There are a growing number of Republicans who are to be lauded this week for stepping away from the ironclad, anti-tax pledge long-peddled by Grover Norquist. This is a welcomed sign of leaders coming together and striving to get things done on the fiscal cliff. Norquist, who serves as head of the Americans for Tax Reform, started signing up Republicans for the pledge back in 1986, and since then has wielded immense power over Washington’s discourse and negotiations. The pledge has made Republicans dreadfully fearful of raising taxes and revenues, lest they go the route of President George H.W. Bush’s second term: defeat. The pledge states:
I, _______________, pledge to the taxpayers of the _____ district
of the state of__________, and to the American people that I will:
ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax
rates for individuals and/or businesses; and
TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and
credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.
In recent days these brave Republicans have said the pledge has run its course. Saxby Chamblis, the U.S. Senator from Georgia was the first among his colleagues. In revealing his new thinking, he said, “I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge.” He continued, “If we do it [Norquist’s] way then we’ll continue in debt, and I just have a disagreement with him about that. . . . I’m willing to do the right thing and let the political consequences take care of themselves.”
Then Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), among others, stepped forward, as did Representative Peter King (R-NY).
Pledges serve a useful purpose in politics and in our personal lives. They ask us to make a declaration of our intentions, and they are intended to be a form of accountability. But pledges often come about because we find ourselves in a certain context – in relationship with a particular set of circumstances or forces that we seek to deal with.
When that context shifts, we are called to examine the pledge. At that point real courage is needed to confront a new reality, and with it to recognize that the pledge itself may no longer be relevant to the new context; that conditions have changed. Then, we must be willing to stand up and declare our new intentions. Such an act of courage only comes about because we have enough humility to change our views and state them. True courage requires humility.
We Americans, by-and-large, don’t like our political leaders. Too many of them, we say, act for their own good, and not the common good. We’ve become cynical about them as a group. For things to change we must stand by those leaders, such as these Republicans, who send powerful signals that business as usual will no longer do.
No one knows how the looming fiscal cliff challenge will play out. But this much I do know: I applaud the step that a growing number of Republicans are taking on behalf of the common good.
Let’s celebrate these small steps forward.
For more background on how Americans see their elected officials, and the kinds of change they seek, see my new book: The Work of Hope.