Happy Warrior

Republican agitator Grover Norquist on building a "leave-us-alone coalition"

Grover Glenn Norquist's favorite adjective might be cheerful. He uses it to describe his own frame of mind, the people around him, the events he attends, even the food he eats. The bearded, 39-year-old Norquist, founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, is a happy warrior against big government. Although he's usually called a "Republican strategist," Norquist doesn't manage campaigns, create political ads, or conduct polls. He's more of an impresario, the Ed Sullivan of the anti-Washington movement, bringing seemingly unrelated people together to work for a common goal. He's taking his mission seriously. He uses military metaphors and hyperaggressive language, but he does so with a wink and a grin. He wants to assure his allies that achieving the goal may be critical, but the journey there should be fun.

He argues that there is an emerging "Leave-Us-Alone Coalition" of property owners, anti-tax activists, gun owners, home- and private-schoolers, small business owners, religious conservatives, and libertarians who want the government to stop interfering in their lives. By contrast, the constituencies of the New Deal alliance (what he calls the "Takings Coalition," because they want to transfer money and power from some people to others) of labor unions, government employees, trial lawyers, government contractors, and government grant and welfare recipients are shrinking. As government shrinks, Norquist says, the Takings Coalition implodes.

Over the past three years, Norquist has taken coalition building personally. Every Wednesday morning he hosts an invitation-only meeting of grassroots activists, policy analysts, congressional staffers, political candidates, and sympathetic journalists in his conference room, including 50 to 100 representatives from groups as diverse as the National Rifle Association, the Cato Institute, the Christian Coalition, U.S. Term Limits, Republicans for Choice, the Heritage Foundation, and occasionally UNITA--the political organization of Angolan anti-communists. In a typical meeting, elected officials and activist groups alert the other attendees of upcoming bills and initiatives and solicit financial or grassroots support. Soon after starting, ATR's Wednesday gathering was deemed "the hottest meeting in Washington."

Newt Gingrich (whom Norquist met in the late '70s) told The Washington Post, "He comes up with more interesting ideas than anyone I work with in terms of grassroots activism." Graduating from Harvard in 1978, Norquist soon began organizing anti-tax campaigns in California and elsewhere, combining his political activities with MBA studies at Harvard Business School. One of his MBA papers outlined a plan for the national College Republicans to switch from a resume-padding social club to an ideological, grassroots organization. In the early 1980s, he helped implement his plan with the help of the group's executive director, recent University of Georgia graduate Ralph Reed. After a stint as speechwriter and chief economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some time as a Reagan administration staffer, Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 to push what would become the 1986 tax simplification plan.

Norquist invented an easily comprehensible method of tracking politicians' commitment to low taxes--the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. The pledge is a one-page statement promising never to vote to increase marginal tax rates and never to eliminate tax loopholes without simultaneously supporting equivalent reductions in marginal tax rates. Norquist or an ATR staffer witnesses every signature, and once a politician takes the pledge, that person is bound for life. ATR does everything possible to make life hell for candidates who refuse to sign or who, having signed, break their word. The 105th Congress will feature 200 pledge takers in the House (including four Democrats) and 40 in the Senate (all Republicans). Every Republican presidential candidate in the 1996 race took the pledge (Richard Lugar's signature was thrown out because he demanded an exception during wars or depressions), including Bob Dole, who had refused to sign in 1988.

But always, too, there is cheerfulness. Norquist frequently hosts parties in his Capitol Hill townhouse in which grassroots activists and think tankers mingle with members of Congress to drink beer, eat Chinese food, and smoke cigars. ATR's offices near Dupont Circle resemble a college frat house: The canned music on the office voicemail system is Booker T. and the MGs. Directly behind Norquist's desk, a group of photographs of him with various political figures encircles a framed print of Janis Joplin. On the day of the interview, a Washington Post Style section story had chronicled several ATR staffers' feeding of a mouse named David Bonior (after the House minority whip) to Lysander Spooner, a boa constrictor that serves as the organization's unofficial mascot.

Washington Editor Rick Henderson and Contributing Editor Steven Hayward, vice president of research at the Pacific Research Institute, interviewed Norquist in his office the day after the election.

Reason: This is the first time since 1928 that Republicans have held Congress in consecutive terms. If there is a realignment underway, however, there seems to be this little barrier about winning the White House. What does it take to change that?

Grover Norquist: I think it is very healthy that the conservative movement and the Republican Party didn't panic on losing the White House in 1992. The Republican Party, and specifically the Leave-Us-Alone Coalition, which I think conforms with the modern Republican Party, is the natural governing majority party. We have 32 governors and a majority of state houses and almost half of all the state legislators. We control half of the Congress and half of the Senate, and we're moving into local offices, and judges, and so on. That natural governing majority can exist apart from a president of the other party.

The Republican Party and the conservative free market movement have been presidentially focused for too long. Part of that was reasonable in the Cold War. I mean, four more years of Carter, and Central America would have been communist, and South Africa would have been communist, and they would have rolled up Africa, they would have rolled up Latin America. We could have lost the whole shooting match to what we now know as a rather pathetic Soviet empire. But they still could have beaten us if Carter had continued supervising our team.

With the Cold War won--not over, won--there just isn't the same necessity of keeping the presidency. There will be people killed around the globe because we have an idiot for a president, but I mean, nobody took losing the presidency really hard. [Holds up a newspaper column.] Here's Arianna Huffington whining about Dole's loss being a disaster. What disaster?

I am not unhappy that Clinton was able to win. I'm unhappy he did win, but I'm not unhappy that he was able to win campaigning on our issues. He did not run saying, "I'm going to give you lots of government." Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. And Nixonism is the tribute that a minority party politician pays to the majority party's positions--you cede territory as you have to. The Democrats got a lot out of Nixon. And what we have in Clinton is Nixon in '72. Not only the parallel with the scandals, which I think the press is not going to push. They'll be pulled through, subpoena by subpoena.

But Clinton's good for us. I want Clinton standing at the end of four years. I want everybody around him gone and discredited, but I want Clinton standing there--Gorbachev. The whole house of cards under Gorbachev collapsed, the entire empire collapsed--but he's OK. He's happy. Like one of these buildings that implodes, Gorbachev stood at the top and floated down and walked away unscathed. I want Clinton to do the same thing for the American left. I want him to walk away with everybody around him bloodied and him going, "I'm fine."

Reason: In American history political transformations are slow-motion affairs. Wasn't it a mistake of House Republicans and others to talk so fondly in terms of revolution the last two years?

Norquist: No, for two reasons: You have to talk to your own troops to keep them going, and we don't have control of the discussion.

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