Born in 1956 and raised in Massachusetts, Grover Norquist is the unofficial head of what he calls the “Leave Us Alone Coalition,” a loose affiliation of people and groups dedicated to, as the subtitle of his new book Leave Us Alone puts it, “getting the government’s hands off our money, our guns, our lives.” The coalition, Norquist writes, “will triumph in the long unending struggle to define America. But there will be bad election years, disappointing candidates, bad breaks, and undeserved luck on both sides. There will be wars and recessions. There is nothing inevitable about our moving toward the city on a hill Ronald Reagan spoke of: a nation of individual liberty and economic prosperity that shares its vision of the good life through example, not empire.”
A diehard Republican who rarely misses an opportunity to criticize the GOP (see the above passage), Norquist has run Americans for Tax Reform, an advocacy group that calls for lower and lower taxes, since 1985. ATR is perhaps best-known for pushing hard, and successfully, for the reduction of top marginal tax rates from 50 percent to 28 percent in 1986 and for asking candidates to sign its “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” a vow never to increase marginal tax rates. Norquist orchestrates a famous Washington, D.C.-based “Wednesday meeting” in which various members of the Leave Us Alone Coalition come together to share information, argue, and stoke their limited-government enthusiasm. (During the Clinton years, the Wednesday meeting was known as the weekly gathering of the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”)
Over the years, Norquist has worked with people ranging from felonious lobbyist Jack Abramoff to Angolan guerilla leader Jonas Savimbi to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to consumer advocate Ralph Nader. (He collaborated with Nader recently on an initiative to promote transparency in government spending.) He is without a doubt one of the most influential figures in Washington during the last 25 years.
In May, Norquist sat down with reason.tv Editor Nick Gillespie to discuss his book, the future of partisan politics in the U.S., and more.
reason: What’s the basic proposition of Leave Us Alone?
Grover Norquist: It’s a description of the center-right coalition in American politics, the Reagan Republicans’ conservative coalition as opposed to the “Takings Coalition” of the left.
The idea of the Leave Us Alone Coalition is that everybody is there because on the issue that moves their vote—not all issues; they’re not all libertarians—but on the issue that moves their vote, what they want from the government is to be left alone. So around a table [are] the guys who want their money left alone, their guns left alone, their family left alone, their faith left alone, their homeschooling left alone. They’re in on one issue, the one they vote on.
I’m on the board of the National Rifle Association. I can assure you that many of the gun people in this country who vote on guns have what I consider the oddest views on free trade with China, but they don’t vote on that issue, so in a political sense it’s irrelevant. That’s what holds the coalition together.
2006 was a bad year. Why? The Republicans didn’t offer tax cuts or spending restraint, any of the issues that would’ve appealed to the Leave Us Alone Coalition.
reason: What about the Leave Iraq Alone Coalition? How does foreign policy fit into this?
Norquist: It doesn’t, and that’s why it’s been a problem for the modern Republican Party. The Leave Us Alone Coalition includes people who want to be left alone in terms of having foreigners not invade the United States and having a serious police force to stop crime. Now the question comes: Does occupying Iraq for five years contribute to the defense of the United States, or is it a provocation that will create other problems down the road?
reason: Many conservatives are starting to say, “OK, this is enough,” or that Iraq was folly to begin with. Clearly, before the 9/11 attacks, the stock Republican position was we shouldn’t be intervening militarily as much as Bill Clinton did, and it seems like some of that mentality is coming back. But [interventionism] has become a defining characteristic of the Republican Party.
Norquist: Bush ran promising not to be a foreign adventurer like Clinton. And the Republicans said we’re not going to engage in that. Clinton’s worse because he’s crazy, and he does things like go into Kosovo and Serbia.
When the United States was hit on September 11, there was a sense that we needed to do something to protect ourselves. People were pretty much open to just about anything because they hadn’t thought it through. They wanted something done. The response of going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan seemed to make some sense. The jump from there to Iraq was kind of made based on faith—that certain things were true that in retrospect may not have exactly been true.