An Alliance for Freedom?
Republican strategist Grover Norquist insists the Leave Us Alone Coalition is alive and well.
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.
Here's the challenge for the Republicans. They paid a very severe price in 2004. Bush, according to all the sort of charts you do, should've won with 58 percent of the vote except for the vote anchor of Iraq. And then when all of that was dropped on the Republicans in the House and the Senate in 2006, the undertow cost the Republicans the House and the Senate. So independents and a lot of voters don't view the Iraq occupation as necessarily part of a serious defense for the country.
Where do you go from here is an entirely different question. Having broken Iraq, what's the best way to protect the United States? How does one deal with that? That's the fight they're having now.
reason: How is immigration affecting the Leave Us Alone Coalition?
Norquist: It's put some pressures on the modern Republican Party. I'm pro-immigrant. I think that we need more immigrants. I think we should have more people coming into the country, that people are an asset, not a liability.
Within the center-right coalition there are two legitimate concerns that one could have. First, do people come in the country and go on welfare? Well, the answer there is we should get rid of the welfare state.
reason: And actually one of the answers is that in fact they don't go on welfare, because they're barred from that by earlier reforms.
Norquist: Still, this is one of the concerns people have. A second concern: People don't become assimilated. They don't learn American history. They don't learn English. They don't learn what it means to be an American. Well, that's because we have a public school system that's run by a monopoly, a unionized set of bureaucrats, and they don't teach the people born in Nebraska how to be Americans and American history and how to speak and write English very well. So we have a problem with our government monopoly education system, and we have a problem with the welfare system.
If there were no foreigners in the entire world, if there were just the United States, we'd have a welfare problem and an education problem. We ought not to use immigrants as the argument to distract us from the massive problem we have with the welfare state and the massive problem we have with the failed government-mandated unionized bureaucratic monopoly in the public school system. We ought to deal with both of those problems, and the immigrants are the tip of the iceberg, not the problem.
The challenge you have is some people get out there with some rather rash anti-immigrant rhetoric.
reason: People in the Leave Us Alone Coalition?
Norquist: Well, no. Republicans and elected officials. Nobody's in the Leave Us Alone Coalition and voting for the [Republicans] because of a hostility to immigrants. It's not a vote-moving issue; it's an issue people talk about. It's not a vote-moving issue, except for those people who don't like anti-immigrant rhetoric.
reason: Who makes up what you dub the Takings Coalition, and what is its basic proposition?
Norquist: Around the table for the left—trial lawyers, labor unions, big-city political machines, government workers' associations. [There are] the two wings of the dependency movement, those people who are locked into welfare dependency [and] the guys that make $90,000 a year managing the dependency of other people and making sure none of those guys get jobs and become Republicans.
And then, of course, all the utopians: the radical environmentalists and other guys, the people who passed laws to make sure your car is too small to put an entire family into, that toilets are too small to flush all the way, the animal rights groups, and so on. Somebody who just wants to be a vegetarian, that's cool. Somebody who wants to mandate [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals'] list of rules on other people, that's where you get—
reason: But is that really happening with PETA?
Norquist: Sure. The anti-hunting movement. The people who want to ban fur and who want the government to—
reason: Are they really powerful in American politics? Are these really the central issues?
Norquist: No. I'm much more concerned about the trial lawyers and the labor unions and the government employees. But in the same group, there are guys who get government grants to go tell other people how to lead their lives, distinguished from [right-wing evangelical] Pat Robertson, who runs a church and says you should do this and you should do this but doesn't necessarily bring the power of the state into making everybody be a Baptist.
reason: He might not be trying to turn everybody into a Baptist, but he pushes laws that are against the recognition of gay marriages in various states, things like that. Aren't there elements of the conservative movement that are as coercive as members of the left?
Norquist: There are spokesmen for the religious right who would be, if allowed, as coercive, but one of the things I point out in the book is the actual history of how the religious right, the traditional-values activists, got involved in politics. It did not come about after Roe v. Wade. It did not come about after prayer was dropped from public schools. It came about in '77, '78, when the Carter administration went after Christian radio stations using the Fairness Doctrine. The devil or somebody wasn't being treated fairly, and they were going to go after Christian radio stations and Christian schools. They were going to say they were all segregation academies and take away their tax-deductible status. People understood correctly that the state was going after their ability to educate their kids through their faith and to have communications through radio. That's when the religious right got organized. Why? To be left alone.
Now, do you get guys who'd like to make anyone who gambles go to prison and have this list of things enforcing Leviticus? Sure, there are people who say that. Do they bring a vote to the table? No, they don't.
reason: Has the Leave Us Alone or the Takings coalition grown over the past decade?
Norquist: I talk about 40 different trends in the book, and the answer is that you can argue it either way. One factor growing the Leave Us Alone Coalition is the fact that in the last 25 years the number of Americans who owns shares of stock directly, the investor class, has gone from 20 percent to 60 percent. That makes people more sensitive to taxes and regulations on businesses. That's not taxing the other; it's hitting me.
reason: Doesn't that also make them more likely to want to bail out markets when they go south?
Norquist: The answer is no, because everyone's in a mutual fund. People 50 years ago used to buy AT&T or buy Ford, in which case you could be for subsidizing Ford, but when you have a basket of industries and a basket of companies, you'd be stealing from some to subsidize the other. That's why you can't be as pro-protectionist as you could be if you're just in General Motors. Not if you're in a mutual fund where you're broadly invested in the entire economy. So that's a very helpful trend and moving in the right direction.
Another helpful trend is the decline of organized labor, from 30 percent of the private sector in 1970 paying union dues down to about 7 percent of the private sector today. The growth in the number of people with concealed-carry permits. The number of Americans who carry a gun on them is now in the millions.
reason: How does gun ownership figure into what is mostly an economic argument for freedom?
Norquist: Two things: A state that doesn't trust you with your gun has other plans for you that they won't want to talk about until you get the guns taken away. I always wondered as a kid: Why does Ted Kennedy want to take away my guns, and what is it he's not telling me that he's only willing to discuss with me after there are no guns in the hands of private citizens?
For some people, it's a symbol of your autonomy: You can take care of yourself because you have a gun. People in rural or suburban areas do not have the police walk in front of their apartment building every five minutes. They really need that kind of protection on their own. It's a very important part of the Leave Us Alone Coalition, and it really does move votes.
reason: Where is the Takings Coalition ascendant? Where are their growth points?
Norquist: Trial lawyer money. Their ability to win something like the tobacco settlement put billions of dollars in their hands, and they kick back a certain percentage of that to the politicians and the judges, and electing judges that will allow them to continue that. Public-sector unionism continues to grow, and should labor unions be able to change labor laws, they could add millions of people overnight.
reason: Explain that a little bit. What are they after?
Norquist: "Card Check." If there are 100 people working for a firm, all they have to do is show up with 51 signatures on a card. Those signatures could've been forged. They could've been from buying people drinks. They could've paid somebody off. They could've threatened somebody. No secret ballot. Today, you could get 51 signatures and then you go to a secret ballot, at which point the guy who was threatened or bullied into it gets to vote secretly. They want to abolish the secret ballot part of that election.
reason: How complete is the correlation in your mind between the Leave Us Alone Coalition and Republicans, and the Takings Coalition and Democrats?
Norquist: There's a lot of overlap. Certainly there are a lot of people in the Libertarian Party or unaffiliated people who want to be part of the Leave Us Alone Coalition. There are some people who think of themselves as being part of the Leave Us Alone Coalition but are offended by parts of the Republican Party, by some of the rhetoric.
reason: Such as?
Norquist: [Colorado Rep.] Tom Tancredo's anti-immigrant rhetoric, which scares away people who came to this country because they wanted more freedom and then find out that Tom Tancredo's there at the border spitting at them or their relatives as they come in. And there are a lot of people who are here legally, have been here for a long time, who are Asian or Catholic or Jewish and still think of themselves as immigrants because their grandparents were.
reason: If you could snap your fingers and institute three policies, what would they be?
Norquist: The first would be personalizing Social Security, privatizing Social Security, instead of having the state take 12 percent of your income and then promising to pay you something if you make it to 65 or 67. Instead, they should let you put that money into a 401(k) [retirement account], and then you would control it. That would make everyone in the country independent; their pension and retirement would come from their own activity rather than the state.
reason: They'd be able to bequeath it.
Norquist: They could pass it on to kids, relatives as they saw fit.
reason: Or nonprofit organizations.
Norquist: Yes, like reason, for instance. That's I think the most important one.
The second that we've been working on is transparency, getting government at all levels, from the federal government to state to local government, every public school, to post every check they write on a website that's searchable and to post every contract they enter into. We need to make Spend Too Much a hanging offense. If the politician said I'm going to take your guns, there would be people who walked out of the coalition on that politician. We don't have that on Spend Too Much. We need to make the $900 hammer, the expenditure on the contract that's too much, a fighting offense.
reason: So one of your arguments is that we just don't have that information in a way that it can be unearthed to become a motivation.
Norquist: Right. The federal government spends $3 trillion. Yawn. My eyes glaze over. What does that mean? Is that too much? Too little? I don't know.
The government just spent $900 on a hammer. The government spent $1 million to get the lawn mowed. The contract went to somebody's cousins. That you can get angry about. That you can focus on. Why have we had such success in beginning a conversation on spending with earmarks? Because they're singular. They're identifiable.
reason: [Democratic presidential candidate Barack] Obama is actually pretty good on transparency. He signed the transparency pledge pushed by Reason Foundation [the nonprofit that publishes reason]. Who else is good on that issue?
Norquist: [Republican presidential candidate John] McCain's been quite good on it. A number of governors have moved forward very well on this. Seven states now actually post every check that the state writes. What we need to do is get that to local government, to counties and cities and the federal government.
reason: What's the third policy?
Norquist: The third policy is getting the government out of health care. That's sort of a series of policies. But allowing you to buy your health care from any state so that you don't have to live under the mandates and regulations of New Jersey just because you live in New Jersey, but could buy your health insurance from a company in Iowa. And the whole idea of moving more towards health savings accounts where people can pre-save and you're actually spending your own money.
reason: The idea is that will introduce market competition and we will see an improvement in outcomes and the lowering of prices?
Norquist: Absolutely. You can always save overall money with rationing, which is what all these government programs are. We'd rather have competition squeezing down costs.
reason: Is this a pipe dream? Besides spending a hell of a lot of money on war, one of the things that George W. Bush and a Republican Congress spent taxpayer dollars on was the prescription health care benefit package. That's a legacy of a supposedly conservative government. So are we just inevitably going more and more toward socialized health care?
Norquist: No, I think health savings accounts, which were brought in as part of that whole deal, now have something like 5 million people. Those are growing very rapidly. If we get those numbers up sufficiently, I think [it would] have a real effect.
reason: Who are you going to vote for for president?
Norquist: I'm going to vote for John McCain.
Norquist: He's committed now to vetoing any and all tax increases. He's laid out a pro–tax cut agenda which is not—
reason: Is there reason to believe that? I mean, this is a guy who a month ago was saying that he didn't know much about the economy. He seems to be all over the place.
Norquist: He has a good collection of people around him, including [former Texas Sen.] Phil Gramm and others, on the tax issue. He also looks in the mirror and sees a man of integrity, a man who tells the truth, and he's now said enough times on national TV, "read my lips, no new taxes, here are the tax cuts I'm going to fight for." It would break him to go back on his word, as it did to Bush Sr. when he went back on his word.
reason: How do you feel about McCain's foreign policy? He is—and I mean this as a purely descriptive term—a warmonger. He was bred in the military. He talks a lot about the muscularization of American foreign policy. Is that something you're comfortable with?
Norquist: It is my hope that somebody who has been tortured and has come out against the president on the torture issue, somebody who knows a little bit about the costs of war, may talk tough but be less willing to engage the United States in war. We now have the example of Iraq before us. Iran is three times bigger and it's not flat.
reason: How do you feel about McCain-Feingold, which is John McCain's signature program on campaign finance reform? It's a clear attack on the First Amendment, on specifically political speech. How does that fit into your enthusiasm for John McCain?
Norquist: Only because it's water under the bridge, over the dam, is it not a hanging offense. It was a hanging offense in 2000. I opposed McCain and supported Bush largely because he was off-center most on the issue of the First Amendment, and if you can't get the First Amendment right, you have to wonder about some of the other amendments. I think it was a huge mistake. I think it was a very bad thing that was done, and the Bush people went and signed it, believing it was so goofy that the court would strike it down.
reason: Americans for Tax Reform—does it lobby, or is it a nonprofit?
Norquist: Both. It's a 501(c)4. It can do grassroots lobbying. It cannot endorse candidates or parties.
reason: Do you do lobbying work for countries or for other groups?
reason: You were associated with the Jack Abramoff scandal.
Norquist: He was an old friend of mine. He got in trouble, and there was an effort by some to say, "Ahh, Grover knows Jack, so Grover did something wrong." The good news is that Jack did me the favor of not trying to get me involved in anything that would be problematic, so—
reason: Did you find the charges against Jack Abramoff meaningful or revealing? Did they say something about the intersection of big money and big politics?
Norquist: There are two things. What Jack Abramoff got in trouble for was falsifying some statements to a bank. That's what he's been convicted of, I think: saying he had money that he didn't have for a bank loan.
I did work with him on Indian tribe questions, where the government was trying to tax Indian tribes. We were opposed to expanding the federal government's ability to tax Indian nations, just as we wouldn't want them to tax Massachusetts or General Motors more.
reason: Talk a little bit about your intellectual background. How did you get interested in free market or limited-government ideas? Where did that come from?
Norquist: I was an anti-communist first and a free market economics person second. When I was 12, I read all of Kim Philby's work—
reason: The great turncoat British spy.
Norquist: Yes. And I Led Three Lives by Herb Philbrick. So I recognized that there was an entity out there, the Soviet Union, that was purely evil and statist. I went from that to saying, well, then we want to be more of the opposite. Our government was less horrific than theirs but not necessarily without flaws, and it was too large and too intrusive. And then I became a free market economist and then studied economics at Harvard.
reason: How does that kind of mind-set change in the wake of the end of international communism?
Norquist: You did, with the Soviet Union, have a group that really did want to eat the United States, and there was a willingness to spend a fair amount of money on national defense to stop that from happening. When the Soviet Union was broken, that requirement, that challenge, was no longer there. We went from spending 6 percent of GDP on defense down to about 3 percent of GDP on defense, and I think we can competently protect our borders and protect our interests with less than the 3 percent we're spending, unless—
reason: Some people are floating plans to mandate 4 percent of GDP, or whatever, to be spent on defense.
Norquist: They were pushing for that before September 11. There is a group of people who benefit from increased military spending who think somehow that doesn't count for government spending. It does. I think the United States can push an agenda of free trade and intercourse with virtually all nations that reduces the threat that anyone might be to us. I think a China that we're trading with and working with is less of a problem than a China we try to bully around.
reason: What fear should America have about radical Islam? Is Islam a fear to replace communism?
Norquist: There was an effort. There were some people who, when Bush got elected, wanted us to have a war with China, a billion Chinese, which is fairly stupid. A second stupid choice was to have a war with the billion Muslims in the world. We don't have to have [a war]. I don't know where these people got this idea that the United States is always better with daggers drawn with someone.
I think that we're better off if we don't threaten other people but keep an eye open so if somebody throws a punch at us we protect ourselves. There's no reason for us to be at daggers drawn with China, Latin America, or any part of the world on a permanent basis.
reason: When you look back to the early Reagan years, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the idea of a smaller government, the idea of more individual freedom within the political arena? It seems in the cultural arena people are much more free than they used to be.
reason: But are we on the right path or the wrong path, or is this just something that's always kind of like Pigpen in the old Peanuts cartoons—it's just a big dust ball that moves along?
Norquist: I think we can do better. I think we can do significantly better. I think liberty could take some rather strong jumps forward. Look, over 20, 30 years we had to fight the left with one hand tied behind us because we had to deal with the Soviet Union. We had to tolerate a larger state than we'd otherwise like while we did that, while the left was gnawing on our ankles here. I think we can fight against statism here with a freer hand absent the threat of the Soviet Union and absent the 10 percent of GDP spent on defense or 6 percent of GDP spent on defense. So, yeah, I'm optimistic.
reason: You call yourself a conservative.
Norquist: A Reagan Republican.
reason: OK. What is the difference between a conservative and a libertarian?
Norquist: Twenty IQ points.