But as the year-end deadline grows near, Norquist's stranglehold appears to be loosening somewhat. As Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) made clear, this is in no small part owing to the political reality surrounding the situation: If Congress takes no action between now and Dec. 31, 2012, the deficit-exploding Bush tax cuts will automatically expire, as will the payroll tax cut currently enjoyed by American wage-earners. The president, meanwhile, has made it clear that no matter what else happens, extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest is not an option. Furthermore, polling indicates that if no deal is done, the public will blame the Republicans more than President Obama. And even worse for the Republicans: Even if we move on into the new year without a deal, tax cuts can always be applied retroactively, which would make the threat of adverse consequences to the middle class only subject to continued Republican intransigence.
In the context of the facts on the ground, then, fealty to Grover Norquist's tax pledge makes very little sense: unless his devotees truly expect the president to cave on all tax cut extensions, obeying the pledge to never vote for any tax increases will actually lead to more tax increases than simply negotiating with him in good faith. But while no amount of schadenfreude over Norquist's fall from relevance should ever be begrudged, his loss should not automatically be considered a gain for Democrats and progressives.
The truth is, tax cuts are not a hard thing to get passed. An overview history of top marginal tax rates in the United States shows that since the Second World War, rates for the highest income earners have steadily declined over time: the brief exception to this was the increase in top marginal income taxes rates under President Clinton, and even this modest increase did not last long, as it was undone in short order by the Bush tax cuts currently under discussion. If history is any guide, increase in marginal rates for top earners tend to last only as long as the Democratic president who presided over them stays in office.
By far the much harder nut to crack for conservative ideologues has been the social safety net. Movement conservatives have wanted to weaken or eliminate these programs since their creation. Back when Medicare was being created, Ronald Reagan opposed it and went so far as to say that if Medicare were passed, his generation would be telling my generation about a lost time in America when men and women were free. After George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, he claimed that he had earned "political capital" and intended to spend it, in the form of privatizing social security. That idea went nowhere. In 2012, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan earned Mitt Romney's nod for the second spot on his presidential ticket, in large part because of his big, "bold" idea to voucherize Medicare and turn Medicare into a premium support system for private insurance. Medicare and Social Security are popular programs: Even tea party conservatives want their representatives in Congress to "keep your government hands off my Medicare," whatever that means.
But through his willingness to achieve a so-called "Grand Bargain" on deficit reduction, President Obama has actually shown Republicans a path forward on weakening the social safety net that they could never have accomplished on their own. For a movement conservative looking to get a camel's nose in the tent to undo the New Deal, then, throwing Grover Norquist's tax pledge under the hypothetical bus to accomplish the much more difficult task of cutting earned benefits is by far a better deal than sticking to absolutist principle, watching taxes be increased through hyper-partisan inaction, and not getting a reduction in earned benefit spending at a time when they are closer to achieving that goal than at any time since George W. Bush was talking about his political capital.
The civil war among Republican ranks that will play out in the next month is a dangerous one, and the dividing line is between the Norquist-led hardliners who sincerely expect that they can blackmail the president yet one more time, and the rebels who realize that they can accomplish a long-held strategic goal through what history indicates will be only a temporary concession. Of those two groups, the second is far more dangerous, which is why progressives who want to protect our earned benefits will only be celebrating the break from Norquist at their own peril.