Who Wins the Simpson vs Norquist Debate in Retrospect?
The tension between these two wings of the GOP rose to the surface during the recent battle over the debt ceiling, which then exploded into a war of words between former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Grover Norquist, head of the right-wing outfit, Americans for Tax Reform. The conflict put the party’s leadership in an awkward position. They had to negotiate a temporary truce between the two GOP’s two wings. But the split is likely to intensify over the next year, as the corporate contributors and the Tea Party zealots back different candidates for president, Congress, and state offices.
The major corporate lobby groups — like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable — wanted Congress to lift the debt ceiling. They weren’t interested in linking the debt ceiling issue to either tax reform or budget cuts. They care about both matters, but they just wanted to avoid an economic meltdown, and they lobbied Congress to get it done.
The Tea Party wanted to use the debt ceiling issue — which in normal times is raised without controversy by Republicans and Democrats alike — to manufacture a crisis over the budget, by demanding that Congress slash government spending without raising taxes, even on the very rich, as a quid-pro-quo for lifting the debt ceiling. The Tea Partiers latched onto the debt ceiling to win ideological points and test their political muscle with the Republicans in Congress, especially the members elected in November and others who identify with the Tea Party caucus. A significant number of Republicans in both houses did not want the debt ceiling raised regardless of what the consequences were for the economy.
This rift within the GOP put enormous cross-pressures on House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Both are conservatives who have who pledged allegiance to the Tea Party’s right-wing principles and signed the “no tax” pledge demanded by Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. (All but 13 Republicans — six in the House and seven in the Senate — have signed ATR’s pledge). Boehner and McConnell not only support the Tea Party views, but owe their leadership positions to support from their colleagues in Congress who view themselves as Tea Party allies.