For sheer popcorn-entertainment value, nothing tops the spectacle of Grover Norquist getting smacked upside the head.In Republican politics, it’s heresy to mess with the Grovester. For more than two decades, this Washington whip-cracker has been the capo di tutti capi of conservative ideologues, an anti-tax absolutist who has virtually dictated to all Republican congressmen and senators that either their brains or their signatures would be on the contract. And so they have signed it. Norquist’s sacred document, long known in Republican politics as The Pledge, essentially compels its signees to promise that they shall never raise taxes. Ninety five percent of the current House and Senate Republicans have dutifully signed up.Enter Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican senator, who has injected some rare fun into the proceedings – by daring to deviate from the Norquist norm, by insisting that some forms of compromise are necessary in order to govern as adults in the real world. All of which has prompted a Coburn spokesman to denounce Norquist as the “chief cleric of sharia tax law.”I’m getting ahead of myself by using that quote so early, but it’s just too delicious to bury.The spat has simmered for weeks; in the latest episode this past weekend, Norquist called Coburn a liar. The spat, however, is all about substance. Republicans always say that they want to slash the federal budget deficit, but there’s no way to balance the books unless they also agree to boost the revenue side. To try to do otherwise is akin to flying a plane with only one wing. And boosting the revenue side will require (gasp) raising some taxes and closing some tax loopholes – all the stuff that Norquist decrees to be blasphemy.Coburn, a well-credentialed conservative who retains some pragmatic instincts, does not see those options as blasphemy. He has been working with a small bipartisan group of fellow senators (the so-called “gang of six”) to possibly forge some kind of deal on the ’12 budget, and he keeps talking about the revenue side. For instance, he wants to erase some of the cushy corporate tax loopholes (specifically, a $5-billion annual tax break for companies that blend ethanol into gasoline). He recently told the press, “If we don’t do something, what we’ve done is put the country at risk. I agree we ought to cut spending, but will we ever get the spending cut to the level that we need to without some type of compromise?”From Norquist’s perspective, that’s dog-whistle code for saying, “I am an impure heathen, and I intend to burn down the church.”In other words, Norquist will not even tolerate the closing of tax loopholes. What’s particularly pernicious about The Pledge is that it not only compels signers to oppose “any and all efforts” to hike taxes, it also compels them to “oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.” That’s Washington gobbledygook for saying, “We pledge to protect the special tax deals that fat cat companies currently enjoy.” (Which is why Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform, has always been a bit of a con job. The anti-tax shibboleths embedded in The Pledge have long been designed to protect the corporations’ special favors.)Once Norquist realized that Coburn was targeting corporate tax breaks, the spitting match ensued. Nasty letters were exchanged. Then, two days ago, Coburn surfaced on Meet The Press and escalated the feud. First he spoke favorably about “getting significant dynamic effects by taking away tax credits, lowering the tax rate, and having an economic increase that will actually increase the revenues to the federal government.” That alone is forbidden speech in Norquist’s world; the chief cleric has long signaled his desire to shrink revenue, to shrink government and “drown it in the bathtub.”But then came the piece de resistance. When Coburn was asked whether his views conflicted with The Pledge, he replied: “I think which pledge is most important, David, is the pledge to uphold your oath to the Constitution of the United States, (not) a pledge from a special interest group who claims to speak for all American conservatives when, in fact, they really don’t.”Well, Norquist certainly didn’t like hearing his special interest group being described as a special interest group – especially coming from a senator who had signed The Pledge back in 2004. So, late Sunday, Norquist fired back with a personal attack. Pass the popcorn, please:”Coburn said on national TV today that he lied his way into office and will vote to raise taxes if he damn well feels like it, never mind what he promised the citizens of Oklahoma. Sen. Coburn knows perfectly well that The Pledge is not to any organization but to the citizens of his state. He lied to them, not to Americans for Tax Reform.”Does this spat signal that Norquist’s clout is on the wane? We should be so lucky. Coburn can afford to defy ideological orthodoxy because he doesn’t have to face the voters until 2016; those on a shorter leash will probably continue to pay obeisance to The Pledge. Fortunately, however, the other two Republicans in the senatorial gang of six are also talking about raising revenue by closing fat-cat loopholes. That’s progress, anyway. Contrary to the absolutism preached by the chief cleric of sharia tax law, there’s no way to fly the American plane without using both wings.——-So Haley Barbour has decided to forgo the Republican presidential contest. He said yesterday that he lacked the requisite “fire in the belly,” and I believe him. It’s tough to summon sufficient belly fire at age 63 for a race he was bound to lose. As I noted here recently, he had way too much baggage. He hailed from a state with some of the lowest wage and education rates in the nation; he was tone deaf to Mississippi’s racist heritage, at a time when the nation is increasingly diverse; he was once a successful Beltway corporate lobbyist, which would have tagged him as the “Washington insider” in the race.Now all eyes turn to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as the so-called savior of a weak field. If he says no, who then? Maybe the savior of ’07 (for about five minutes) would like to try again. Where oh where are you, Fred Thompson?