Where Grover Norquist goes, conservatives closely follow. Though his name may not be intimately familiar to those outside Washington, Norquist has, over the years, notably influenced the Republican dogma. He is irrepressibly partisan, often engaging in major Capitol Hill showdowns. The most consequential of these showdowns have involved fiscal matters, during which he brings to life the anti-tax, small-government spirit of the Reagan era.
His efforts are accomplished through the organization he runs, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), which he formed a few decades ago. Its central purpose, Norquist explained to the Gate, is “to enable the Republican Party to brand itself as the party that won’t raise your taxes.” Norquist encourages every Republican in office to sign his Taxpayer Protection Pledge (almost all of them do), which binds them to the promise of never voting in favor of a tax increase. The logic is brilliant in its simplicity—while politicians may campaign on promises they do not always intend to keep, they are more effectively held accountable by signing pledges in written form. While this taxpayer protection works to Norquist’s end, such a clear and public promise—if reliably followed—also allows for members of Congress to enhance their credibility with constituents. Not until Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1995, though, did Norquist’s pledge become much of a force. Norquist noted the pledge’s success: “After Bush raised taxes, there has never been a tax increase if the Republicans have the House, the Senate, or the presidency. The only tax increases have come under Democratic rule, when they have controlled all three.”
To maintain the legitimacy of his pledge, Norquist aggressively pursues electoral retribution for those Republicans who dare sign and then break it. During budget crises in Washington, some pledge-signers have found their promises difficult to keep politically. Former Senator Saxby Chambliss, a longtime Republican from Georgia who signed the pledge when he first ran for Senate, ditched the pledge during the fiscal cliff deliberations of 2012. Norquist responded publicly, criticizing the senator: “He should address the people of Georgia and let them know that he plans to break his promise to them.” Norquist’s strategies stretch beyond public posturing and become increasingly dangerous for pledge violators and refusers alike, against whom he often vocally threatens to find and fund primary challengers.
Intra-party hostility is not something Norquist is fond of, however, and from his position in ATR, Norquist extends his hand to any and all factions within the modern conservative movement. “The Leave-Me-Alones,” as he labels it, have proved to be a lasting and durable conservative coalition, built around the core principle of limited government. Norquist has married social conservatives with anti-tax Reaganites, and gun owners with the fiscally concerned. Once a week, representatives from these interest groups congregate at the ATR headquarters in Washington. Norquist runs these meetings, which are structured like a forum. As he explains, “I manage the process of internal communication within the modern, center-right movement, making sure everybody knows what everybody else is doing.” Over time, meeting attendance has grown significantly, with as many as 150 people now showing up to engage with ATR and other coalition members.
In today’s highly partisan environment, Norquist thrives. For some observers, however, his zero-sum gains come at a sharp cost to Washington’s functionality. David Brooks once described him as “the Zelig of Republican catastrophe,” adding that Norquist’s “method is always the same. He enforces rigid ultimatums that make governance, or even thinking, impossible.” Ruthlessly uncompromising, Norquist often attracts such criticism. His worldview is one that differs greatly from political commentators like Brooks, who instead lament partisan divide and urge for bipartisan cooperation. In Norquist’s own view, “On the central issues of the size of government, the two parties seek opposite directions—somebody will win, and somebody will lose. There is no room for bipartisanship.” There are, he admits, certainly peripheral issues—criminal justice reform and term-limits, for instance—that might find a smoother path through Congress. But in Washington, Norquist mostly sees a clear dichotomy: there can only be winners and losers, no halfway victories.
While Norquist seems eager about these kinds of external party challenges, some may think that a brash, unconventionally-minded President Trump would pose an intra-party obstacle, jeopardizing the unity of his coalition. To Norquist, though, this is far from true, “On taxes, labor laws, and regulations, President Trump is quite a Reagan Republican.” Norquist often stressed the point that his coalition need not find common ground beyond its core, limited government principle. Trump, then, seems to mostly embody this idea of his. Their interests do diverge on issues of free trade and immigration, though, both of which Norquist acknowledged are “real concerns,” yet he “does not think our problem is attributed to foreign actors. It’s trial lawyers, tax collectors, and regulators who have been damaging the economy, and therefore we have trouble competing abroad.” Bureaucratic inefficiencies are, to Norquist, usually responsible for American economic misery.
Though he can quickly tarnish the efforts of partisan opponents, Norquist is first and foremost a positivist, believing religiously in the ability of ATR to influence tax reform. Over the years, his efforts have come to deeply impact the Republican Party—Norquist is certainly a bold unifier of his partisan friends. The coalition he has nurtured for decades saw a resurgence in 2016, with the Republican Party now fully in control of Washington, offering a bright path forward for him and Americans for Tax Reform.
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