishiness.
Politico recounts the crucial episode:
- Bush broke with his party on taxes in a little-noticed congressional hearing in June 2012. A Democrat on the House Budget Committee asked him if he would accept a theoretical deficit plan proposed in a 2011 presidential debate that was rejected by all eight Republican primary candidates, including Mitt Romney.
“If you could bring to me a majority of people to say that we’re going to have $10 of spending cuts for $1 of revenue enhancement — put me in, Coach,” Bush told lawmakers. “This will prove I’m not running for anything,” added Bush, who at the time was the subject of speculation that he might become Romney’s running mate.
Antitax activists don’t like that answer.
“Jeb stabbed Republicans in the back just when they were unified in insisting on major spending cuts with no tax increases,” Norquist explained to The Washington Times. Worse, the ostensible capitulation came without any sort of quid pro quo offer from the Democrats.
Norquist calls Bush’s past statements on tax policy “mind-boggling,” by which he means politically stupid. “If my father had thrown away a perfectly good presidency by raising taxes, I think one of the things in life that I would learn is, ‘Don’t do that,’” Norquist told Politico. “But here you have Jeb Bush going, ‘I learned nothing from my father’s self-immolation.’”
Norquist might be right about Bush’s grasp of politics. But he seems to have a pretty good handle on policy. Because let’s be clear: The 10-to-1 deal is a great one for conservatives. And despite what Norquist says, the deal does feature a quid pro quo. In fact, it is the very definition of a quid pro quo.
No doubt Norquist had something else in mind when he made his remarks. In his view, Bush’s concession was embedded not in the particulars of the deal but in the willingness to consider a deal at all. For Norquist, anything short of antitax purity is an intolerable concession.
As a matter of politics, Norquist’s absolutism has its merits (if your politics agree with his). But as a matter of governance, it’s a disaster. And not just for liberal fans of a robust nanny state, but for conservative champions of limited government, too.
Conservative luminary Peter Wehner, writing in Commentary, has underscored the myopia intrinsic to Norquist’s stance. “The right level of taxation is a prudential, not a theological, matter,” he wrote. “It needs to be seen in the context of other economic conditions and possible gains in other areas.”
“No new taxes” might make sense as the opening bid in a game of political poker, but it’s not a sensible bottom line. “This debate highlights a danger for conservatism, which is that certain policies are elevated to dogma, to canon,” Wehner observed. “It takes a reasonable starting point in a negotiation and turns it into a non-negotiable end point.”
Wehner goes on to make an even broader, historical point about the perils of absolutism:
- This debate also exposes a mindset that views compromise per se as unprincipled, a capitulation, a sign of weakness. This is a deeply unconservative attitude and quite at odds with what James Madison and the other Federalist founders believed. The Constitution itself was the result of a whole series of difficult, reluctant, remarkable compromises. That’s why it’s so odd that those who consider themselves “constitutional conservatives” are often the ones who react most strongly against even the idea of compromise.
Wehner is right: American political history confirms the value of sharp distinctions and strong positions. But it also validates the utility – indeed, the necessity—of compromise. Some of the nation’s greatest achievements have been half measures, forged in moments of painful, brokered deal-making.
But what are the chances of reviving the nation’s tradition of political compromise? In particular, will Republicans abandon the sort of tax absolutism that has served them so well at the ballot box? Wehner thinks they will:
- My guess is that this kind of approach to politics, while still embraced in some quarters, is losing influence. At least I hope so. Not because I want higher taxes, but because I don’t think conservatism is a rigid, adamantine ideology; that the quest for political purification is fraught with danger; and because conservatives shouldn’t assume that any deal that gives you less than everything is a bad deal. Conservatives shouldn’t treat a debate about tax rates as a metaphysical matter.