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).
But all along, Americans for Tax Reform was his chief focus, and Norquist used it as a base of operations for a guerrilla-style attack on the capital's culture. Working closely with Gingrich, then a radical backbencher and rebel in the minority GOP House caucus, Norquist gradually built ATR into a leading force in the American antitax movement, raking in corporate contributions and deftly using the right's direct-mail lists to pull in donations from rank-and-file conservatives. Gingrich is unstinting in his praise for his former ally, especially on the central issue of cutting taxes and shrinking the federal government. "He is essentially the most creative and most effective conservative activist in the country," says the former Speaker. "He is both a serious conservative intellectual [and] a remarkable implementer of effective communications and grassroots political strategies." When the Clinton Administration took office, Norquist saw an opportunity to position ATR as what one ally calls the right's Grand Central Station. The vehicle for that, and for Norquist's emergence, would be his now-famous Wednesday meetings.
Launched in 1993 to rally conservatives against President Clinton's healthcare plan, Norquist's invitation-only, off-the-record Wednesday meetings started small, with a dozen or so activists in attendance; a year later, it had grown to forty-five, including representatives of the National Rifle Association, on whose board Norquist serves; the Christian Coalition; the Heritage Foundation; and staffers from Gingrich's office. Since the arrival of President Bush, attendance has climbed to more than a hundred--including representatives of the White House, the Republican National Committee and the House and Senate leadership. Reporters and editors from conservative media outlets are frequent attendees, along with a smattering of corporate lobbyists. At one recent meeting, topics of discussion ranged from a report on allegedly wasteful federal spending to the campaign of a potential challenger to a Democratic Congressional incumbent. Norquist introduced the day's speakers and allotted ten or fifteen minutes to each. "The meeting functions as the weekly checklist so that everybody knows what's up, what to do," says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a conservative pollster who has been a regular attendee for years. Often, more informal get-togethers--along with fundraisers and dinner parties--take place at Norquist's Capitol Hill home, where, she says, the door is always open "and there is always Chinese food."
ATR has an in-house staff of about a dozen, along with a network of part-time people scattered across the country, and it works closely with nearly 800 state-based, antitax activist groups. In 1999 ATR boasted an annual budget of more than $7 million, nearly a third of which comes from just forty corporate backers, including Microsoft, Pfizer, AOL Time Warner and UPS. Far and away the single biggest donor that year, according to ATR's most recent tax return, was tobacco giant Philip Morris, which contributed $685,000 to the group, with R.J. Reynolds and U.S. Tobacco also providing significant money. Another big chunk of ATR's funding in 1999 came from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians ($360,000), in support of Norquist's work for the gambling industry. The liquor industry is a third major funder, with money from the Distilled Spirits Council, United Distillers & Vintners and Seagram Companies.
Despite the fact that large parts of his funding come from the taxophobic "sin" industries--tobacco, gambling, liquor--Norquist maintains strong alliances with the Christian right, often speaking at Christian Coalition events. But Norquist, who calls himself a "generic Protestant" and attends church only "semiregularly," is uncomfortable talking about religious beliefs. He welcomes groups like Republicans for Choice and the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group, into his weekly conclaves, and gay rights groups in Washington credit him with openness on gay issues, including his recent support for the Republican Unity Coalition, an ad hoc gay group that supports Bush.
In fact, balancing distinct parts of what he calls "the center-right coalition" is what Norquist does best. "Conservatives love to fight with each other," says Richard Lessner, executive director of American Renewal, the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council and a former editorial writer for the archconservative Manchester Union-Leader in New Hampshire. "What Grover's brought to the movement is to say, 'Let's find the things we can work together on.'"
One such issue, which has had mixed results so far, is the misnamed "paycheck protection" campaign, aimed at crippling the political clout of organized labor by forcing unions to get annual written permission from members to use some of their dues money for political work. The idea was initially brought to Norquist's attention by a small coterie of right-wing California activists, and Norquist took it national, launching initiatives in state after state and persuading Gingrich to tack it onto campaign finance reform bills. (It is now an official part of Bush's catechism, too.) "He really was effective at getting that idea crystallized," says Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future, noting that the AFL-CIO was forced to spend millions of dollars to beat back paycheck protection on California's ballot three years ago.
Norquist says that he only occasionally takes a salary from ATR, and tax records from 1999 confirm that he was paid nothing that year. Norquist used to do some work as a lobbyist--at one point he was on a $10,000-a-month retainer for Microsoft and at another he lobbied on behalf of the Seychelles, an island republic in the Indian Ocean--but those ventures brought him bad publicity and he no longer takes private clients. Instead, he draws a retainer as a consultant and strategist for a lobbying firm he helped to found, Janus-Merritt Strategies, which represents Seagram, BP, Universal Studios and a wide range of Mexican industrial groups. By all accounts, however, Norquist lives quite modestly. John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, a longtime friend and former roommate of Norquist's, compares him to Ralph Nader for his almost monklike devotion to his cause.
To a significant degree, George W. Bush owes his election to Norquist, whose early support was crucial in lining up the right behind the Texas governor's campaign. And if Bush, born in the Ivy League haunts of the Eastern Establishment but raised in the conservative oilfields of West Texas, has managed to forge a governing coalition that includes both Big Business and the far right, Norquist's skillful ability to hold that coalition together is a big reason why.
In November 1998, immediately after Bush was re-elected as Texas governor and began eyeing the White House, Norquist traveled to Austin to meet Bush and Karl Rove, Bush's political guru, whom Norquist has known for two decades. Norquist came away convinced that Bush, if not an authentic conservative, was at least the right's best hope. On five issues, he says--tax cuts, school choice, tort reform, pension reform and paycheck protection--Bush said the right things, and that was enough for Norquist. At the time, for most conservatives Bush was an unknown quantity, and his closeness to his father (whom Norquist excoriated in his book for faithlessness and errors of political judgment) made the right queasy. Others in the race, like Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, all had appeal to the far right--but Norquist, upon returning to Washington, started spreading the word that the right ought to line up behind Bush.
According to several sources, Norquist's support was decisive in swinging the bulk of the conservative movement into Bush's camp by early 1999. "It's not disputable," says Fund of the Wall Street Journal. Then, when Bush ran into trouble battling Senator John McCain of Arizona, Norquist mobilized the right against McCain in the early primaries, especially in South Carolina--and, in the process, cemented his ties to Bush and Rove.
When pressed, Norquist admits that he has no idea whether Bush is truly committed or just playing politics--and that, in the end, it doesn't matter. "Is Bush, or Rove for that matter, a true believer?" he asks. "I don't know. I do believe he understands the center-right coalition." For now, at least, Norquist believes that Bush is wedded to the idea that it would be fatal, as his father learned, to alienate the hard-core conservative base. Like the Communists of the late 1930s, who slavishly praised Franklin Roosevelt even though they knew he was a card-carrying member of the New York financial elite, Norquist seems to acknowledge with a wink that Bush is a vehicle to advance the conservative cause one more degree.
"It's like this," he says. "Some of us in the movement want to get to St. Louis, and some of us to Utah, and some to Los Angeles, and some of us want to go all the way to Japan. Bush wants to get to St. Louis. Is there any reason to argue with him about the need to get to LA? Or to get really flaky and say we need to go all the way to Japan? Of course not."
Right now, "getting to St. Louis" means passing the tax cut--shaping up as the make-or-break event for Bush's presidency--intact, and Norquist is playing a critical role in insuring that business groups, antitax activists and a wide range of single-issue conservative organizations stay focused. "I would call him our field marshal," says Horace Cooper, who is counsel and director of coalitions for majority leader Dick Armey.
To add pressure on Congressional Democrats to endorse the tax package, Norquist is coordinating a campaign to get state legislatures to pass resolutions of support, concentrating on the nineteen states where Republicans control both houses. "There are fifteen Democratic senators and fifty-six Democrats in the House from those states," he says.
Norquist has also organized seventeen conservative groups under the umbrella of the American Conservative Union to support Bush's plan, even though most of them, including ATR and ACU, would prefer even more sweeping tax cuts. Here Norquist is at his best, wrangling and cajoling. One example: He worked hard to keep the Christian right groups together in support of reducing the "marriage penalty," eventually winning a major victory when the House passed the $400 billion tax cut provision on March 29, even though some groups wanted more. Norquist also helped soothe business lobbyists, for whom an expanded marriage-penalty reduction cuts into the money available for corporate tax cuts.
And more broadly, Norquist serves on the ten-person executive council of the Tax Relief Coalition, set up by the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the US Chamber of Commerce. More than 700 corporations and trade associations have joined the Tax Relief Coalition, with eighty paying $5,000 each to be part of its steering committee. The group divvies up responsibility for lobbying individual members of the House and Senate as individual pieces of the package move forward.
Norquist, despite his corporate backing, is no yes man to Big Business, and he recognizes that business interests and those of hard-core conservatives do not always coincide. (For instance, while Norquist and his allies would abolish the FDA, the big multinational drug companies regulated by the agency want only slightly looser oversight and would strongly oppose getting rid of it.) But he understands that on such issues as the tax cut, business support is vital. "There are times when their concerns and interests are in sync with the direction of the movement, and it's the movement's job to figure out who can be temporary and who can be permanent allies," he says. The growing convergence between the agendas of business and the radical right has boosted the chances for the tax-cut plan, he says. "They have been wise in understanding that if this tax cut passes, Bush will be a stronger President, and there will be more tax cuts every year."
Alan Kranowitz, speaking for the Tax Relief Coalition, says, "A lot of us agree that the President has got to have a good win on this tax package that will enable him to go forward and do other things." Among those "other things," of course, are a capital gains tax cut for business and an endless amalgam of special-interest tax breaks and loopholes.
Norquist predicts that in the end Bush will win a tax cut that comes pretty close to his original plan of at least $1.6 trillion. If support wavers, he says, a compromise of sorts might be struck, in which the most controversial part of the package--the rate reduction from 39.6 percent to 33 percent for the highest earners--would be scaled back or eliminated, to be replaced by a cut in the capital gains tax. (Repeal of the estate tax is almost certain not to pass this year.) Then, he says, next year Bush will come back for more. Many of the tax breaks for special interests, including the timber industry, the liquor interests and software companies like Microsoft, he suggests, could be assembled together in a package labeled "international competitiveness." Says Norquist matter-of-factly, "We'll take that pig and put lipstick on it."
To guarantee that business marches in lockstep with Bush and the Congressional GOP not just on taxes but also on other issues important to the Administration, Norquist is touting what he calls his "K Street Project," aimed at ferreting out Democrats who work as lobbyists and replacing them with litmus-test Republicans. "Democrats in Congress retire to universities," he says. "K Street is where Republicans go to retire." Norquist plans to wave around town his list of untrustworthy Democratic lobbyists in the hope that corporate CEOs will feel compelled to revamp their K Street offices rather than risk the GOP's ire.
Easy to forget in the bustle of day-to-day battles is the fact that Norquist prides himself on thinking big. "That," he says, "is one of the reasons Newt and I got along so well." During one conversation, in a crowded hallway at February's Conservative Political Action Conference, Norquist reaches into his jacket pocket and extracts a sketched-out timeline starting in 1980 and going to 2040. On it, neatly arrayed in rows, are a dozen or fifteen projects of Norquist's "center-right coalition," some nearly completed, others not even to begin for a decade or more. Some, like privatization of Social Security, will take twenty years, he believes. Others, such as the elimination of racial preferences, abolition of affirmative action and even the elimination of racial and ethnic categories in future censuses--a package he lumps together as "the creation of a color-blind society"--may take longer than that. And some projects seem almost quaint, such as his quirky effort to name things, almost anything, after Ronald Reagan.
Still others can be won piecemeal, and right away. Asked to name one that might emerge as his next battleground, he pauses. Well, he says, there's the matter of all those state and local pension plans. State by state, he's planning to launch a campaign to dismantle and privatize state pension plans and their trillions of dollars of public funds held as investments for retirees. "Just 115 people control $1 trillion in these funds," he says. "We want to take that power and destroy it."