Big Trouble for GOP Sacred Cows—Guns and Taxes
Policy + Politics

Big Trouble for GOP Sacred Cows—Guns and Taxes

iStockphoto/ Commons/The Fiscal Times

Two of the conservative movement’s sacred cows—Grover Norquist and the National Rifle Association badly gored this week.

The combination of the looming fiscal cliff and a Connecticut elementary school shooting that killed 26 people has dramatically altered the political dialogue. Norquist for the first time accepted the idea of increasing tax rates on millionaires as proposed by House Speaker John Boehner, but a vote on the measure was canceled Thursday night when Congressional Republicans failed to muster the needed 217 votes—a crushing embarrassment to both men. Meanwhile, multiple lawmakers backed by the NRA called for limiting access to assault weapons and big magazine clips.

Opposition to taxes and gun control has been woven into the conservative identity, but the stitching is coming apart. President Obama noted at a White House press conference this week that Boehner had abandoned his staunch resistance to any tax increase, and he shamed lawmakers to takeinto taking steps to curb gun violence.

“We know this is a complex issue that stirs deeply held passions and political divides,” Obama said while announcing his commission to examine gun control.  “But the fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing.  The fact that we can’t prevent every act of violence doesn’t mean we can’t steadily reduce the violence, and prevent the very worst violence.”

Democrats increasingly note that matters the GOP claimed are black-and-white actually belong on the gray spectrum. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., who the NRA rated with an “F” grade, summarized the mood on Capitol Hill after the school massacre by a troubled 20-year old.

“What you’re seeing is a country that going through an acute post-traumatic distress syndrome, and everybody realizes how tenuous life is and how short life is and how sometimes you have to act like an adult,” McDermott told The Fiscal Times. “People are saying stop playing games here. “

Both Norquist and the NRA –which will hold a rare press briefing today—felt obligated to respond to the newfound tension.

As the head of Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist chose to retreat on Boehner’s “Plan B.” He had wielded his anti-tax hike pledge with almost papal authority over much of the GOP congressional caucus. The argument was that tax increases choked off economic growth and enabled government waste.

But his organization—once so swift to discipline an errant senator like Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss for even suggesting he might support a tax increase if it meant bringing the deficit under control —refused to condemn the rate increase on millionaires as heretical. That’s because the bill would also extend for 99 percent of the country lower tax rates that were scheduled to expire next year.

Norquist wasn’t always tolerant of this legislative nuance.

When Democrats like Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State suggested that Republicans adopt a similar move this summer and preserve the low rates on incomes below $250,000, Norquist repeatedly scoffed that the strategy didn’t pass the “laugh test.”

“I got news for you,” Norquist told Bloomberg Businessweek in July. “If you’re paying higher taxes next year because your rates are higher or your deductions fewer—but Patty Murray says it’s not a tax increase—that’s the silliest argument I’ve ever heard.”

It may be a silly argument, but Norquist isn’t laughing much now. Other conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and the political wing of the Heritage Foundation condemned the measure.

But faced with the political reality of a president committed to a tax hike on the wealthy, some but not enough GOP lawmakers chose to ditch their ideological purity. “It’s different when you have to govern and not be pure in what you say,” Rep. Patrick Tiberi, R-Ohio, explained to reporters Wednesday evening. “What we’re trying to do is to protect as many taxpayers as possible from a tax increase.”

After a frantic caucus meeting Thursday night, Boehner pulled the bill and the House went into recess for the Christmas holiday. Norquist’s quasi-permission proved to be irrelevant.

Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist’s organization, amended its Wednesday statement on the bill, saying it should not be construed as an endorsement. The addendum suggested that Norquist—a Harvard man of piquant sound bites—would rather stay silent on the matter.
Not surprisingly, critics of Norquist are louder than ever.

If some forms of tax increases are now acceptable, they reason, then the pledge loses its clout. Norquist becomes a Republican apologist, rather than an enforcer of conservative ideals.

“Norquist’s   statement is the height of hypocrisy,” said Frank Clemente, campaign manager of the progressive Americans for Tax Fairness. “He clearly has a double-standard based on whether it’s a Democrat or Republican proposing to raise taxes.”

After deadly mass shootings, the NRA usually asks for a time of mourning and contemplation, dissuading serious political movement on gun control as the fervor subsides with time. It embraced a similar approach after a mentally unstable Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults with a Bushmaster .223 last Friday.

But the public outrage has not dissipated with the death of innocents so near to Christmas. Fox News reports the group is adding 8,000 members a day, but many lawmakers expect the NRA to be a partner on reforms.

"Silence from the NRA will be a clear signal that they don't want meaningful change," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., wrote in an email asking supporters to petition the NRA to “come out of hiding” and meet with lawmakers on gun control.

Democrats with NRA approval like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner promised to bring the organization to the table on gun control measures. "Never in my life did I ever think we would have 20 children slaughtered," Manchin told ABC News. "So it changed everything, it changed me, it changed all of us."

Warner, who holds an A rating from the NRA, told  NPR this week  that the mass slaughter of little children in Newtown “kicked me in the stomach more than anything,” and that his college-aged daughters  demanded to know what he intended to do about it.

“I don’t think, you know, changing gun laws alone is going to completely solve the problem,” Warner said. “Clearly, we have to take a fresh look at issues around mental illness. But the idea that we can simply say OK, status quo, just doesn’t feel right in my gut. You know, enough is enough.”

The NRA has endured pushback from Republicans on the state level. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder vetoed a bill this week that would permit guns on school property, while in a radio interview New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said that a conversation about assault weapons needed to be part of a broader response to the incident in Connecticut.

Obama declared on Wednesday that he would make gun control a “central issue” of his second term, and tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead an interagency effort to develop proposals to prevent mass shootings like the one in Newtown.  Obama signaled his support for new limits on high-capacity clips and assault weapons, and a desire to close regulatory loopholes that allow the sale of guns without background checks.

But overcoming opposition from NRA supporters on Capitol Hill won’t be easy. Asked this week what he thought Congress’s response to the Connecticut shootings should be, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., replied: “Well one, pray for the victims. The worst thing we can do is create a false sense of security. You know, every bad event in the world can’t be fixed by government action.”