Over the past three decades, nobody in this country – from Ronald Reagan to Paul Ryan – has devoted more energy to slashing taxes and government than the Washington activist and lobbyist Grover Norquist. His ambition, as Norquist once quipped, is to shrink government until it’s small enough to fit into a bathtub, “so we can drown it.”
But the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, long an influential and powerful figure on the right, is no anarchist. Alarmed and dismayed by the shutdown chaos among Republicans on Capitol Hill, he has begun to speak out on behalf of the beleaguered party leadership – and against the minions of the Tea Party, especially Ted Cruz. Wonkette observed that Norquist had “gone full mean girl” on Cruz. During the past few weeks Norquist has mocked Cruz mercilessly, saying he “pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away,” while the Texan’s online claque has accused him of trying to protect the GOP establishment elite, including himself, from grassroots insurgents. On Twitter, Tea Party activists have tarred him as a “RINO,” or Republican In Name Only.
Recently Norquist spoke with The National Memo’s editor-in-chief Joe Conason about feuding with the junior Texas senator and his ardent followers, the reasons he is so devoted to maintaining the federal budget sequester, and his persistently optimistic outlook for 2014. On the day of the interview, right-wing websites and bloggers were attacking him on several fronts, including the revival of old charges that he is a secret Islamist agent (his wife is Muslim). Norquist’s answers, expansive rather than pithy, had to be edited for space, but the entire half-hour exchange is worth hearing on our exclusive and unedited recording.
Joe Conason: You’ve said a number of things that are a bit harsh about Senator Ted Cruz lately… So what do you really think about the Texas senator and his tactics for trying to bring an end to Obamacare?
Grover Norquist: Well, I think that the last month or so, Ted Cruz and a number of different structures and institutions came out in support of his tactic, which was for the House to demand the defunding repeal of Obamacare, full stop — not as part of a negotiation to delay it, not as part of an informational campaign to highlight weaknesses, but to insist we must have Obamacare defunded, repealed, or we will not pass the [continuing budget resolution] and we will not pass a debt ceiling increase – [which] obscures and confuses voters about some important truths.
One, every single Republican in the House and the Senate supports repealing Obamacare. Every single Republican in the House and Senate that was around had voted against passing Obamacare and/or for repealing it at least three times since it was passed. So, to suggest that people who do not support a particular tactic, one that requires a Republican majority in the House, somehow to force a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democratic president, who is quite attached to his central achievement as President of the United States … to repudiate and undo that achievement … it seems to me that that’s unlikely to actually happen as a tactic… To attack people who question whether that tactic is a good idea as appeasers of Hitler, as members of the surrender caucus, as RINOs, as people who own Obamacare …Now, to say if they don’t support a particular tactic or strategy, which for many people it was difficult to understand how it was supposed to work or succeed … means that somehow there’s a division in the Republican Party where the establishment is not sufficiently anti-Obamacare. That isn’t true and that is confusing to voters.
Two, the Republican Party is doing quite well on two fronts. One, the sequester: The two big accomplishments of the Republican House of Representatives and the competent leadership of [Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in the Senate, without which you would not have the sequester, which limits government spending for domestic discretionary spending, both military and nonmilitary, for the next 10 years. And it’s a line in the sand. Republicans may look at that and not see it as a terribly strict limitation on spending, but the Democrats think they’re starving to death. The Democrats think that they are running out of everything and they find the sequester stifling.
The second achievement is getting the President of the United States to continue 85 percent of the Bush ’01, Bush ’03, and AMT patch tax cuts, which were temporary and all lapsed on January 1, 2013. He could have extended 90 percent of them for a year, in which case he would’ve maintained the whip hand in every negotiation with Republicans for the rest of his presidency. Instead, the Republicans were able, God knows how, to convince the president and/or Biden to hand 99 percent of the American people 85 percent of the Bush-Bush-Alternative-Minimum-Tax-patch tax cuts — so that there’s nothing the Republican Party needs or wants from Obama…
The president ceded major gains to Republicans. The most important thing Republicans can do in the recent and upcoming negotiations on [the budget] and debt ceiling is to maintain the sequester and protect against tax increases.
And Ted Cruz’s demanding that 46 Republican senators pass the repeal of Obamacare through a Senate which has 100 senators, discourages people about what has been achieved, confuses people about what can be achieved, and distracts from the tremendous victory that Republican House and Senate leaders and the backbenchers have gained. That said, the fourth criticism of the Cruz “defund Obamacare now and take no alternatives” plan is that it failed. So not only did it not appear likely to work, it didn’t work. Otherwise, it seemed like a good idea [laughter].
Conason: That’s your response to criticism of you that’s now welling up in the Tea Party ranks, generally – who now are saying that you are an establishment Republican, a gatekeeper, whose ability to defend the establishment’s priorities has been breached by the new grassroots movement. What is your view of the Tea Party?
Norquist: I would argue that the modern Tea Party … what was a collection of individuals and some existing structures, but mostly new institutions … about a million people went into the streets the week of April 15, 2009, in at least 600 rallies around the country. And they came there in reaction to spending too much … to the stimulus spending and the anticipation of more spending on Obamacare. I would’ve told you, prior to that happening, that in American politics you could not organize political opposition to overspending. You had to wait until overspending at the local level, the state level, or the national level became taxing too much, and then you had tax revolts…But in point of fact, in 2009, politics changed and “spend too much” became a vote-moving issue.
Conason: But why are you getting attacked by the Tea Party now so vehemently? It just got a little more vehement today.
Norquist: Well, the people who were excited by Cruz’s demand that we end Obamacare today … I think that leaders do a disservice when they speak to the general public — which doesn’t do politics 100 percent of the time — and tell them that something is possible when it’s not. You can’t promise people to pass something through a Democratic Senate with 46 Republicans. It’s not fair to them.
And when I weighed in and said that it was unfair of Ted Cruz and others to mislead the American people, and say if we widely demand the repeal of Obamacare it is conceivable to do it with a majority of the House but not a majority of the Senate and a Democratic president with a veto, okay? And when I asked the advocates of defund-only — the strategy that we should defund Obamacare and that’s all we should do — how do you get a majority of the House, the Senate, and a presidential signature on this bill? You got crickets. What you got was “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” right? The [Darth Vader] line from Star Wars.
So, if you just truly believe, then Tinker Bell will be okay. If you truly believed and cared, then Obamacare would disappear. That’s not accurate, that’s not honest, or honorable, or fair to tell voters…That month we just spent was wasted, was misdirected time and effort. It did not do anything to make the abolition or diminution of the damage of Obamacare possible or achievable. It did not accomplish anything.
People don’t want to hear that at first. I understand that, and they get mad at me. “Oh, Grover, you’re criticizing Cruz.” Now, wait a minute. I’m working through what was accurate and achievable and let’s talk about that. And I’ll sit down with any advocate of “defund would be a reasonable, achievable plan” and walk me through how that is. I’ve only been asking for two months now for somebody to do that, with no takers as to how this could happen.
So, I understand the grumpiness. People have to come down off a sugar high of “We’re going to accomplish this, we’re going to accomplish this” … and the other reason why it’s important not to mislead people was the implicit thing here, which was if we all work hard enough we can, through 47 Republicans in a 100-member house … I’m sorry, 46, being a smaller number than 51 and an even smaller number than 60, and an even smaller number than 67…You know, if you tell people you can accomplish that, which is not accomplishable, it’s not possible, and [then say] that the only way that could possibly fail is that the Republican leadership had stabbed you in the back … [To say] the Republican leadership was against opposing the government taking over health care, that’s a falsehood and a libel against the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate and the Republican Party.
And it’s not nice to fib about other people and take your own failed strategy and announce, “My strategy didn’t fail, the failure was with the leadership which didn’t implement it,” okay? This is the way some people explain the last 10 years in Iraq. And that, I think, was an unhelpful project by advocates of defund-only, and when I say the emperor has no clothes, there were some people who invested a lot of emotional energy into the idea that the emperor had clothes.
Now, this is a temporary thing and when we get past it, we now move to the fight over the sequester and not raising taxes, which will unite all pieces of the modern conservative movement, the Republican Party, and this will fade in the past. What should not fade is the lesson learned by conservative leaders and Tea Party leaders: Never let people tell you that the impossible — and by this I don’t mean the difficult to achieve, I mean the truly physically impossible — is achievable. And if you can’t walk through walls, somebody was a RINO. That’s just not accurate, and it’s libel against good people and you’ve seen Republican fundraising falter as a result.
But it’s all fixable because we’re about to spend two months where Obama says, “I want to raise taxes, and I want to increase the debt, and I want to spend more money” and Republicans will say, “Would you please say that louder into the camera and directly into the microphone so the American people, and particularly the Independents not aligned can hear that this a fight between more spending and more taxes and some sense of limited government … and not raising taxes?” That will put us back on track. There are 10 Senate seats where we’re either ahead or within the margin of victory. Republicans will actually pick up a few seats in the House. We’ll take the Senate and we’re on our way. But this hiccup didn’t help. It hurt. And some people had invested in the idea that they were involved in a great project when, in fact, they were being misled and their time and efforts were being wasted by people who misled them.
Conason: So, what’s the strategy for the budget negotiations now?
Norquist: I called a bunch of the folks in the House and the Senate after the vote and I said, “Is everybody cool that the things we have to have are maintain the sequester, meaning just don’t change the law, and don’t raise taxes?” And even the hawks who might be tempted to have impure thoughts about tax increases in return for really cool defense spending, are not pushing for that or making noises there, and everybody agrees to hold the sequester, don’t raise taxes. Is it possible that we could have a deal which exchanged some temporary relaxation of the sequester for substantial, permanent, real changes in entitlements that saved a lot of money?… As in, I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. Democrats feel they don’t have enough money to spend right now. We can give you some money now, but like the guy who lends you money, he wants a lot of money back in the future …
OK, with a lot of savings in the next 50 years to make it worth our while to lend you some relaxation of sequester — is that conceivable? Yes. Has Ryan proposed it? Yes. Will Ryan offer that as something on the table to show how terribly reasonable he is? Yes. Do I think Obama or the Democrats will take it? I don’t.
So, I just think we offer lots of reasonable things: No busting the sequester, no tax increase. And we end up with a CR which keeps the sequester in place and doesn’t raise taxes. And if the president wants to say, “I will close the government down if you don’t give me more money and higher taxes,” then he owns what happens, just as Ted Cruz owned what happened after he said, “I have to have this, I have to have this, I have to have this, and I won’t not have it … even if you close the government down, I will insist on this.” Well, then you own the government shutdown. Cruz owned the government shutdown.
Conason: You don’t believe any of these polls that show the Republican brand has been very badly damaged, and the Tea Party now is in the toilet as a brand as well? You’re just not buying any of that? You think that this is all going to pass away and the Republicans will be on top again in a few months?
Norquist: Well, two parts: One is there’s no election for the next 12 months in terms of House, Senate and so on. And right now there are 25 … and the map I keep on my refrigerator and over my computer is the colored map where the 25 red states, states with Republican governors and both houses Republican … Texas, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, big states … 165 million Americans live in the 25 red states. Those states are going to be Republican-controlled legislatures, if not governors for the next decade because of redistricting. There are 13 states that the Democrats run. California, Illinois, Minnesota, Maryland, Massachusetts, where the Democrats run everything. And there are 81 million people who live in those 13 states. And those states are going to be run by Democrats at least in the legislature for the next decade because of redistricting.
So, you have a strong Republican bench in terms of state legislative candidates, statewide candidates … much stronger than the Democrats and in part of the country twice as populous as the Democrats. This is not a bunch of square states out west. This includes the heartland of the country. So, the strength of the modern Republican at the state legislative level and at the state level, the House, because of strong candidates and redistricting — honest and fair redistricting as opposed to the old political redistricting — that puts the Republicans in a largely guaranteed majority for the decade.
And then you have the Senate…if you look at the kinds of states where this next election is — Montana, and West Virginia, and South Dakota, and Louisiana, and Arkansas, North Carolina, Michigan, Iowa — these are states where we should pick up seven and there are three that we’re within the margin of error.
So the fundamentals are very strong, which is why this detour that Ted Cruz and others — he was not alone in this but he got the bulk of the attention on it — why I sort of called out those guys who got us on the detour and said, “Guys, this was not constructive, this was not part of winning, this did not move us further down the path. This was a mistake and a hiccup and…a delay in where we’re going. And let’s sit down, focus, and move forward.” The fundamentals for the Republicans are fine. Part of the other problem is when Cruz and others said, if I can’t turn water into wine, then the Republican leadership are a bunch of winos … RINOs … sorry, RINOs … that must be Freudian [laughter].
Conason: I guess…
Norquist: I meant that! I meant RINOs! That one is clever. Wino-RINOs. I did that on purpose! [It’s the notion] that if I can’t achieve the impossible, then the Republican leadership sucks. And some of the radio talk show hosts and others have sort of jumped in on that …
Conason: So …
Norquist: That won’t stand. Because at the end of the day, that makes no sense. And after they’ve sat down and digested it — my explaining the emperor has no clothes — there’ll often be a little apology note saying, “Oh, Grover, we should’ve listened to you the first time. You were right.”
Conason: My sympathy on that when it comes …
Norquist: Yeah, yeah. That little tweet about how I’ve become a RINO … boy, was that silly. In retrospect, that looks pretty ridiculous, and I’ll be very gracious.
Conason: So, it sounds to me as if you’re almost ready to endorse Mitch McConnell for re-election.
Norquist: Mitch McConnell has parlayed his 46 votes competently on the Senate side. He has not turned water into wine, he has not turned 46 into 51, okay? He hasn’t turned 46 into 67, which Ted Cruz evidently believes Mitch is capable of …he has more faith in Mitch, perhaps, than I do.
And [House Speaker John] Boehner [R-OH] has both admirably and competently, and in a principled way managed the House to two major victories: the sequester and making the tax cuts permanent. And holding all the Republican votes against the stimulus and against Obamacare, and maintaining the party in one piece despite lots of pressures of being in the minority for the first two years. I think that the Republican leadership has performed admirably.
Could you always do 10 percent better or 10 percent worse in any negotiation? Yes, you could, absolutely. Can I think of anybody who would have done better than those two leadership teams? No. Are we on track to get a Republican majority in the Senate that will vote with the Republican majority in the House to enact the Ryan budget plan as soon as you have a Republican president? Yes, we’re on track to do that. That is what we need to do. The Ryan budget plan, which block grants welfare, reforms entitlements, solves all the world’s problems with the possible exception of who should run [the disputed India-Pakistan border province of] Kashmir.
Conason: I understand why you’re thrilled with this sequester, although it is a kind of a blunt ax way of cutting government …
Norquist: Let’s remember who thought it up.
Conason: Agreed — there’s definitely responsibility all around for that. But does it trouble you at all that the recent estimates by the Congressional Budget Office and the Peterson Institute and others — not necessarily Democrats — say that the sequester has cost a million jobs in a slow recovery? Does that bother you or is that just noise?
Norquist: Well, I think it’s Keynesian economics … the idea that if you take a dollar out of the economy and taxes or debt and spend it, that there’s an extra dollar in the economy … that if you take a bucket of water from one side of the lake and walk around to the other side of the lake and in front of the MSNBC TV cameras, pour the water back into the lake and explain you’re stimulating the lake to great depth …
Taking money out of the economy and putting it back in through the state or taking water out of a lake and pouring it back in doesn’t make the lake any deeper.
So, I’m not an advocate of Keynesian economics or a believer in Keynesian economics, and I don’t think that the stimulus created jobs, and I don’t think the failure to have additional stimulus cost jobs. I think lots of things cost jobs, but everything we told you would cost jobs, on everything from Obamacare to the regulations, to the tax on fracking, and the [Keystone XL] pipeline, and the [Alaska National Wildlife Refuge] and so on, that’s what’s killing jobs in this country. We can create jobs, we know how to do that, but we’ve got to stop having the government jump up and down on top of people’s heads.
Conason: Grover, it’s been a pleasure, as always.
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr