Profiles in Debt-Busting Courage (Not)

Friday’s Washington Post features a story about a battle within the conservative movement. Hard-right figures like Sen. Tom Coburn and Grover “drown the government in the bathtub” Norquist are fighting among themselves about which is more important: reducing the deficit or sticking to Norquist’s  “no new taxes” pledge, which many Republicans have signed in recent years. 

The same question played out at last weekend’s “Awakening” conference, sponsored by the Freedom Federation at Liberty University. In a Saturday panel moderated by Tim Phillips, president of the Koch-funded Tea Party astroturfing group Americans for Prosperity, Norquist urged participants not to focus on the size of the deficit, but the size of government. 
 
Being told not to focus on the size of the deficit was a bit stunning given that a major theme of the conference had been that the growing national debt was an evil, immoral force. In fact, the night before Norquist’s panel, participants were told that the national debt was on the verge of destroying civilization as we know it. Former Reagan administration official Marc Nuttle, now on the board of the dominionist Oak Initiative, gave a gloom-and-doom-and-more-doom analysis of the mounting national debt. Nuttle’s thesis is that we could be less than two years from hitting a catastrophic debt wall, where interest rates rise and we can’t keep up payments, the U.S. fails, and with it freedom, and the world collapses into 1,000 years of darkness.
 
Nuttle had given essentially the same analysis in an interview with “apostles” Cindy and Rick Jacobs a few weeks earlier. But in that interview, Nuttle also presented the outline of his suggested plan for averting catastrophe. The dire threat required a spirit of shared sacrifice, he said, and the “Nuttle plan,” as he described it then, called for extraordinary temporary measures, including four years of sales taxes and taxes on the rich along with means-testing social security.
 
I had been surprised at parts of Nuttle’s proposal, and expected some sparks to fly when I saw he was appearing on the Norquist panel.  But under the gaze of Phillips and Norquist, Nuttle choked. His presentation painted the same frightening picture that he had described the night before, but did not talk about the kind of tax-inclusive shared sacrifice he had described in his interview with Cindy and Rick Jacobs.  So during the Q&A I asked him whether there wasn’t some disagreement on the panel between his and Norquist’s visions.
 
Nuttle was clearly uncomfortable and apparently unwilling to stand up to Norquist on the tax question, so he declared “I don’t want to raise taxes” and suggested the government could survive on 20 percent of what it now spends. When asked about his earlier interview, he suggested that he was talking about the fact that after the nation hit the wall and we were in crisis, we would be forced to take drastic measures to help the nation survive. 
 
But wouldn’t you want to make a shared sacrifice to prevent disaster rather than during the aftermath? It seems quite clear in Nuttle’s interview with the Jacobs that his call for shared sacrifice and temporary taxes was to help prevent the U.S.  from hitting the “wall” by dealing with the deficit while we still had a chance to get it under control. But his unwillingness to say so while seated next to Norquist demonstrates the same kind of uncomfortable position Republican lawmakers are in. Under pressure from Norquist, they’ve been making easy “no new taxes” pledges for years.  But this year, many Republicans were swept into power by Tea Partiers’ fears that the debt was destroying their children’s and grandchildren’s future and their urgent desire to reduce federal deficits.  And it's not so easy to reconcile the two.  Welcome to governing.