When historians look back on the past 15 years or so, they will be best known and understood as the Norquist era.
In the same way that McCarthyism now largely overshadows the early days of the Eisenhower administration, the W. Bush and Obama years will be seen as the stage on which Grover Norquist's domination of domestic policy took place. His anti-tax pledge and the resulting government paralysis utterly defined the political climate of the period.
But with the sudden erosion of Republican support for his pledge -- Saxby Chambliss and the "gang of eight" are peeling away from the Norquist like the palace guards after the Wicked Witch finally melts -- it looks like the second Obama term may witness the decline and fall of Norquist. This is a consummation devoutly to be wished for Democrats and Republicans.
McCarthy was of course a public figure, while Norquist has been largely a stealth tyrant, in the glorious tradition of figures like Cardinal Richelieu or Rasputin. Norquist's behind-the-scenes position allowed him to fly above the weather while particular candidates rose or fell. Like Karl Rove and Frank Luntz, Norquist understood the importance of a simple, clean narrative. He knew how to build and sell a concept with the sort of clarity and drive that fueled Steve Jobs' success. Unfortunately for the nation, rather than delivering beautiful easy-to-use products like Jobs, Norquist's pledge delivered an untenable political orthodoxy that led inevitably to massive national debt and unprecedented partisan rancor.
The central error of his anti-tax pledge is that it mistook policy for principle. That less government is better is a principle. But "no new taxes ever" is a mere policy choice -- one that may suit one situation but not another. A tax to support a necessary war, for example, is smart policy to balance a budget and does not contradict the broader principle that small government is desirable.
If the principle of smaller government is refined to its most abstract level, it is really the belief that government should be efficient and do no more than it must to ensure domestic tranquility. Many politicians from both major parties could agree to such a view, as would many citizens, so the challenge becomes one of deciding which things government should do and how to do them with the fewest administrators and at the lowest cost.
Choosing which programs are necessary is by no means easy. There are those who view social security, the EPA or FDA as government overreach. But on an item-by-item basis, there is surprising national consensus that such programs move us toward a more perfect union.
The outliers tend to be the business interests impacted most directly by regulation or laws and the few adherents their public relations campaigns can sway. If it had been up to the stage coach industry, the railroads would never have been built; if the rail industry had had their way, the interstate highway system would not have been created.
Recently, such resistance has been exacerbated by the Supreme Court's defining corporations as citizens, but inevitably as our culture grows more complex, government must devise new rules to maintain fairness and order.
With Norquist's influence on its way to becoming small enough to "drown it in a bathtub," maybe the nation can finally focus on the difficult but doable challenge of deciding what government should do and figuring out how to do it well. The first order of business should be for congress to pledge not to take anymore pledges.