Grover Norquist: 'Field Marshal' of the Bush Plan
It's early April, tax time, and Grover Norquist is moving into high gear. The President's $1.6 trillion tax cut package is working its way through Congress, and Norquist--president of Americans for Tax Reform and arguably Washington's leading right-wing strategist--is rushing from meetings on Capitol Hill to strategy sessions with antitax activists. One minute he's putting the finishing touches on planned demonstrations in Washington and all fifty state capitals on tax-return filing day; the next he is juggling appearances on right-wing talk-radio shows and stints on MSNBC and Fox. And, as he has for nearly eight years, Norquist is coordinating the agenda for his signature event, the regular "Wednesday meeting" that draws more than a hundred representatives of conservative groups to a standing-room-only conference room at his organization's L Street offices.
Stocky, bearded and owlish, Norquist, 45, is a thumb-in-the-eye radical rightist whose tactical sophistication and singularity of purpose has led observers to compare him, with some drollery, to Lenin. A Harvard-educated intellectual and self-conscious student of the left, over the past decade Norquist has eclipsed such older stalwarts as Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation, David Keene of the American Conservative Union and Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation to emerge as the managing director of the hard-core right in Washington. But while firmly planted on the extreme end of the political spectrum, Norquist has also built a solid working alliance with the Fortune 500 corporate elite and its K Street lobbyists. "What he's managed to do is to chain the ideological conservatives together with the business guys, who have money, and to put that money to work in the service of the conservative movement," says Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future, who's repeatedly clashed with Norquist. "And he picks big issues." Besides taxes, Norquist is also the go-to guy on virtually all of the right's favorite agenda items, from privatization of Social Security and Medicare to school vouchers and deregulation.
Norquist gained notoriety as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's right hand in the mid-1990s--helping to design the 1994 Contract With America and rallying the right's grassroots to go to the polls that year, a drive he chronicled in his book Rock the House. When Newt crashed and burned, Norquist survived to become an ally of Gingrich successors, including Tom DeLay, the House majority whip, and Dick Armey, the majority leader. And since late 1998 Norquist has been George W. Bush's unofficial liaison to so-called movement conservatives.
Yet even while emerging as a Washington power broker, Norquist has held on to the irreverent, in-your-face style that has been his trademark since his earliest days as a college activist in the 1970s. "I've been a 'winger' from way back," he says. "I was an anti-Communist first, and then I became an economic conservative. I think I've gotten more radical as I've gotten older." Today, he can barely suppress his glee at how much the movement has succeeded, saying that politics is shifting to the right while he remains constant. "I started out as a right-winger, and when I retire I want to be a squishy middle-of-the-roader," he jokes, chortling at the thought. To Norquist, who loves being called a revolutionary, hardly an agency of government is not worth abolishing, from the Internal Revenue Service and the Food and Drug Administration to the Education Department and the National Endowment for the Arts. "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years," he says, "to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
Blunt statements like that are what set Norquist apart. "One thing that contrasts Grover with others on the right is his candor," says Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way. "Grover does not mince words." In the battle over taxes this year, Neas and Norquist have clashed repeatedly as heads of the left and right coalitions on tax reform, and Neas frankly admires Norquist's skills. "He is a very good coalition builder," he says. "Grover has been one of the most effective leaders of the radical right on tax issues, and a host of others."
Raised in a prosperous, middle-class family in Weston, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, Norquist arrived at Harvard in 1974 already predisposed to do battle with the establishment liberal-left, helping to publish a libertarian paper called the Harvard Chronicle and joining the business side of the Crimson. Graduating just in time to sign up with the burgeoning tax-revolt movement in the late 1970s, Norquist did a stint with the National Taxpayers Union and then returned to Harvard for graduate school. Trekking back to Washington after Ronald Reagan was elected, Norquist took over as executive director of the College Republicans, a post that brought him into contact with the rising stars of a new generation of right-wing activists, many of whom are his allies today. After a couple of interim stops, in 1986 Norquist was tapped by President Reagan's White House to run an ad hoc group called Americans for Tax Reform, an in-house operation to build support for the 1986 tax bill. Soon afterward, Norquist took ATR private, and he has run it ever since.
During the second half of the 1980s, Norquist detoured from his tax work to engage in a series of safaris to far-off battlegrounds in support of anti-Soviet guerrilla armies, visiting war zones from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to southern Africa. Working alongside Col. Oliver North's freelance support network for the Nicaraguan contras and other Reagan Doctrine-allied insurgencies, Norquist promoted US support for groups like Mozambique's RENAMO and Jonas Savimbi's UNITA in Angola, both of which were backed by South Africa's apartheid regime (Norquist represented UNITA as a registered lobbyist in the early 1990s).