All those Greenies and Naderites who grumble about the permanent duopoly on political power in Washington, D.C., can take heart: It’s over, according to an emerging consensus. The bad news: It’s been replaced by a near-permanent monopoly. Of Republicans.
At least, that’s the bad news for liberals if the new presumption of perpetual Republican dominance in Washington turns out to be correct. Although it’s only a theory, it’s one with a surprising number of adherents. Even parts of the left have begun to embrace it. But the idea’s leading proponent is, unsurprisingly, a conservative: Grover Norquist, the longtime Rasputin of the right. “The Republicans are looking at decades of dominance in the House and Senate, and having the presidency with some regularity,” Norquist told the New York Times last week. A few days earlier, he made the same point, with slightly less confidence, to CNBC Washington bureau chief and Wall Street Journal columnist Alan Murray: “For the next 10 years in the House and Senate, we’re looking at Republican control.” In the Washington Post last month, Norquist wrote of a “guarantee of united Republican government” that “has allowed the Bush administration to work and think long-term.”
The 46-year-old Norquist is the rare activist who is actually powerful. He has known Karl Rove for more than 20 years, and the White House sends representatives to his Wednesday meetings of conservative activists, politicians, and journalists. The meetings have been variously described as the “heart” or the “clubhouse” of what passes for the real-world version of the vast right-wing conspiracy. The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund dubbed him “the Grand Central Station” of conservatism and told The Nation that “It’s not disputable” that Norquist was the key to the Bush campaign’s surprising level of support from movement conservatives in 2000. So, if Norquist believes the GOP Forever speculation, you can bet he’s not the only one in Washington who buys it.
Norquist laid out the theoretical underpinnings of the premise in the March issue of the American Enterprise, the magazine put out by the conservative think tank AEI. Among Norquist’s reasons for predicting a Republican lock on Congress: Congressional redistricting after the 2000 census increased the number of safe Republican seats; Bush’s narrow victory in the presidential election meant that he didn’t usher in a lot of weak Republican congressmen who could be easily beaten; the liberal New Deal/Great Depression generation is dying and being replaced by younger, more conservative voters; and despite the 50-50 split in the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election, President Bush won 30 states, indicating that the Republicans should dominate the Senate for some time to come.
Sounds convincing. Until you realize that Norquist has been making the same prediction for nearly two decades. He’s the Republican Party’s stopped clock. Four years earlier in the American Spectator, Norquist put forth a similar analysis: Declining union membership, a shrinking government work force, the dying of the Great Depression generation, the shrinking of America’s urban population, and the rise of a large new investor class all bode well for the Republican majority. Before the 1998 election, he predicted that Republicans were “about to secure majority status for a generation,” and after the 1996 election he wrote that it “confirmed that the Reagan Republican coalition is the natural governing majority in the United States.” Ditto for the 1994 election, after which Norquist declared, “The long-predicted partisan realignment has finally come to pass.” As far back as 1985, he told the Washington Post, “I think the revolution is happening. It’s going to stick. I don’t see what could happen to move it back.” Norquist is like a child’s doll with a ripcord in his back. Pull it, and he exclaims something about the emerging Republican majority.
What enables Norquist to keep making the same prediction year after year after year is the fact that it hasn’t happened. President Clinton’s re-election in 1996, the Democratic gains in the House in 1998, and Al Gore’s victory in the popular vote in 2000 confounded the believers in Republican realignment. If there weren’t a near-majority Democratic Party, Norquist wouldn’t be able to keep prophesying its doom.
Of course, simply because someone says something over and over doesn’t mean it won’t eventually be true. But Norquist himself will on occasion confess that his Eternal GOP scenario isn’t a sure thing. In the January 1999 American Spectator, he predicted that the 2000 election would determine both “undisputed control of redistricting and the next decade of governance”—for the Democrats or the GOP. More striking, in the November 1992 American Spectator, he wrote an article titled “The Coming Clinton Dynasty,” in which he admitted that “any vision of conservatism as the ultimate winner in a two-steps-forward, one-step back Leninist march, is a flawed one.”
Instead, Norquist explained, the way a party ensures its perpetual dominance is by controlling the levers of power. In 1974, Watergate led to the election of 75 new Democrats in the House. In Norquist’s view, “this liberal band of congressmen” was “willing to change the rules to ensure their continuation in power.” Without the benefits of incumbency (bigger staffs, larger budgets, taxpayer-funded mail, pork, and the ability to “extort campaign contributions from industries”), Norquist argued, the Democrats could not have remained in office for the subsequent 18 years. Power perpetuates itself. The correctness of conservative ideas paled before the ruthless “minority ideological cabal” in Congress.
With Clinton, conservatism would face the same dilemma, Norquist predicted. The new president would pack the Senate by granting statehood to D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, changing labor laws to allow unions to funnel even more money to Democrats, and repealing the Hatch Act to turn federal workers into an army of Democratic campaign operatives. If that wasn’t enough, he would create “dozens” of government-funded liberal think tanks, allow voter registration “at welfare offices and prison induction centers,” and use the IRS, FEC, FCC, and FTC to punish his political enemies.
In addition to shedding more light on Norquist’s laughably poor record at forecasting the future, these predictions illuminate Norquist’s profound respect for the power of the state. (They also show how closely Norquist’s politics track with the “paranoid style” described by the historian Richard Hofstadter.) Governments, if they are willing, can maintain themselves in power forever. This reverence for the state’s nearly limitless power explains both Norquist’s desire to dismantle the state as well as his insistence on using it for propagandistic ends, such as his Soviet-esque obsession with building monuments to the Great Leader (Ronald Reagan—including a campaign to replace Alexander Hamilton with Reagan on the $10 bill).
Because of that respect for the state, Norquist sees every election as world-historical. “The 2000 elections will decide the Democrats’ future,” he wrote in 1999. A year earlier, he fretted that if President Clinton “retakes the House for liberalism, his place in history will be on a par with that of FDR or JFK.” Norquist has counterfactual nightmares along the same lines. He told Reason in 1997: “I mean, four more years of Carter, and Central America would have been communist, and South America would have been communist, and they would have rolled up Africa, they would have rolled up Latin America. We could have lost the whole shooting match to what we now know as a rather pathetic Soviet empire. But they still could have beaten us if Carter had continued supervising our team.” He also confessed to Reason that he feared that Clinton’s effort to implement universal health care could have relegated the Republicans to permanent minority status: “Had the Democrats taken over health care, I think we would have become a social democracy and we could have never undone it. We wouldn’t have won in ‘94, and even if we did, it wouldn’t matter because 50 percent of the population would be on the take.”
The Republicans are in power forever—until the next election, when the Democrats could be in power forever. Norquist lives on the brink. His fear of what the terrifying power of the state would be like under complete Democratic control explains his willingness to make a rare departure from the GOP line to oppose the Patriot Act. As the prophet of Republican permanence told Salon: “Someday Hillary Clinton’s going to be attorney general, and I hope conservatives keep that in mind.”