Grover Norquist (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Long live the conservative puppet master: Why Grover Norquist is still more destructive than the House GOP

The GOP's Freedom Caucus has successfully hijacked Congress—but Norquist is still an unmatched figure on the right


Heather Digby Parton
October 22, 2015 3:58PM (UTC)

Last night, the so-called Freedom Caucus said most of them would "support" Paul Ryan for Speaker of the House, but they would not "endorse" him. As of this writing, it appears that Paul Ryan has accepted the conditions the caucus laid down, including a promise to maintain the Hastert Rule -- which means the stand-offs and showdowns will continue under his leadership. Whether that will be good enough for the Freedom Caucus is unknown; from the looks of it, nothing will have changed from Boehner era. And so it goes.

But with all the current sturm und drang, it's easy to forget that the right wing has been radical for a very long time. The only difference today is that they are literally running the party rather than toiling on the outside influencing from afar. But that doesn't mean that the outside influences are no longer exerting their will. The talk radio hosts are still agitating, the Fox News pundits are still pontificating and the right-wing think tankers are still... thinking. The wingnut industry is as active and engaged as ever.

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Take for example, the Godfather of the conservative movement, ,, who appeared on Brad Friedman's radio show yesterday and declared:

"Voters do not like establishment Republicans. They really do reject them across the board. When I talk to Republicans and they say 'We've got to beat Hillary', I say that's fine, I understand that, but if you nominate an establishment Republican --- a Chris Christie, a Jeb Bush type, a John Kasich --- you're going to lose. The people don't want an establishment Republican."

Viguerie has been making lots of money and growing his power for more than four decades by railing against the Republican establishment. These little pipsqueaks in the Freedom Caucus are walking the path laid down long ago by the likes of Viguerie, back in the 1970s when he and Paul Weyrich and a few others created the modern conservative movement infrastructure that still exists today.

In the 1980s, a new generation of outside agitators came in with the Reagan Revolution. Among the most successful were a trio of friends -- Grover NorquistRalph Reed and Jack Abramoff.

Reporter Nina Easton's book, "Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Ascendancy," tracks their rise from their early years as college Republicans all the way up to the exalted positions they each held in the Bush years. Reed was the leader of the Christian Coalition, Abramoff the powerful K Street lobbyist, and Norquist the anti-tax activist.

Reed and Abramoff got caught up in a lurid corruption scandal and lost their positions as conservative movement leaders. Reed has fought his way back to some degree and now heads a different social conservative group, the Faith and Family coalition. Abramoff did jail time and became a critic of the lobbying industry upon his release. But Grover Norquist remains at the top of the conservative hierarchy, more powerful than ever.

These activists were of a different breed. Today's Tea Party/Freedom Caucus players are impatient and solipsistic, naively disruptive. Norquist, on the other hand, has been slowly changing the landscape of American life and the relationship of the people to its government over many, many years.  He has done this with one very specific longterm strategy: He set out many years ago to starve the government of funds. Not that he hasn't been instrumental in most other conservative movement successes of the past 30 years -- his regular Wednesday meeting of conservative activists remains hugely influential -- but his Americans for Tax Reform "pledge" is the most significant. He has managed to put the government in a fiscal noose that just keeps tightening and strangling it ever so slowly.

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This week, Michael Grunwald at Politico caught up with Norquist as the drama of the House Speakership crisis unfolded. The Republican Party may be in total disarray but Norquist keeps his eye on the prize:

Michael Grunwald: You’ve been at this for more than 30 years, pushing for lower taxes. So how’s it going?

Grover Norquist: People forget Republicans weren’t always for tax cuts. Even during the Reagan years, it wasn’t a settled issue. Bob Dole wanted to do a gas tax. A lot of Republicans wanted to get rid of various deductions and credits. Remember in 1988, even after Reagan passed tax reform, Dole refused to take the pledge. He won Iowa, but then during a debate in New Hampshire, Pete DuPont handed him the pledge, and he reacted like someone had thrown the cross in the lap of a vampire. George Bush took the pledge and won. But then Bush broke his pledge in 1990, and broke the Republican Party. It cost him the presidency. Well, no one’s life is a complete waste; some people serve as bad examples to others. We haven’t had someone break the pledge since Bush. In 1994, 95 percent of Republican candidates took the pledge, and we swept the House and Senate. Today, more than 90 percent of the Republicans in Congress have signed the pledge and kept it. And we’re pushing it down to the state level, too...

MG: That’s one of the big political stories of the last 30-plus years. The Republicans all agree on this now. So how much have they actually lowered taxes?

GN: The top tax rate was 70 percent when Reagan came in. When he left it was 28 percent. It climbed up to 39 percent under Clinton. Now it’s 35.5 percent, plus 3.8 percent for Obamacare taxes. The corporate rate went from 50 percent to 35 percent, although it got stuck there. And at the state level, there are now nine states with no income tax.

His take on the Bush tax cuts is self-serving. Taxes did go up for people making more that 450,000 dollars a year.  But sadly, his larger analysis is also true:

GN: That was a phenomenal victory. All the Bush tax cuts were going to expire on January 1. All Obama had to do was twiddle his thumbs and go for a walk, and taxes were going to increase by $5 trillion over a decade. He would have gotten the largest tax increase in the history of western civilization. Not only didn’t he do that, he allowed 85 percent of the Bush tax cuts to be made permanent, for 99 percent of the country.

Grunwald asked him why he didn't take the "maximalist position" on that pledge and require all of his signatories to oppose any increase, and he has a convoluted explanation, but he's actually being cagey and not just for CYA purposes. Norquist understood that his low-tax project would have been set back by a decade if those tax cuts had been allowed to expire so he swallowed the small concession for the higher earners for the greater good -- starving the government. The 2011 budget deal was the true achievement:

GN: Well, advocates of limited government had an extraordinary victory in 2011 when John Boehner stood down the president over a $2.5 trillion increase in the debt ceiling. He said: Cut $2.5 trillion in spending over a decade, or else no deal. The president kept saying OK, we’ll reduce the deficit, we’ll raise taxes and we’ll cut spending. Boehner said no. All spending cuts. That’s what the Budget Control Act did. Obama thought the spending caps would break, but they haven’t. Government spending has decreased from 24 percent of GDP to 20 percent in just three years. Huge.

Huge indeed. A lot of people suffered for it and will continue to unfortunately.

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He calls Paul Ryan, the presumptive Speaker, an "evangelizer" for slashing spending -- particularly entitlements, the Holy Grail -- and believes the Party is making some structural changes in the House which will make it increasingly likely that the conservatives will be able to get the job done. He's very happy about all this, as you might imagine. Indeed, from his perspective, if it weren't for that pesky Obamacare, the past six years have been a rousing success.

Norquist claims to be perfectly content with all the presidential candidates (and is rumored to have consulted on Trump's predictable and standard GOP tax cut plan) and only wishes for any GOP president to sign Ryan's budget -- at which point nirvana will have been achieved. But it's not necessary. In fact, if there's one thing serious conservative activists understand, it's that keeping the movement alive is job one. You might even suspect that Norquist would prefer that the Democrats retain the White House. After all, he's achieved a great deal during the Obama years, even as the Tea Party has kept the movement energetic and wealthy.

As Godfather Richard Viguerie once sagely observed:

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"Sometimes a loss for the Republican Party is a gain for conservatives. Often, a little taste of liberal Democrats in power is enough to remind the voters what they don’t like about liberal Democrats and to focus the minds of Republicans on the principles that really matter. That’s why the conservative movement has grown fastest during those periods when things seemed darkest, such as during the Carter administration and the first two years of the Clinton White House.

"Conservatives are, by nature, insurgents, and it’s hard to maintain an insurgency when your friends, or people you thought were your friends, are in power."

It's likely the Freedom Caucus doesn't get any of that. They don't seem to have a very sophisticated view of how such things work. But the old guard long ago learned that anger and frustration are the mother's milk of the conservative movement and they will do everything they can to ensure they have just enough success and just enough failure to ensure that it keeps going. No matter what happens with the Republican Party, the movement will go on.

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Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton

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