WASHINGTON — The deal offered to Republican presidential candidates was framed as anything but a weak compromise: $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases.
"Who on this stage would walk away from that?" the Fox News debate moderator asked.
All eight hands went up.
Grover Norquist might as well have been aiming a slingshot from the balcony, daring them to take the deal.
For more than two decades, Norquist has wielded a mystical power over the GOP, cultivating and enforcing a rigid antitax platform.
This brainy, compact and caffeinated figure — who appears Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando — has pursued his obsession with striking success. Ninety-five percent of Republicans in Congress have signed his Taxpayer Protection Pledge.
Pledge takers must oppose "any and all" taxes and fight the elimination of any tax deductions or credits unless offset "dollar for dollar" by tax cuts. To violate it is to draw Norquist's wrath, and a primary challenger in the next election.
"It's very difficult to actually lie when you write it down," Norquist, 54, said from his Washington office on a recent afternoon.
"It's like the difference between living together and getting married. There's a piece of paper, they made you get dressed up and get your picture taken, and in front of everybody you said something. Otherwise, it's like, 'Oh we love each other.' . . . Well, tomorrow he could be gone."
This is the Norquist effect: The debt reduction deal Congress passed in August contains $2.4 trillion in spending cuts — and not a penny of the tax increases sought by President Barack Obama.
And this is the Norquist effect, too: Without revenue increases, the deal fell well short of what economists said was necessary, a "grand bargain" that Republican House Speaker John Boehner nearly signed off on. (Polls show voters generally support higher taxes on the wealthy, along with spending cuts.)
For the first time, the nation's credit rating dropped a notch and some call it the Norquist Downgrade. "The dark lord of the debt mess," read a headline in the Daily Beast.
"A tax increase is not compromise," said Norquist, insisting the problem is overspending. "A tax increase is losing."
Norquist's clout has been aided by his connections and coalition building.
In his late 20s he was tapped by President Ronald Reagan to head Americans for Tax Reform. In the mid 1990s, he plotted the Republican Revolution with Newt Gingrich. He was tight with President George W. Bush, helping push huge tax cuts that have helped add to the deficit woes.
A few years ago, Norquist's reputation was tarnished by his dealings with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which suggested his antitax efforts were at the behest of corporate donors, a charge he denied. Soon after, Democrats took control of Congress and the White House.
But then the tea party emerged and began pursuing an all-or-nothing, Norquist-style of politics.
Every Wednesday Norquist presides over sprawling meetings in the ATR headquarters. The sessions have become an integral part of the Washington milieu, knitting social and fiscal ends of the conservative movement, boosting his reputation as a grass roots organizer and power broker.
"I disagree with his policy as strong as you can disagree, but I do admire his focus and his persistence," said Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J. "He has defined his career and his ideology around opposing taxes. That's all he does and all he says, but he says it with great authority."
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For all his rigidity on taxes, Norquist is an outspoken advocate for a more flexible Republican Party.
He sits on the advisory board of GOProud, a gay group, and has courted Muslims, drawing whispers about his sexual orientation and open charges that he cozies up to extremists. "Bigots," replies Norquist, whose wife is Muslim.
Norquist, who is short with glasses, brown hair and a close beard, can be dead serious one minute and hilarious the next. His hobbies include stand-up comedy and collecting airplane barf bags.
"Bourbon, neat, no water," he said at the start of his routine for a 2009 "Funniest celebrity in Washington" competition, holding up the glass. "My rule, never drink water. Dick Cheney tortures people with it."
He grew up in Weston, Mass., a Boston suburb, the son of a Polaroid executive. In middle school he was volunteering for Richard Nixon and dreaming up ways to brand the Republican Party.
Today, the Harvard-educated Norquist compares his antitax mantra to Coca-Cola. Republicans who pledge to oppose taxes are like the iconic cursive lettering on the label. But those who violate that pledge are "rat heads in a Coke bottle," he said.
"They damage the brand."
The Taxpayer Protection Pledge gained momentum after President George H.W. Bush pushed through a tax increase as part of a deal with Democrats. Doing so violated his "read my lips" vow.
Norquist said Bush's re-election defeat in 1992 — to a "nobody from Arkansas"— taught politicians a lesson: Break the pledge and lose. He reminds candidates of this as he pushes them to sign the pledge. Those who do not will face tough campaign tactics, including automated calls to voters.
The oath has expanded to states, though with less success because of gaping budget holes. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist violated the pledge in 2009 by approving a $1 cigarette tax passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. "We had to find a way to keep Florida afloat," Crist said.
In Washington, too, there are signs of Grover fatigue.
Some Republicans are open to modest increases and eliminating tax loopholes for corporations. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, one of the most conservative members of Congress, recently got more than 30 GOP colleagues to vote to end ethanol subsidies. Coburn declared victory over the pledge, though Norquist claims other legislation would have offset the tax increase.
Norquist, Coburn says, is "old news," a media creation. Norquist knows news attention helps boost the pledge, and he has a knack for the dramatic.
"I don't want to abolish government," he famously told NPR in 2001. "I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."
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Remember Hillary Clinton's complaint about a "vast right-wing conspiracy"? As the Clintons were pushing health care reform in 1993, Norquist started holding weekly strategy sessions for lawmakers, lobbyists and activists to undermine the plan. Thus began the Wednesday Meeting.
Dozens of people fill a large conference room, noshing on bagels and coffee, talking policy, plotting strategy. Young aides hand out page after page: newspaper articles, invitations to speeches and book signings, policy positions, talking points, newsletters.
"You learn about things here before the media," said Art Kelly, director of research for a direct mail business, who brings a special briefcase just to hold it all.
A microphone is passed around the room, each person getting a few minutes to speak. An operative gives a sneak peek of an attack ad against Obama and asks the crowd to spread it on Facebook and Twitter. Pollsters provide the latest numbers and a House staffer outlines the agenda on Capitol Hill. There are rumpled Reaganites and young, overly groomed lobbyists.
Seated at the head of a big table is Norquist, directing traffic but mostly letting others do the talking. In the back of the room is a giant poster board with row after row of names — signers of the pledge.
Six of them belong to members of the bipartisan "super committee" charged with finding at least $1.5 trillion in additional federal budget cuts by Thanksgiving, the second peg of this summer's debt deal.
At least one Republican, Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, has said "everything" is on the table. But Boehner reaffirmed the no tax increase position in a speech Thursday. "It's a very simple equation," he said. "Tax increases destroy jobs."
Norquist, bullish as ever, predicts the brand will survive.
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This summer Norquist appeared on The Colbert Report and — like Republican presidential candidates in the Iowa debate — was offered a deal that seemed too good to refuse.
Terrorists have kidnapped all our grandmothers, Stephen Colbert said, stuck them in a subterranean burrow, slathered them with honey and threatened to unleash fire ants. Their demand: Make the wealthiest Americans pay a little more.
"Do we increase the tax rate or do we let our grandmothers die by ant bite?" Colbert asked.
"I think we console ourself with the fact that we have pictures," Norquist replied. The audience gasped, and a mischievous smile crossed his face.
"No, that's the right answer," Colbert said. "The man signed a pledge. Grandmothers be damned. The man signed a pledge."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.