07/07/2011 11:24 am ET | Updated Sep 06, 2011

The Most Powerful Figure in the Republican Party

The most powerful figure in today's Republican Party is not John Boehner or Mitch McConnell. It is not Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan. It is not even Rush Limbaugh or Sarah Palin.

It is, of course, Grover Norquist, the man with The Pledge.

Norquist, who has never held elected public office, is the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, a group whose pledge not to raise taxes under any circumstances has now been signed by hundreds of Republican candidates and officials at the state and national levels.

And they do mean any circumstances. Enormous budget deficits? No. A country at war? Nope. Famine and plague? Sorry. Our grandmothers kidnapped and threatened with death until and unless we raise taxes, as Mr. Norquist was asked recently by Stephen Colbert? Well, answered the unflappable Norquist, we always have our memories and our photographs. (Colbert was being characteristically satiric. There appeared to be nothing satiric about the response.)

I want to put aside for now the political and economic wisdom of raising or not raising taxes and focus instead on an even more fundamental question: how prudent is it to take an irrevocable pledge about how to govern before one begins the actual work of governing? How wise is it to remove from the legislative toolbox one of the most important tools before one knows what particular challenges one will face?

How many employers in any industry would hire someone into a leadership position who declared, prior to beginning work, that he or she would under no circumstances employ a commonly used strategy or compromise with those with whom he or she disagreed? Would a retailer hire a manager who asserted that he would never under any circumstances raise prices? Would a manufacturer hire a vice president who insisted that under no conditions would layoffs be permissible? Would anyone hire a person who insisted that sacrificing absolutism for the common welfare was defeat? Even the most basic primers on leadership note that the ability to listen, the ability to learn and the willingness to compromise are among the essential characteristics of any successful leader.

Many of these newcomers to public office appear also to believe that the mere fact of being elected constitutes a "mandate" for how they should subsequently act--as if the business of governing ended rather than began with being chosen for office. This is a new, peculiar and ultimately very destructive way to think about representative government. Indeed, it is a line of thinking that would lead ultimately to the elimination of representative government altogether and, instead, to public ballot initiatives on every issue large and small. And we know how well that is working in California.

This destructive dynamic is being played out as I write in my home state of Minnesota, once a place known for the exceptional ability of its leaders to place the common good above polarizing ideology. Last year a wave of first-time legislators was swept into the State House having signed or otherwise voiced fealty to The Pledge. Now a state with a projected budget deficit of $5 billion over the next biennium is locked in a government shutdown because a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor cannot agree on a budget. The governor, as Democrats are wont to do, seems to have mastered the art of negotiating with himself, so that his initial plan to generate $3 billion of new revenue through increased taxes has been cut and cut again until it has been left as a much more modest proposal to raise dramatically less revenue by increasing taxes on the 7,700 households in the state with annual incomes in excess of $1 million. No, I have not left out any zeros: 7,700.

This is of course inconsistent with The Pledge, and so more than 20,000 state workers (about three times the number who would be influenced by the tax increase) are at present out of a job.

There really is only one question that, were I in a position to do so, I would like to pose to those who have taken Mr. Norquist's blood oath.

The Americans for Tax Reform ask every candidate for elected office on the state or federal level to make a written commitment to their constituents to "oppose and vote against all tax increases."

Every member of Congress, upon taking office, is asked to swear an oath to "well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter."

Here is my simple question: which "pledge" takes precedence?