Leave Grover Alone

The conservative tax hawk among the believers.

Grover Norquist always starts with a metaphor. Or two or three, if necessary. “Guys, there are two teams in American politics,” he tells the group of young conservatives at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. “Our team, the Reagan Republicans,” and “our friends on the left.” He then describes President Obama’s role in passing the stimulus bill in mixological terms: “If this is a martini, Obama would be the vermouth.” Now the package is being divvied up like “after the bank robbery in the movie: One for you, one for you, one for you.”

To spend a day with Norquist, as I did Friday, is to be impressed by his range of metaphors but also to see their limits. Norquist still has a way with words; he hasn’t lost anything off his fastball. But the ideas his metaphors are designed to advertise have never been more out of fashion. It’s as if he’s trying to sell beepers to a nation of iPhones.

“He could be going from some medieval metaphor to ancient Romans to some Greek god of something to a fairy tale to sports to whatever,” explains his communications director, John Kartch. His staff has been keeping a mental list. “The sword of Damocles, he likes that one a lot,” says Kartch. (You know, like the Kansas state carbon tax hanging over the heads of businessmen.) There’s the comparison of Democrats seeking tax hikes to “a high school kid on prom night. They only want one thing, but they just ask the question 20 different ways. Our job is to answer, No, no, no, no, no. Not No, no, no, no, yes.” And his most famous one: He wants to shrink government so it’s small enough that he could “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Other favorite subjects for analogies include the works of Chekhov, the Spanish-American War, and Shakespeare’s Henry V. They don’t always work, like the time he compared Polish Communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski to Norwegian Nazi sympathizer Vidkun Quisling. “People don’t know who Quisling is,” Norquist tells me. Sometimes, the analogies get him in trouble. He once compared the logic behind the estate tax—that it’s OK to punish a small percentage of the population—to justifications of the Holocaust. On NPR. “People say, Are you really comparing the death tax to the Holocaust? Nooo.” He says this to me like a teacher whose patience is wearing thin. “Then why’d you use that analogy? So you’d understand the concept, you idiot.” Norquist poked fun at this habit at last year’s Funniest Celebrity in Washington contest, with this zinger: “What about that Harriet Miers? A modern day William Hull.” Silence. “General William Hull? War of 1812? Surrendered Detroit? Court martialied? Big cluster? OK.”

Vivid imagery is important in any sell. But it’s especially important if you spend all day, every day, for two decades, talking about tax cuts. Norquist has pursued this goal with relentless single-mindedness. During boom times, during recessions, no matter what the ailment, the cure is the same: less government. (The title of his new book sums it up: Leave Us Alone.) As head of Americans for Tax Reform, a group he helped create in 1985 at the behest of Ronald Reagan, he has asked politicians on both sides of the aisle to sign a pledge not to raise taxes. If you sign it, he’ll leave you alone. If you don’t … well, good luck.

He has been described, in ascending order of hyperbole, as a “right-wing master strategist,” “right-wing strategist par excellence,” “master of the conservative domain,” “bearded conservative guru,” “conservative sultan,” “Republican eminence,” “GOP mastermind,” “omnipresent conservative power-broker,” “V.I. Lenin of the right,” “patron saint of tax cuts,” “dark wizard of the right’s anti-tax cult,” “puppet master of the modern anti-government movement,” “longtime Rasputin of the right,” “leading bouncer at the conservative club,”  and “Capo di Capi of the lobbyist army of the right.”

But the ground is shifting. With the ascendancy of Obama and Democrats in Congress, Norquist’s all-tax-cuts-all-the-time philosophy has never been further from the mainstream. (Obama’s approval ratings remain high even after a bailout for banks and auto companies, a massive stimulus bill, and the unveiling of an expensive new budget.) In the face of economic crisis, the notion that government should just step aside strikes many Americans as outlandish. And with all the calls for “fresh ideas” in the Republican Party, the constant harping on tax cuts seems, well, quaint.

Not to Norquist. To him, supply-side economics has never been more relevant. “The left has been arguing this since forever,” he says. “When I was in college, [John Kenneth Galbraith] would come and give a lecture every year to Harvard students about how we were just about to enter the Great Depression again. Because he never had as much fun as he had during the Great Depression.”

The way Norquist sees it, the credit crisis isn’t a result of too little government regulation—it resulted from too much. The Community Reinvestment Act, the federal backing of Fannie and Freddie, the union work rules at General Motors—these factors, not deregulation, drove the economy into the toilet. The only solution now is to step aside. “That’s the only way to do it,” he says. “We could have started fixing it last year … by allowing all the Wall Street companies that were in trouble to go bankrupt. We should have let General Motors go bankrupt. The whole point of bankruptcy is to say, ‘If there isn’t anything there, admit there’s nothing there and then rebuild.’ “

Norquist also rejects the idea that the 2008 election was a repudiation of fiscal conservatism. Quite the opposite, he says: Democrats won because they co-opted the issue. “The other team ran an election trying to hide who they are,” he tells the CPAC crowd. Obama promised tax cuts for everyone who makes under $250,000, and then imposed a cigarette tax. “About 25 percent of Americans smoke cigarettes, and the only American who smokes cigarettes who earns more than $250,000 a year is Barack Obama.”

As for Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist’s group, times have never been better. After Obama won, the number of attendees at its famous Wednesday meetings went from about 120 a week to 140, spiking at 180 the week of CPAC. “We’ve got more direct-mail contributors,” Norquist says. “It gets us more time on TV and radio.” In the end, Obama is good for ATR, even if he’s not good for the country. “It’s like crime waves are good for private security guard companies,” he says.

But still, something feels out of sync this year about the endless tax-slashing quest. RNC Chairman Michael Steele is calling for “fresh ideas” to relaunch the party. What’s fresh about tax-cut fundamentalism? Norquist puts the “fresh ideas” people into two groups: Those who want to move the party to the left and those who want attention. “The only way to get attention is to come up with something completely new, which in life, usually means something completely stupid. There’s a reason why scientists and inventors are known as crazy people: Because most of them are, and then every thousandth guy invents something really good. But most of the time they’re lunatics. The guys who say, ‘That won’t work’ “—he breaks into a whisper—”they’re almost always right.

The point, he says, is to find “new formulations” for old principles. “The parents’ rights movement is new formulation. Concealed carry is new formulation. School choice. … There are new and different ways to frame the concept of liberty.”

That’s where his penchant for metaphor comes in handy. The stimulus package in particular has unlocked the creative juices. “If Barack Obama and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi took three buckets of water out of a lake, ran to the other side of the lake, and poured those three buckets into the lake … do you really believe there’s more water in the lake?” he likes to ask. “That’s their spending plan: Take money out of the productive economy, walk around, and hand it to the politically connected—800 billion times.” I ask when he started using that one. “It was actually a phrasing I used to explain Keynesian economics to Zulus in KwaZulu 10 years ago.”

Literary coinage, however, is only one part of Norquist’s job. The rest consists of meeting with politicians, lobbyists, activists, and organizing anti-tax and transparency campaigns in the states. CPAC, therefore, is like a giant business meeting, and traveling its halls is like one long West Wing tracking shot, with greetings, compliments, and bits of information flying back and forth. “Hey, handsome!” “Hey hey hey!” “How are you?” “Winning on all fronts, and yourself?” “How are things going in Fargo?” “Who’s your guy on the ground in Alaska?” “What’s Duane focused on now?” He stops to discuss minutiae of various state campaigns as if they are fresh on his mind. Norquist’s demeanor—calm, earnest, affable—gives the impression that success is more about sustained focus over long periods of time than flashes of inspiration.

Most of his courtiers he knows. “Hello, fellow godfather,” says Ann Coulter in the hotel lobby. At first this sounds like some weird code language. Turns out they actually share a godchild. The rest are randos stopping to express admiration. One asks him to sign his miniature Declaration of Independence. Does he ever get any crazies coming up to him? “Everybody’s a little bit crazy,” he says. I wonder whether this is my cue to run. (Norquists’s humor is relentlessly deadpan. Once, in 2006, Al Gore presented his now-famous global-warming slide show at a Wednesday meeting. One slide showed America shrinking as sea levels rise. After the coasts vanished, all that was left was the center third of the country. “So how does this affect redistricting?” Norquist asked.)

Late afternoon, Norquist heads down to the Exhibit Hall for a few radio appearances. All local right-wing talk—San Antonio, Miami, North Dakota. (“The Limbaugh of the Prairie,” one calls himself.) After a couple hours, I make a suggestion. “I think we should go shoot a gun,” I say. His face lights up. “Oh, good!”

We mosey over to the NRA booth, where they have a giant hunting simulation set up. The game is called “Varmint Town.” Norquist picks up the orange shotgun and presses it against his shoulder. Little prairie dogs scurry across the screen. Norquist’s first two shots miss, but the third is dead on. A prairie dog goes down in a bloody heap. Another, sniped, spins out of control and rolls down a mound. A third does a running face plant. Norquist racks up six in a row for bonus points. His final score: 57,000. Respectable for an NRA board member. I ask him whether he ever played Duck Hunt. No, he says. “I missed out on cocaine and Nintendo both.”

As we’re leaving, he approaches the NRA rep. “Has the NRA done this at CPAC before?” Nope, she says, first time. Apparently more than 1,700 attendees signed up for the NRA mailing list after playing the game. Something about it just lures people in. “This is wonderful,” Norquist marvels. “This is the funnest thing.” It’s as he said before: new formulations for old principles. He just moved to a new HQ, and the game gives him an idea. “Tell Jane to set this up in the new office,” he says.