Who’s Afraid of Grover Norquist?
How did a stubble-faced lobbyist with minimal name recognition beyond the Beltway become the godfather of the American Right, the scourge of RINOs, the maker and destroyer of political careers? Why did Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming call Grover Norquist the most powerful man in America? Who IS this guy, and why is everyone afraid of him?
When you see him interviewed on television (he appeared on 60 Minutes this past weekend), Grover Glenn Norquist doesn’t inspire terror. If anything, he might remind you of a more self-possessed George Costanza, the hapless but eternally resolute second banana from Seinfeld. Plump-faced and effusive… same feline grin, eyes narrowed as if to purr… same air of nervy self-satisfaction while savoring a borderline-illicit triumph. He even sounds like Costanza, minus the New York accent. And no writer of fiction since Dickens could have conjured up a more fitting name for a wonkish power broker. Grover Norquist… he’s just too good to be true.
Norquist has never held public office. A child of relative privilege — son of a Polaroid VP and the bearer of two degrees from Harvard — Norquist insinuated his way into the Reagan administration back in the money-mad 1980s. The Gipper entrusted him with the birthing, care and feeding of a new organization — Americans for Tax Reform. This fledgling activist group was supposed to embody Reagan’s small-government philosophy, but under Norquist’s stewardship it grew into a monster… a take-no-prisoners anti-tax lobbying group with tentacles that gradually spread across the political landscape of the republic. The stranglehold persists to this day, to the extent that any Republican candidate with a whiff of moderation about him can forget about winning a GOP primary. Norquist sees to that.
What does he believe in? Quoth the redoubtable Mr. Norquist: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” We get the picture. In more wonk-friendly terms, Norquist wants to shrink the federal government to a mere eight percent of GDP — approximately where it was during the McKinley administration, before income tax, Social Security, welfare, Medicare and other Democratic aberrations ruined everything for the fiscal tightwads in our midst.
As you might suspect, Grover Norquist is a devout libertarian, a man so fiercely opposed to government spending that he managed to cajole or coerce 279 (count ‘em!) current members of the House and Senate (that is, nearly all the sitting Republicans) into signing his notorious “pledge.” What sort of pledge? Simply this: I will never agree to raise taxes at any time, for any reason whatsoever.
Every one of the current GOP presidential candidates has signed the pledge — with the notable exception of Jon Huntsman. (And we wonder why poor Huntsman, the appealingly “normal” Marilyn Munster of this grotesque crew, ranks dead last with Republican voters.) Every Republican on the farcical debt-reduction “super committee” was a confirmed Norquista. No surprise there, given their flat refusal to raise taxes on the rich or close loopholes during an earthshaking deficit crisis. After all, what’s the future of the country compared to an oath administered by a powerful lobbyist? For these stooges, the question was a no-brainer.
It’s as if half our lawmakers are walking around, zombielike, with a secret red “N” tattooed somewhere on their persons and an electronic chip implanted in their brains. Or maybe they’ve been replicated by pods from outer space, their renovated souls menacing, alien and strangely numb. This isn’t Eisenhower’s GOP. It’s not even Reagan’s GOP. The party of Lincoln now belongs to Norquist.
Of course, Norquist himself would pooh-pooh the notion that he’s in charge. He’s merely the facilitator, he’d insist. In his 60 Minutes interview with Steve Kroft, Norquist denied wielding personal power over the representatives who signed the pledge. No, “the tax issue is a powerful issue,” he countered, dismissing his reputation as a power-mad dictator. In the Gospel According to Grover, the representatives are responsible solely to the constituents who elected them. If they vote to raise taxes, they’re breaking their oath to the voters. And if they break that oath, Norquist simply uses his group’s vast financial resources to ensure that they never return to office.
During his interview with Norquist, Steve Kroft distilled this system into two pithy sentences: “If they sign the pledge and break it, they’re toast. And if they don’t sign the pledge, they’re toast.” Replied Norquist: “Ah, but if they sign it and keep it, they win the primary, they win the general [election], and they get to govern. And I make all this possible.” (Contented grin.)
Right now, at least 37 Republican lawmakers are expressing “buyer’s remorse” over their pledge. After all, some of them signed it back in the 1990s, an era of optimism and prosperity that, in retrospect, looks more and more like a lost Golden Age. In fact, a recent Gallup poll revealed that only 26 percent of Republican voters are in favor of freezing taxes under all circumstances. But try telling it to Grover.
For Norquist, Republican consistency on the tax issue is the same as establishing and maintaining a commercial brand. He compared GOP politicians who raise taxes to rats’ heads found in Coke bottles. One of those self-confessed “rats’ heads,” the aforementioned Senator Simpson, describes the Norquist philosophy as “no taxes under any circumstances even if your country goes to hell.” A Republican and a proud pledge holdout, Simpson fears no retribution. (O Norquist, where is thy sting?) More of his fellow Republicans should follow the old man’s example. Instead, the remorseful ones have been begging Norquist to release them from their pledge.
How piteous… how undignified… how disgraceful when you think about it… and how totally characteristic of American politics in our broken-down era. The fringe has succeeded in terrorizing the mainstream. Members of Congress are cowering before the shadow of a freak-show ringmaster, a mere lobbyist. Yes, Norquist has the financial support to drive them out of office by running well-funded tax purists against them. But what’s a single lobbyist against thirty-seven elected representatives who want to reverse course on taxes during a crisis?
If they had any backbone among them, those thirty-seven sensitive souls would unite. They’d persuade more of their colleagues to join them. Then they’d confront Norquist en masse, make him sweat… and heave the S.O.B. out of Washington.
But chances are they won’t, and then Norquist will enjoy the last laugh. He’ll smile that feline smile and cackle contentedly to himself as he crosses their names off the list of the living. He’ll start to look a little less like George Costanza and a little more like Seinfeld’s diabolically demented neighbor down the hall. Yes, Newman will be running the United States government.