Don't tread on us

Think the conservative revolution is dead? Think again, says Grover Norquist, the mastermind of the "leave us alone" coalition.

Published March 23, 1996 6:52PM (EST)

rover G. Norquist should be worried. The conservative revolutionaries he helped lead into battle have taken quite a hammering of late. Badly burned on the balanced budget issue, they are also seeing some of their most cherished notions -- like environmental deregulation -- put on the back burner. The GOP's presidential standard bearer lags far behind President Clinton in the opinion polls, while the radical's own champion, Newt Gingrich, is, according to the polls, the most unpopular politician in the country since Richard Nixon.

Yet Norquist remains sublimely confident his cause will prevail.
The bearded, sharp-tongued 39-year-old Harvard Business School graduate may not be as famous as Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh or William Kristol. But as an intellectual author of the conservative Republican uprising, he is at least their co-equal. Norquist's weekly salons of right-wing activists -- including property rights groups, the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition, and term limits supporters -- form the basis of what has come to be called the "leave us alone" coalition.

As president of Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist has persuaded dozens of federal and state GOP candidates -- including, after an eight-year slog, Sen. Bob Dole -- to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. "The tax issue is the central issue in the relationship between individuals and the state," Norquist says. "Who should have control of the resources -- the people who earn them or the parasites in the government who take what other people earn?" His intensity attracted the attention of Gingrich and he became a key grass-roots organizer -- thinking of "everything that would slow them down and hurt them" -- in the defeat of the Clinton administration's health care plan. Now a confidant and tax policy adviser to Speaker Gingrich, Norquist's main project these days is a Constitutional amendment mandating a two-thirds majority before either chamber can raise taxes.

Over breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington, Norquist talked about the direction of the conservative movement, the Republican presidential nomination and why he hates dining with liberals.

How strong is the "leave us alone" coalition these days? It appears that much of your agenda -- tax cuts, deregulation, school choice, easing gun restrictions -- has stalled.

I think it's going to run the country for the next 40 years. Every piece of the Republican coalition is growing and every piece of the Democratic coalition is shrinking. The country still overwhelmingly agrees with the Republicans on principle -- on whether you want more government or less. Bill Clinton now says the era of big government is over. That's a capitulation of everything he stands for.

But it was Republicans who toned down the efforts to scale back environmental protection. They seem to think the GOP risks being viewed as too extreme.

We'll win those battles eventually, but they're not something that we'll get overnight. They just take too long to explain to people who don't understand property rights.

Yet voters do not seem impressed with the Republicans these days. Bill Clinton is comfortably ahead in the opinion polls.

The press and even a lot of Republicans are focusing too much on the presidential race. This is understandable for an older generation which believes a presidential candidate determines the direction and tone of the party. Today, the direction of the party has been set. It's a conservative, Gingrich Republican, small government party. No matter who is elected, it won't alter that direction.

Besides, the election isn't just pitting Bob Dole against Bill Clinton. It's going to be the entire Republican team -- governors, state legislators, congressmen, senators -- against Clinton and the Democrats. Unlike the Democrats, we have an integrated party at all levels of government and we will run as that team. That reduces the value and importance of who the presidential candidate is.

Is Bob Dole acceptable to you?

Any of the Republicans except Buchanan are acceptable. The most important thing is, are they within the Republican coalition? That is, the "leave-us-alone" coalition of people who don't want higher taxes; property owners who don't want their houses taxed away -- or when it rains on their farm it's declared a wetland. People who don't want the government telling them how to educate their children. People who don't want the government to steal their guns.

And Bob Dole isn't suddenly going to stand up and say, "Guess what, we're now against school choice! We don't believe in tax cuts! We're not for less spending."

Buchanan won't get the nomination, but will he set the tone for the party in November?

If I thought for a minute that his rhetoric of envy, the know-nothingism, and his non-understanding of international trade made sense to Republican voters, I would be worried. Pat's having a tantrum, and I think it's counterproductive for him. But he is resonating in two areas: social concerns and being an outsider. He hates Washington and the establishment. Well, all proper Republicans should hate Washington and the establishment. He just says it louder than anyone else and evidently is more believable than Dole.

You're on record against Colin Powell as a Republican candidate, but he is being talked up as Bob Dole's running mate. What would you say if Powell were selected for the vice presidential spot on the ticket?

He hasn't put the time in to build the party. He hasn't developed a vision for where the party's going. He's a great American, he's just not ready to run for president or vice president.

You constantly urged Congressional Republicans, especially the freshmen, not to compromise on the budget because they were sent to Washington as part of a revolution. Now, many commentators say the conservatives did themselves in by taking such a hard line. That this us-against-them strategy alienated moderates and independents.

The polling data out of the New Hampshire primary showed that most Republicans thought Congress hadn't gone far enough!
When was the Republican Party at its peak? During the first 100 days Congress when Newt Gingrich was hard-driving, pushing the "Contract with America" through the House. People got unhappy only when the Senate stalled and the fight with Clinton evolved into bickering. All of a sudden both sides started looking like each other. Which is exactly what Republicans can't afford to have happen.

Doesn't Gingrich's unpopularity in the polls hurt the conservative movement.?

No. You can run up somebody's negatives, but those aren't hard negatives. Gingrich's agenda is popular with the American people, so the Democrats spend a lot of time trying to sack the quarterback. They ran against Newt in (Rep. Norm) Mineta's old district (in San Jose) and they lost. Gingrich isn't concerned, and I'm not concerned, because on the fundamental question of do you want bigger government or less, the answer is still the same.

Are you disturbed by the language of politics today? People say they are sick of all the negative advertising in the Republican primaries. Isn't it just breeding more cynicism and causing more people to tune out?

The Left is losing, so what do they come up with? "Everything is so negative... Everything is so partisan.." All of a sudden, they've lost the ability to run to a corrupt, partisan House and so they say, "Oh, this is terribly partisan."
Cynicism? I think cynicism is when we send these guys to Washington to do something and they don't do it. There is a sense of, "No matter who we vote for they screw us." Republicans have to make it clear they are different -- that what they say in their districts is what they do in Washington -- even if some people might go, "Whoa, that's a little much." That's one of the appeals of Buchanan -- that what he says, he means.

Why won't you eat with certain people?

We -- the conservative activists, the new Republican activists -- did not come to Washington to join their establishment. Our goal isn't to get invited to their dinner parties, to join their country clubs, to be part of their smart set. We came here to displace that establishment and to take power out of Washington. We don't sit with our noses pressed up against (former Washington Post publisher) Katherine Graham's dinner parties, wishing we were invited to know what they think. I live under their stupid laws, I pay their stupid taxes. I watch the three networks which give you their world view every day. I don't have to have dinner with (House Minority Whip) David Bonior to know what the left wing of the Democratic Party thinks. They've been running the country for 40 years.

By Derrick DePledge

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