The pressure to break the GOP on its "no tax increase" position is mounting.
In classic Saul Alinsky style, President Barack Obama and his allies—who are already proposing two dollars in new spending for every dollar they get from raising tax rates on the so-called wealthiest Americans—have created the impression that the only impediment to a budget deal keeping America from going over the fiscal cliff is the Americans for Tax Reform "Taxpayer Protection Pledge."
As I have written before, in a past life I ran that project for Americans for Tax Reform's founder and president, Grover G. Norquist—who was smart enough to realize that getting one party on record as being institutionally opposed to tax hikes was both good politics and good policy.
The problem, as the pledge so brilliantly if subtly identifies, is not a lack of revenue; it's spending. The federal government has more than enough money to meet its basic constitutional obligations each year. It's the other stuff—the pork and the special interest money and the earmarks and the fact that Congress and the president have left so many government programs on automatic pilot, so they don't have to vote up or down each year on whether to increase what is spent on them—that is the problem.
Priority No. 1 for the spending interests is, therefore, to break the pledge. To end its power and to put tax increases back on the table in perpetuity. In furtherance of this objective there's lots of half-truths and rank dishonesty being spread about what the pledge is and what it does. The spending interests are, by any means necessary, trying to make it irrelevant.
It was, nevertheless, quite a surprise when the usually reliable Quinnipiac University polling outfit released a survey this week indicating 77 percent of Republicans opposed the pledge. If the data is correct, if more than three quarters of the GOP don't back the pledge then why, it is fair to ask, should any elected official be worried about breaking his pledge to the voters of his or her congressional district and state.
Except that Quinnipiac didn't ask about the Americans for Tax Reform pledge, it made up one of its own: "Do you think it is a good idea or a bad idea for a member of Congress to sign a pledge to an anti-tax group to never increase taxes on corporations or the wealthy under any circumstance?" In pollster parlance, this is what is called a loaded question and is not what the organization's pledge says in any shape, form, or fashion.
The Americans for Tax Reform pledge was created to reflect the spirit of the successful, bipartisan Tax Reform Act of 1986, which lowered personal marginal income tax rates by eliminating deductions and credits and closing tax loopholes. The pledge, which is not made to any political group or individual but to the voters, commits those who sign it to respect the spirit of the '86 Act by opposing efforts to increase marginal rates and to oppose efforts to close loopholes without reducing rates so there's no net tax increase. This forces the politicians to be more honest about where they are getting the money they want to spend on new or expanded programs. It's not about protecting, as Quinnipiac puts it, the "wealthy" or "corporations." The pledge protects everyone from tax increases, including the nearly half of Americans who currently pay nothing in income taxes to the federal government.
By slanting the question, by using the words "pledge" and "anti-tax group", Quinnipiac put its thumb on the scale squarely on the side of the spenders. It's a query designed specifically to influence the debate, not elicit useful information that reveals something about the attitude of voters, in this case Republican voters. In short, it makes Quinnipiac partisans—and they should admit their error.