Thomas Fitzgerald: The Norquists of the left

The right has his no-tax pledge. But liberals have sacred cows, too.

Grover Norquist is depicted as a disembodied head in a cartoon circulating on the Internet.

In a cartoon ricocheting around the Web, the conservative antitax crusader Grover Norquist is depicted as the disembodied head of the Wizard of Oz - a green, glowering face floating above Republican politicians bowing in reverence, the entire scene lit by votive torches.

It's a mad, maniacal image of the man the left, some Democratic members of Congress, and even former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson blame for bringing the United States to the brink of fiscal disaster.

They say Norquist's power - stemming from an ironclad "no tax" pledge most GOP lawmakers have signed - has all but ruled out rational discussion and compromise.

But intransigence cuts both ways, and Democrats have their own Grovers.

Elements of organized labor, the AARP, and various grassroots pressure groups have declared that Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid, the largest and fastest-growing federal programs, are sacrosanct and cannot be cut as part of any fiscal deal.

They don't have a single symbolic figure as well-known as Norquist. And unlike Norquist, they don't have written pledges from pols, each co-signed by two witnesses and stored in a fireproof vault. But the message is clear: No cuts.

For instance, the National Education Association, AFSCME, and SEIU have launched radio and television ads aimed both at moderate Democratic senators who might be tempted to deal, in Missouri, Virginia, and Colorado, and at Republican House members in competitive districts - including Pat Meehan and Mike Fitzpatrick of suburban Philadelphia.

"Progressives are not backing down," Arshad Hasan, executive director of the liberal group Democracy for America, said last week. "Democrats, from the president on down, must take any benefit cuts or increases in the retirement age off the table.. . . We cannot and must not balance the nation's budget on the back of our seniors. No deal is better than a bad deal."

Right now, the fiscal cliff is illuminating the mirror images of the two parties, each with a fired-up base that the middle-of-the-road pragmatists will have to deal with to get something done. If Congress and the White House cannot come up with a negotiated plan to reduce the deficit and make a down payment on the debt, the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 will expire, pushing most of the country into a higher tax bracket, and spending will be cut across the board.

The resulting shock, economists say, is likely to push the economy back into a recession.

Plenty of Democratic lawmakers have drawn a line on entitlements.

"I won't be for reductions in Medicare, I won't be for reductions in Medicaid, I won't be for reductions on Social Security, and I don't know anybody that will be," Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) told The Inquirer two days after the election. He said the big message that voters sent was "do not mess" with the safety-net programs.

Erskine Bowles, the Democratic former White House chief of staff who has been shuttling like a special Middle East envoy between the Obama administration and GOP congressional leaders, said he thought there was a much-better-than-even chance of going over the cliff. One major reason, he said: Democrats' resistance to wringing savings from entitlement programs.

"I think it's at most a one-third probability we'll get something done before the end" of the year, Bowles told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "There has been no serious discussion yet about entitlement reform."

Even Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), who has been upfront about the need to cut entitlement costs, has said of late that Congress and the administration should do a deal to avoid the cliff, and then work on entitlement changes next year.

"It's unhelpful for either side, Democrat or Republican, to say that something is completely off the table," said Lenwood Brook, policy director of Public Notice, a nonprofit advocacy group pushing to reduce the deficit and debt. "At the same time, no tax increase out there is going to be capable of solving a $1 trillion deficit. You need spending cuts." (Even Obama, in his 2009 State of the Union address, that there could be no long-term fiscal stability without reining in the growth in entitlement costs.)

As for Norquist, he seems to be enjoying the notoriety, including the Wizard of Oz cartoon.

"My mom wants one," he said.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

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