Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012. (AP File Photo)

When members of Congress vote for something unpopular, we applaud their courage. Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, recently displayed courage by voting for something popular.

Since when is that hard for politicians? According to a just-published paper, for Republicans the answer appears to be: when what the public wants is not what Grover Norquist wants.

The background: In an April vote forecasting trouble come “Taxmeggedon” — the moment, after the November election, when Congress must choose between extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich or raising taxes on everybody — Collins was the only Republican senator to vote for the “Buffett Rule.” Seven in 10 Americans favored this Obama-backed bill, which would set a minimum tax of 30 percent on millionaires. A majority of Republicans favored it. Only Tea Party members were opposed.

The Republican senators gave plausible reasons for rejecting the Buffett Rule. It would cost jobs, barely cut the deficit, and never pass the Republican House. In short, the bill was meant not to become law but to make Republicans cast a tough vote.

Why tough? Because, Stanford’s Michael Tomz and Berkeley’s Robert Van Houweling write in “Political Pledges as Credible Commitments,” 41 of the 47 Republican senators had signed Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, and “signatories would almost never find it politically optimal” to break their promise to never, under any circumstances, raise taxes without equivalently cutting other taxes.

Any circumstances? Stephen Colbert asked Norquist in 2011. What if terrorists kidnapped our grandmothers and were holding them in an underground burrow? What if the terrorists were “going to release fire ants into this burrow who’ll bite our grandmothers to death unless we increase the marginal tax rate on the top 2 percent of Americans?”

“I think,” Norquist mordantly replied, “we console ourselves with the fact that we have pictures and memories.”

The authors tested “the electoral power of Norquist’s pledge” during the 2011 debt ceiling debate, when the Republicans refused to allow new borrowing unless President Obama drastically cut spending. The president insisted on spending cuts and tax increases. With Standard & Poor’s threatening to lower the government’s credit rating unless Congress acted, Washington was paralyzed.

At the height of this national crisis, the authors asked survey respondents to choose between anonymous senators, one of whom had taken the pledge but, in a context in which he could claim to be saving the republic from bankruptcy, broken it.

The results reveal a poignant craving for integrity among Americans, for even respondents who wanted cuts-and-taxes deemed the senator who agreed with them but broke the pledge “dishonest, immoral … spineless.” That is, even the putative Democrats in the survey saw breaking the pledge as a “character issue.”

For politicians, overcoming the odium of promise-breaking is all but impossible: “In the most likely general election scenario, pitting a pledged Republican against an unpledged Democrat, breaking the pledge would hurt the Republican’s electoral chances unless nearly all voters (98%) wanted higher taxes.” Only 73 percent favored the Buffett Rule, well below the threshold of safety for a Republican to defy the Norquist Rule.

What gave Collins the political courage to beard Norquist’s enforcers — with a moral public that stigmatizes as untrustworthy politicians who break their word — and vote to raise taxes on millionaires? Having refused to sign the pledge, she was immunized against the “character issue” of breaking it. Once, her comment on the pledge to Norquist — “I pledge allegiance to the flag and the Constitution, and that’s it” — would not have made one want to cheer.

In private life good men and women keep their promises. But Max Weber would tell voters that they go wrong applying that standard to public life. Responsible only for themselves, civilians can afford to live by absolutes. Politicians follow a different code, practicing what Weber called “an ethic of responsibility” to the polis. Politicians measure the good by results, not moral consistency. For Weber, a politician worthy of the people’s trust would consider it a good day’s work to break his word to preserve the “full faith and credit” of the United States.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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