Where is the Democrats' Grover Norquist?
© Greg Nash

How Democrats can take Congress to task, bending its will to their bidding, is an important question. The answer is simple: They need their own version of Grover Norquist.

While both political parties are approaching the 2016 election with confidence and determination, the fight for Democrats is only partly with the presidential choice. Equally important is the significant disconnect between ideas held by Congress and the will and opinions of the voters. Democrats need to take a few pages out of Norquist's playbook.

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Norquist is one fascinating guy. This 59-year-old Harvard Business School graduate had virtually every Republican member of Congress, and all but one of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, answering to him prior to the 2012 election. Norquist, as president of the self-founded Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), crafted a pledge known as the Taxpayer Protection Pledge to be signed by lawmakers. By their signature, each member agreed to oppose increases in marginal tax rates and promised to match the elimination of deductions or credits with matching reduction in tax rates.

He started ATR in 1985 and has steadfastly declined disclosure of his funding sources. According to CBS News in a "60 Minutes" interview from Nov. 20, 2011, "Norquist says the money comes from direct mail and other grassroots fundraising efforts. But a significant portion appears to come from wealthy individuals, foundations and corporate interests."

In one of the most mind-numbing displays of arrogant self-confidence, Norquist, in Steve Kroft's "60 Minutes" interview, outlined and described his control over an entire political party. It is an interview worth reading. A few of the quotes from the interview are priceless.

Grover Norquist is not interested in compromise. He likes things ugly and takes no prisoners. Those who refuse to sign the pledge or backslide are subjected to primary fights against well-funded opponents, backed by Norquist. ...

If nothing else, it is a brilliant, bare-knuckle political strategy with some of the characteristics of a protection racket. Many Republican congressmen fear retaliation from Norquist if they even suggest that a tax increase for the wealthiest of Americans should be up for discussion in the current deficit negotiations.

As part of the "60 Minutes" segment, Kroft engaged former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), one of Norquist's severest critics and co-chair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (the Simpson-Bowles committee). Readers will recall that this committee recommended some tax increases that would be necessary to solve the nation's debt problem. Simpson's opinion of Norquist: "He may well be the most powerful man in America today. ... You know, he's [a] megalomaniac, egomaniac, whatever you want to call him. ... He ought to run for president because that will be his platform: 'No taxes, under any situation, even if your country goes to hell.'"

Norquist's influence continues to this day. The ATR website proudly displays the names of 221 of the 244 Republican members of Congress and 49 of the 54 Republican senators who are signatories. The list includes each of the Republican senators currently competing for the presidential nomination: Marco Rubio (Fla.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Ky.).

There is no doubt that Norquist is an impressive political operator. While it may be appalling to those who naively believe that their representatives reflect the will of their constituents as opposed to a single-minded lobbyist, Norquist has demonstrated an impressive technique for organizing support for his opposition to the size and scope of the federal government and the taxes that support it. There are those who might argue that Norquist is simply articulating the views of each legislator's constituents and that his "clout" stems from a combination of threats of retaliation and constituent convictions. It matters not. What matters is that Norquist has managed to organize, direct, monitor, pass judgment and influence the voting of the entire Republican delegation for more than 20 years.

Democrats truly have to take note and spend a little time understanding how he has done this, because it suggests a little emulation might be in order. Since it is frequently the case that Democratic Party legislators talk a good story while on the hustings — but part company when it comes time to vote — what might be needed is a progressive version of Norquist and a Citizen's Protection Pledge. Whether Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Gov. Martin O'Malley (Md.), Vice President Biden, former Gov. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) or former Sen. Jim Webb (Va.) — whoever is the eventual Democratic nominee — if elected, pitifully little of their agenda will get enacted unless there is strong support from Congress.

Given the history of outcomes that reflect the "broad spectrum of views subsumed in the large tent that is the Democratic Party," there might be need for some voting discipline. It is easy enough to think that such a pledge would include wage and tax reform, workers' rights, environmental goals, education reform and student debt reduction, trade policy and immigration reform; in a word, it would include the main tenets of promises being made by the presidential candidate. The key would be to embarrass candidates into signing the pledge and then monitoring and enforcement once signed. These are elements of the Norquist technique that are critical but reproducible. While it is highly unlikely that Democratic or progressive interest groups can get past their own turf wars and agree on a strategy, create a pledge and elect or assign someone to spearhead the effort, the idea is pregnant with opportunity it they do.

Russell is managing director of Cove Hill Advisory Services.