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.
When we say Washington is corrupt and needs changing, the media will say we're revolutionary and we're looney tunes. The taxpayer group in every state is always–always referred to as nuts. Every state! I thought maybe we just had a lot of nuts [laughter].
I deal with both in Washington, with the establishment and with the revolutionaries at ATR, corporate guys and the taxpayers' movement. The corporate guys in every state–the Chamber of Commerce–think the taxpayer groups are nutty. Why? Because that's what the left always says about taxpayers' groups: that's how they marginalize them. Sometimes guys like Howard Jarvis [the father of California's Proposition 13] play into the stereotype and become more nutty than they probably were before everyone told them they were nutty. But just as you listen to Radio Moscow and when they tell you somebody's ill, you realize he's dead, our team hears, "He's a little bit nutty," and they go, "Oh, he must be OK."
Reason: What are your coalition's core issues?
Norquist: The next person who runs for president should run on the six non-negotiables: 1) Racial preferences: Liberals can say they're against quotas, but they have to vote against something like the California Civil Rights Initiative. 2) Tort reform: Liberals think they should be able to violate contracts any time they want to because they don't like them. Plus, the trial lawyers line the Democrats' coffers. 3) A single-rate tax system, because that goes after class warfare, along with double and triple taxation. 4) School choice, because the teachers' unions won't allow it. 5) Opposition to gun control. 6) A balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution with a supermajority requirement for raising taxes, because it explains who we are vs. who they are.
Reason: What about abortion?
Norquist: The distinction between the Leave-Us-Alone Coalition and the Takings Coalition is that we think the proper role of the state is to protect people. The abortion issue will never be solved because the disagreement is over whether there are one or two people involved. The question isn't who should be left alone–the question is, "How many people are there?" With abortion, if there's one person, then the role of the state is to protect that person and let her have an abortion. If there are two people, then both of them deserve protection.
I don't know any pro-choicers who say, "There are two distinct human beings here–kill one." And I don't know any pro-lifers who say, "No, there's only one person here and we want to compel her to have a baby." But that doesn't mean they should disagree about whether the government should steal people's property or grab their guns or about school choice.
I know lots of people who are pro-choice and are radical libertarians. I know of almost no one in elected office who is. For too many politicians the promise that they are solid conservatives except on social issues is followed by the declaration that support for racial quotas is a social issue, property confiscation in the name of environmentalism is a social issue, gun control then becomes a social issue.
People who are willing to stick to a strong pro-life position aren't going to be pushed off a strong anti-tax position. For people who like to think in ideologically cohesive ways it makes no sense, but that's the way it is.
Reason: You have suggested that your coalition may unite behind a single presidential candidate in 2000. Who might the coalition support?
Norquist: It is important that we don't commit to any one person in the next two years. We want all potential suitors to compete, not just on an ideological basis but on a party-building basis. These guys should go out there and hustle.
My biggest disappointment was when [Indianapolis Mayor Steve] Goldsmith lost in the Indiana governor's race. I thought he was presidential. I thought had Jeb Bush won the governorship two years ago in Florida, he could have been a presidential candidate. [House Majority Leader] Dick Armey is someone who could be a wonderful leader for the Leave-Us-Alone Coalition.
Lamar Alexander hurt himself by his opposition to the flat tax. Jack Kemp has to come to grips about whether he's for or against apartheid. Is state-sponsored racial discrimination a good or a bad thing? Until recently, he said it was a good thing. That is not acceptable. And he has to decide whether government spending per se is wrong, and he hasn't yet done that.
Reason: What about Steve Forbes?
Norquist: Forbes is a very strong possibility. He's been a real party builder. Had he done what Colin Powell did after he stepped out–had he withdrawn from public view, people would have said, "He wanted to be president, he wanted to be important, but now he doesn't want to play." But Forbes was aggressively campaigning for other Republicans when it was clear he wasn't going to win. That's a guy who cares about building a movement. That's a guy who's not just in this for himself, which is the route that Powell took. Had Powell just taken half a month of his time, he could have helped us win 10 more House seats. He could have gone out and done fundraisers for people or visited every vulnerable district, and he didn't.
Forbes is helping people. Sometimes by helping other people you help yourself. When you run for president you're asking everybody to help you.
Reason: You have taken some strong positions in support of immigration, despite some major divisions among people in your coalition. Why did you do this?
Norquist: We have to have a police state powerful enough to find everyone in the country and figure out who they are? Whoa, Nelly! There are some things that even if they were a good idea, to do them the government would have to be too big.
I've taken the strategically brilliant position [laughter] that I think is self-evident–eliminate welfare for immigrants, legal and illegal. What bothers most Americans is that they think immigrants come here to go on welfare and don't work. It doesn't bother them that there's x number of new swarthy looking people in the country. This does not keep them up at night.
I'm in favor of banning welfare for immigrants, legal or illegal, because I'm against welfare, period. If we like immigrants, we have to take this mark of Cain off them, that people think that they're on welfare. If we make the no-welfare-for-immigrants provisions stick, through the court challenges, then the next time someone in Congress gets up a head of steam and wants to clear out the immigrants, he's got fewer guys in his army.
Reason: But the Republicans' anti-immigration rhetoric may have cost the party Latino voters for a generation. How can the party get them back?
Norquist: We have to highlight that we're only going after welfare. Then we have to talk about other things. Pro-choice suburbanites don't mind pro-lifers, but they don't want to hear them talk about it all day. Hispanics don't mind Republicans discussing cutting off welfare benefits unless they hear them talk about it all day. In that case they think, "These guys really do have a hangup about me." We need to make it clear: immigration good, welfare bad. Welcome to the country. And if you don't want the government stealing your money, vote for me.
Pat Buchanan does come across–I hate to use the left's language–as mean-spirited.
Reason: He was also telling "Jose" to go home.
Norquist: Buchanan's used to bar fights. I could come back at him with some Irish slur and he would think it was a fair fight. Jose doesn't look at it that way. He doesn't look at this as a cute intellectual discussion.
Reason: In his recent book, your old friend Ralph Reed said he thought that passing the Communications Decency Act [banning "indecent" speech on the Internet] was a great victory for the family movement. ATR was one of the parties that sued to have the CDA declared unconstitutional. What happened there?
Norquist: The way I talked to him about this is that there is a private sector solution, which is screening software that parents install for the protection of their kids. The idea that the government should help parents protect their kids is inviting somebody into the house that ain't ever going away and certainly ain't limiting itself to regulation of the Internet.
As we get more used to the Internet it will also be easier to convince the family groups. Fear of the Internet is a false fear. You can't tell a parent that there's software that will keep your kid from looking at dirty pictures on the Internet, because he believes in his heart of hearts that his kid can break into anything, or should be able to, or knows someone who can. A couple years from now parents will understand it more, how much their kids can and can't do on the Internet. It will be less frightening.
Reason: Let's pick up this point on kids, because Arianna Huffington has written pro-censorship columns, in which she has said, the problem is not kids, it's adults. We don't want adults seeing this stuff. And Judge Robert Bork–another conservative icon–openly argues for censorship to protect adults.
Norquist: How many divisions does Bork have? How many divisions does Arianna Huffington have? The First Amendment can withstand any number of books or columns from Bork or Huffington.
I don't mean to be Pollyanna-ish and argue there are no conflicts. But we need to depoliticize more stuff, move more things out of the political realm. When you see arguments–should creationism be taught in the public schools? Once you move to school choice you have eliminated that argument and it's not a problem any more.
There will be conflicts, and this is where Gingrich's observation is so critical. The majority governing party does not eliminate conflict, doesn't resolve conflict. We agree to manage conflict.
I probably did a poor job hauling off and joining the lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act without sitting down and talking to the family groups. On the other hand, my position was–they didn't exactly talk to us about it either. That was a mistake.
Reason: What about those people who would prosecute the sponsors of a privately funded Mapplethorpe exhibit in Cincinnati? Are they leaving people alone?
Norquist: At the national level, conservative groups don't care much about that. At the local level, I talk about focus and resources. How much of your resources do you use to fight for school choice, which gives you complete control over your child's education, and how much do you focus on making it so that somebody in another city can't look at dirty pictures?
I am not concerned that the religious right will run out of things to do. My greater fear is that if you get school choice that the [Christian right] will do what they did 20 years ago–they'll retreat into their own private lives and that they won't come out and vote for tax cuts. My fear is that if they get their main issues settled, they'll go home.
We want to remind everybody who's a single-issue voter for freedom that there are seven other reasons to support it. What the Christian Coalition has done is so important. The Christian Coalition represents a lot of white Southerners who used to be quasi-socialists. They used to buy into the whole Democratic Party's class warfare arguments. With a lot of those constituencies, we've brought them along so that they're as good on the tax issue as anyone else.
Reason: When Republicans talk crime, they mean drugs. How do you convince conservatives that the drug war is a threat to everyone's liberty?
Norquist: We have to get the property rights people and the economic conservatives to point out that the drug war should not include confiscation of property. You can win that fight. You can move away from the idea that tough on crime means being tough on property owners.
The pro-gun movement understands that inanimate objects don't harm people. People do. The Second Amendment movement understands that the anti-drug movement can easily become an anti-gun movement. It's all the same rhetoric.
Reason: You've hosted your Wednesday breakfast meetings for three years now. What inspired you to get all these people representing disparate interests in one room once a week?
Norquist: Sheer terror of Clinton's health care plan. The goal was to stop the government seizure of the health care industry. Had the Democrats taken over health care, I think we would have become a social democracy and we could have never undone it. We wouldn't have won in '94, and even if we did, it wouldn't matter because 50 percent of the population would be on the take. The government has your kids' education, your health care, your parents' health care, and your pension. You want to argue with that government?
There isn't an anti-government party in Germany, Sweden, or France. You have conservatives, but basically it's a European kind of conservatism–one religion hates the other, or we should all own the land on the other side of the river, you know. There's not an anti-government conservatism as a functioning, competing political party that might win an election, because everybody agrees that the government is going to run your health care. Even Margaret Thatcher was really pissy at anybody who wanted to talk about doing something with the National Health Service.
Reason: All the momentum among the chattering classes is for campaign finance reform. What may happen there and what ought to happen?
Norquist: I would hope that we would move toward complete reporting of contributions and eliminating limits. Campaign finance reform is like gun control. I mean, if they're not obeying the other laws, why would a new law help?
The problem is that the federal government hands out billions of dollars, and people will lie, cheat, steal, or bribe to get it. If you have a big cake, and you put it under the sink and then you wonder why the cockroaches are in your kitchen, I don't think any sprays or blocking the holes in the walls are going to get rid of the cockroaches. You've got to throw the cake in the trash so that the cockroaches don't have something to come for.
Take last year's phase-out of farm subsidies. Here you had a corporate welfare system that helped Republicans, and what did we do? We phased it out. Why? Because a farmer who might get a subsidy is part small businessman and part welfare recipient. That's like the guy with the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other one. One says, "You're a Republican, you're a businessman," and the other one says, "No, you're a Democrat, you get money from the government."
Well, we just killed that devil, and now farmers are just heavily armed small businessmen [laughter]. They have nothing–nothing in common with the Democratic Party. You think Tom Daschle [the Senate minority leader] could win another election in South Dakota? He doesn't agree with the people in South Dakota on social issues, on foreign policy, on guns, on taxes, on spending. The one thing he could do is go to every wheat farmer and say, "I will get you more than the Republicans will." And it's true. No Republican could outbid Daschle. I think the Democrats have lost five Senate seats permanently: North and South Dakota and Iowa. Track the next 20 years versus the last 20 years, and there will be five fewer Democrats.
It's in our interest to kill all of those cross-subsidies. Our job is to hunt down all economic rents and kill them, extinguish them. Because all economic rents breed Democrats like cockroaches.
Reason: You think the 1988 Beck decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that union dues can't be used for partisan political purposes, is very important. Neither the Bush nor Clinton administrations has enforced Beck. Since unions targeted Republicans so openly and viciously this election cycle, do you think the new Congress might try to pass legislation implementing Beck?
Norquist: Clinton will veto it. It will take a Republican president to enforce it.
But that decision will help us break the unions. The decision was seven to two, not some close vote. The Court said that, under the Wagner Act, the only resources that can be taken as compulsory unions dues are those that are spent on the negotiation and maintenance of your contract. Labor unions cannot take compulsory dues from you and organize the factory down the street or buy a house for [AFL-CIO President] John Sweeney. So it doesn't just ban political money.
Courts have ruled that only about 20 percent of union dues go to [legal purposes] right now. So if Beck was enforced and everybody took advantage of it, you would reduce the cash flow to unions by maybe $8 billion. Like that! [Snaps fingers.]
If 10 percent of union members did it, that's $800 million a year, and that's a lot. Average dues are around 500 bucks a year, so as soon as somebody figured out that they could get $400 back, everybody would want their $400 back. It would crush labor unions as a political entity.
Reason: You have worked with the Libertarian Party in the past. When and why?
Norquist: In the 1978, '79, and '80 races I ran a group called the Tax Action Coalition. Ed Clark [the 1980 L.P. presidential nominee] was the chairman. I've found that Libertarian Party activists make the best tax activists because they never get involved in the silly questions about which tax is preferable. They understand that the total tax burden is the total amount of freedom taken away from you, and it needs to be reduced as quickly and as completely as is humanly possible.
Much like the pro-life movement and the Christian right, the Libertarian Party has gotten much more sophisticated and presentable over the last 20 years. That's a tremendous asset. As a presidential candidate, Harry Browne was reasonable, non-threatening, and educated a lot of people on a lot of issues.
The Leave-Us-Alone Coalition and the American ideology are libertarian. That's what it means to be an American. Almost everyone has a little deviation from that, but almost everybody almost all the time wants freedom, which is a big step forward, say, from living in France or Germany.
Reason: Talk about your "in half" initiative.
Norquist: It's an initiative of ATR. I am writing a book, called In Half: How and Why We Cut the Government in Half in One Generation, 25 Years. I picked 25 years because I assume setbacks, I assume bad times as well as good. Obviously if you speed up growth, you can get to government taking only half as large a percentage of the economy quicker.
But if you privatize Social Security, if you voucherize education, if you sell the $270 billion worth of airports and wastewater treatment plants, eliminate welfare, and so on, you can get the federal government, state government, and local government to basically half of its present level of costs. Instead of 33 percent of the economy, make it 16.5 percent of the economy.
I think we could do it a lot faster if we elected the right guys, but I think it's politically doable to say, here's our goal: Cut the government in half. I think it's important to have a clearly articulated goal. And I think the movement would buy into the idea that yes, we want to move toward the government's being half its present size. That's a radical enough and big enough step that it's worth the journey. Then in 25 years I intend to write a sequel: How to Cut the Government in Half Again.