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In defense of Norquist and his right to be wrong

I strongly disagree with Grover Norquist and his anti-tax pledge. But I believe his views are sincere. And I condemn those who substitute personal attacks on Norquist for factual arguments to prove him wrong.

First, I don’t get why my fellow Democrats and liberals blame Norquist for the “pledge” — rather than those who sign the pledge. 

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Last time I looked, no one forced 285 members of Congress at gunpoint to sign the pledge prior to the November elections — 238 of 242 House Republicans and 41 out of 47 Senate Republicans. They freely signed a commitment to oppose increases in marginal income tax rates for individuals and businesses and to oppose net reductions or eliminations of deductions and credits without a matching reduced tax rate. 

These members of Congress signed the pledge voluntarily, last time I looked. And if they change their minds, which they are allowed to do, they will be held accountable by the voters — or at least should be, if voters disagree with the change of position. 

Second, why don’t we use facts to persuade voters that Norquist and those who signed the pledge are wrong — and that history proves them so? 

For example, let’s look at the factual evidence of Bill Clinton’s two terms to make our case. In 1993, anti-tax conservatives opposed President Clinton’s budget bill of $250 million in tax increases and $250 million in spending cuts for $500 million in debt reduction. Fact: That budget was passed in the House and the Senate without a single Republican member of either chamber voting for it. Fact: Republicans took to the floor of both chambers and predicted that the Clinton tax increases would — as Grover Norquist now says about increasing taxes today — cause a recession and increased joblessness. 

Fact: They were proven wrong and Clinton was proven right. Clinton began his tenure in January 1993 with a $300 billion deficit and a slow economic recovery, and eight years later left office with a $1 trillion surplus, 23 million new jobs and a 65 percent approval rating — unprecedented for a second-term president. 

I also think Norquist is wrong because he gives too little weight to the economic and moral issues if America doesn’t substantially pay down our $16 trillion national debt. If we don’t adopt the across-the-board approach of Simpson-Bowles, I think America runs a serious risk of becoming another Greece, with a GDP exceeded by our national debt in the foreseeable future. 

For me, not addressing the national debt is also a moral issue. I have two younger children. I think it is flat-out immoral for today’s generation of adults to use credit cards and hand over the receipts and tell our children and grandchildren (and probably, the way things are going, great-grandchildren) to pay the tab for our spending. 

That is my opinion. I think I am right. 

Norquist disagrees with me. He thinks I am wrong. 

I am willing to concede that Norquist might not be entirely wrong. I do worry about the recessionary effects of raising taxes in our already stagnant economy with unemployment nearly 8 percent. It won’t kill me (or my fellow Democrats) to concede that Norquist might have a point about the risks of raising taxes at this particular time. 

But I don’t need to attack Grover personally because I disagree with him. In fact, I know him and like him. He’s a good dad, good husband and a good person, with tolerant views toward gay rights, civil rights and those who disagree with him. 

If more people in America were willing to disagree rather than personally attack someone with different political views, we might actually have a chance to solve problems rather than continue the red/blue polarization that has paralyzed Washington in recent years. 

I wish my fellow Democrats who personally attack Norquist would remember the words of President Clinton: “I hope that I’ll live long enough to see American politics return to vigorous debates where we argue who’s right and wrong, not who’s good and bad.”


Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel (1996-98) and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2006-07). He currently serves as special counsel to Dilworth Paxson and is a partner with former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele in Purple Nation Solutions, a public affairs-strategic communications company. He is the author of the forthcoming book Crisis Tales – Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life, to be published by Simon & Schuster. He can be followed on Twitter @LannyDavis.


This post has been updated to reflect the correct figures in the 1993 budget plan.