In 1985, Grover Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), an advocacy group that opposes all tax increases on principle. Since then, he’s gone on to become one of the most influential conservative activists in the country. Much of ATR’s success has been a byproduct of getting elected officials to sign its Taxpayer Protection Pledge—a promise to oppose any and all tax and revenue increases.
In addition to his decades-long focus on lowering taxes, Norquist has been consistently antagonistic toward politics driven by concern about the federal deficit. In 2005, he told Reason that the deficit “is an uninteresting and unimportant number,” and that his greatest fear for the second Bush term was that a simple focus on deficits would eventually lead to tax hikes.
Earlier this week, Associate Editor Peter Suderman spoke with Norquist about today’s deficit politics, the brewing war over the budget, and whether Republicans need to compromise with Democrats in order to address the long-term debt.
Reason: In 2005, Reason asked for your greatest hope or your greatest fear about the second Bush term. You said that your greatest fear was that deficit worries would lead to tax increases, and you said that “the deficit is an uninteresting and unimportant number that is the difference between two very important numbers: total federal government spending, and total federal taxes.”
Grover Norquist: Yeah.
Reason: It seems like your worry has come true in some ways. A lot of Republicans seem to be focusing on the deficit as an issue. So do you stand by that statement, that the deficit is “uninteresting and unimportant?”
Norquist: The way we could screw up the pending Republican—solidifying a Reagan Republican House and electing a Republican Senate, meaning a majority Senate in 2012—the way to screw that up is to lose focus on spending and get distracted on chasing the deficit. Because then Democrats have an equally valid solution, which is to raise taxes. Whereas if the focus is spending, there are only two ways to fix that: spend less, or have pro-growth policies. Democrats don’t want to spend less. Democrats have no pro-growth policies. Republicans have a whole bunch of things that would be good for the economy: Take the trial lawyers and drop them in the ocean. Have less regulation. Spend less. Cut corporate rates. All sorts of things. So that the same size government is less oppressive and less expensive. And Republicans have $6 trillion worth of spending restraint that they’re willing to put forward in the House.
But if you focus on the deficit, then tax increases are on the table. And then all of a sudden, you get into class warfare. If you announce, “Oh, we’re going to be getting a trillion dollars in tax increases,” you take all the taxpayers who should be united in fighting against higher taxes and turn them into fighting each other. Oh don’t tax me, tax that guy. That’s a disaster. That’s the one danger I see.
Reason: Obviously, then, you still view that as a big danger. The other part though, is that it’s not just yearly deficits that are the big concern. It’s also the long-run debt. Just about every major analyst, from the CBO to the IMF to the S&P is saying that the long-term debt is a big problem for the country’s finances.
Norquist: Yes, but that can only be fixed through economic growth and reforming entitlements. This year’s deficit can only be fixed by slashing spending in a way that scares voters, and raising taxes. That’s why Democrats want you to focus on two things: Short term, and the deficit. Ryan’s plan focuses on the long-term, meaning total debt, and spending. If we’re focused long-term and spending, you can make radical changes—$6 trillion in less spending—without frightening the horses. Look at—you got all but four Republicans to vote for the Ryan bill. That is an incredible collection of politically smart people betting their futures that this is politically sellable.
Now, you couldn’t get the same collection of people to vote for cut and slash next week. If you’re not reforming government, if you’re not using competition or federalism to allow you to have more leeway and spend less, which is what we did with welfare, and what Ryan wants to do with Medicaid and food stamps and so on—if you’re not doing that, then all you’ve got is: “You used to give Mary four? Give her two.” Mary’s not happy.
But if you say here’s all the stuff we’re doing, and we can do it differently, and different states can make different decisions, and that will make the whole thing cost less—as happened with welfare reform—that, over time, is a much more radical change. So, long term: Focus on spending and total debt versus short term and focus on deficit. Republicans are wise to do Ryan and would be unwise to step into a room where “well, it only works if you balance the budget in 10 years,” or “it only works if you reduce the deficit to X in the next three years.” Everything that forces you to look short term takes reforms off the table.
Reason: It seems to me that in order to get the votes to reform programs like Medicare and Medicaid, you have to cut some sort of a deal. Can you get to entitlement reform without making a deal with Democrats? What sort of deal should Republicans be willing to make in order to achieve those entitlement reform goals?
Norquist: The political equivalent of the deal that they were always talking about in The Godfather: One you can’t refuse. Why did Obama sign an extension of the Bush tax cuts? Because he thought he coudn’t surivive politically if he didn’t.
Reason: It strikes me that it’s much easier for a Democrat to sign onto a policy that keeps taxes low.