Grover Norquist has for years been a legendary Washington player known for his single-minded crusade against taxes and his clout in the uppermost ranks of the conservative movement.
But in the past few months, he has publicly taken two positions -- skepticism on the war in Afghanistan and support for criminal justice reform -- that are typically associated with progressives, and that are rarely heard in the halls of Congress. In each case, Norquist's position is undergirded by his commitment to cut government spending. But that makes his advocacy no less striking as he delves into areas that most congressional Democrats -- let alone Republicans -- wouldn't touch.
In an interview with Salon Thursday, he described his position on Afghanistan: "Can we have a conversation about what we're doing, and how long we're going to be there, and what the point is, and how much it's supposed to cost, and what the plans are?"
Saying he is no defense expert, Norquist declined to offer a specific policy prescription. But he is frustrated by the lack of discussion on the right in the 10-year-old war.
"During the Bush years there wasn't much of a conversation about costs -- or even, 'What's winning?'" he said, adding: "I always worry about people who think certain conversations are beyond the pale. Because what I think it really means is, they're incapable of defending that which they assert is indisputable."
He's candid about where he's coming from on the issue: "Part of it is that this is extremely expensive. I'm a taxpayer group. This is not for free. There was a study arguing [the war] cost $119 billion this fiscal year."
That report, by the Afghanistan Study Group, a group critical of the current policy, is here. Norquist spoke at a dinner event this week with one of the leaders of that group, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation.
In some ways, Norquist's fixation on the cost of the war echoes criticisms made by a prominent Democrat, outgoing Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. Rendell, though, goes a step further and says the money being spent on the war should instead be used to revitalize U.S. infrastructure.
Norquist says he's gotten a number of e-mails from "major conservative leaders" thanking him since his remarks on the war were publicly reported.
His efforts in another area, criminal justice reform, have gotten less press attention. He is a charter signatory of a new Texas-based group called Right on Crime.
Citing the fiscal crises facing many states, which are driven in part by ever-rising expenditures on prison and soaring incarceration rates, Right on Crime emphasizes reducing recidivism rates and "custodial supervision alternatives" for nonviolent offenders. It also supports mandatory drug treatment and counseling for those convicted of drug offenses as a way to reduce costs in the long run.
"Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending," reads a statement of principles signed by Norquist and several other conservatives. "A clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals but are not the solution for every type of offender."
Now the question becomes: Could a left-right alliance develop on either of these issues to force a more broad-based conversation?
Here's Norquist making the conservative case for criminal justice reform in October: