"Bipartisanship is another name for date rape."
"We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals-and turn
them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship."
-- Grover Norquist
President Bush loves to talk about his favorite foreign policy doctrine
of pre-emption, the radical notion that even in the absence of imminent
danger the United States should use force against any nation that might
pose a threat down the road. What the president won't admit is that his
administration has adopted the same doctrine toward government -- and
Democrats -- here at home. For conservatives, a government that's not
mortgaged to the hilt poses too great a threat of social activism. That's
why, in 2001 and again this year, the Bush administration has launched
pre-emptive attacks on the national treasury designed to leave the U.S.
government so deep in debt it poses no threat to the conservative status
quo. Its motto is: Stop government before it can help again.
The Bush White House will not acknowledge the existence of this domestic
doctrine. It can't: George W. Bush owes his presidency in large part to
the masterful illusion that he was a different kind of Republican from
Newt Gingrich. He's even careful to avoid making overt spending cuts in
popular programs, lest he give the enemy atrocities to point to.
But one of the leading strategists behind Bush's secret war on government
is more than happy to tell the world all about it. His name is Grover
Norquist, and he is the nation's leading advocate of "kill the taxes
and you kill the government." If pre-emption is the most dangerous
idea any president has had since Richard Nixon, Norquist may well be the
most dangerous adviser. Perhaps more than anyone else, his growing influence
on the Bush agenda helps explain not only the country's current economic
woes, but also the long-term threat the new conservatism poses to a prosperous
future. More and more, the administration seems to be thinking about taxes
just like Norquist -- tax cuts are always good, because they
take money from government.
Norquist, leader of libertarian-leaning groups like his unofficial leave-us-alone-coalition
and Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), is renowned in Washington as the avatar
of scorched-earth tax reduction. He's a hero to so-called "movement
conservatives" (people for whom conservatism is religion) because
they still see, through Reaganesque lenses, the government as always the
enemy, never the solution. Norquist is the man who compared any and all
recipients of government funds -- presumably excluding the Defense Department -- to
cockroaches. He also famously announced that he and his brethren in the
anti-government movement wanted to reduce the federal government to a
size so small "that it could be drowned in a bathtub."
All this would make for an interesting, if grotesque, sideshow except
for one thing: What once was right-wing braggadocio is now the heart of
the Bush agenda. "What this administration is doing, and most people
haven't figured it out yet, is an annual tax cut," Norquist recently
told The Washington Post.
Thanks to the strength of his conservative network and the weakness of
the Bush economic team, Norquist has become, in many respects, the most
potent influence on the administration's economic plan. Most presidencies
take their economic advice from respected economists or titans of industry.
The Bush agenda comes from the fevered brain of a movement ideologue and
K Street anarchist. No wonder the economy is going nowhere. It's as if
President Clinton had turned over the Treasury Department to Jerry Rubin
instead of Bob Rubin.
It says a lot about the direction of the administration that Bush has
made Norquist's battle -- a battle to paralyze the domestic functions
of the U.S. government by repeatedly cutting taxes -- his own. It did
not have to be that way. The irony, and the deception, is that Bush got
elected in 2000 by proving, in effect, that he wasn't Gingrich. Norquism
is Gingrich by other means. Although Bush embraced the idea of a large
tax cut as a presidential candidate, his campaign, and the early rhetoric
of his administration, had other themes -- most notably the idea of
a "compassionate conservatism" that would address entrenched
poverty and other social ills through a revival of civic institutions,
and the pledge to "change the tone" in Washington through bipartisanship
and long-range vision.
But over the past two years, serial tax cuts have increasingly become
the alpha and omega of administration domestic policy. The Bush White
House has grown notorious for its highly political nature and a degree
of partisanship extreme even by the distorted standards of the 1990s.
The spirit of the Bush administration is not that of gentle souls like
"compassionate conservatives" Marvin Olasky or John DiIulio.
The spirit is that of Norquist -- single-minded; full of passionate
hatred of taxes, domestic government, and anyone who benefits from either;
and ready to do just about anything to elevate "our team" over
"their team." Norquist's notion of bipartisanship, he said in
May, is that it "is another name for date rape."
Bitter partisanship. It's appropriate that Norquist, a confidant
of White House political guru Karl Rove and impresario for an enormous
network of conservative and special-interest lobbyists and advocates,
was right out in front of the effort to enact Bush's latest tax cut package.
One minute he coerced reluctant corporate lobbyists to "get in line"
behind the proposal to make corporate dividends tax-exempt (far down on
their wish list). Next he used his state-level contacts, usually devoted
to policing state legislatures to oppose any kind of tax increase, to
get legislative resolutions passed endorsing the Bush "growth package."
Following passage of the president's tax cuts, Norquist explained his
state-level strategy to the Denver Post: "We are trying to
change the tones in the state capitals -- and turn them toward bitter
nastiness and partisanship."
Norquist's current status as perhaps the most important Republican lobbyist
stems from a remarkable career spanning the rise of the right over the
last quarter-century. His restless political energy has led him into an
astonishing number of crusades. He was Ralph Reed's mentor in the College
Republicans of the early 1980s and helped turn the group from a mild-mannered
frat-boy civic outlet into a savage ideological force on many campuses.
He subsequently spent many months as an on-location and Washington advocate
for South African-financed anti-Marxist insurgencies in Angola and Mozambique.
(At one time, he was well-known in Washington for swaggering around wearing
combat fatigues and sporting a bumper sticker that read: "I'd rather
be killing Commies.") One of his ongoing enterprises is aimed at
relentlessly harassing federal, state, and local officials to name things
after Ronald Reagan. He was reportedly a principal author of Gingrich's
Contract With America. His famous Wednesday meetings have served as a
sort of Comintern for Washington representatives of the right.
Norquist's main project, however, has never changed: his effort to shrink
government at every level, especially by making tax cuts an ideological
imperative for Republicans. ATR's anti-tax "pledge," foisted
on a generation of Republican presidential candidates entering the anti-tax
abattoir of the New Hampshire primary, and on candidates for high and
low office around the country, is the ultimate source of his power.
It's also the source of his connection with the White House, and his
role as a Janus-faced figure in the Bush family saga.
It was Bob Dole's public refusal to sign one of Norquist's no-tax pledges
that led to George H.W. Bush's upset win in the 1988 New Hampshire primary,
which, in turn, led to Bush's nomination and election. And of course,
it was the elder Bush's repudiation of his own no-tax pledge that played
a major part in his 1992 defeat.
The decision by Norquist -- along with such old associates as Reed -- to
back the younger Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries was a key moment
in the reconciliation of the Bush family with the conservative movement,
based on the idea that W. might be the biological heir of his father,
but the ideological heir of Reagan. Bush fulfilled his side of the deal
by making a big, gratuitous tax cut for high earners the centerpiece of
his domestic policy during the campaign.
Bush's alliance with Norquist and other figures of the right was solidified
during his tough primary rivalry with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who
not only opposed a big tax cut, but attacked "our team" -- the
conservative coalition of libertarians, business interests, and Christian
activists that has dominated the GOP off and on since 1980 -- with an
unprecedented directness and savagery. Norquist's own organization, which
usually doesn't get involved in campaigns, ran ads attacking McCain and
He sure got his money's worth. Bush's first tax cut proposal was significantly
larger than the one unsuccessfully proposed by congressional Republicans
in the late 1990s. And just as importantly, the White House has followed
a strategy that appears aimed at an almost endless series of new proposals:
Make the first package of individual tax cuts temporary to get the maximum
cuts into the budget space provided; then make them permanent; then make
private investment income tax-free (a big part of the latest proposal);
and then, presumably in a second Bush term, go for the corporate tax cuts
that the White House's business allies have been waiting for.
Supply-side rationale. The strategy, of course, is not public;
nor is its rationale.
In 2001, when the federal government was projecting budget surpluses
so large that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan worried about
a premature retirement of the national debt, Bush argued for tax cuts
as a rebate of excess revenues. "American taxpayers have been overcharged,
and on their behalf I am here to ask for a refund," he memorably
said in his first address to Congress.
As the surpluses melted away, the administration switched rationales
and began to echo hoary, if discredited, supply-side theories for additional
tax cuts to stimulate a flagging economy. Indeed, they still make those
arguments, though they were deeply undercut earlier this year when the
Republican-controlled Congressional Budget Office finally agreed to conservative
demands that it take the economic effect of tax cuts into account and
estimated that the president's budget would have virtually no net effect
But privately, another rationale is often cited by conservatives as the
genuine motive for serial tax cuts, regardless of the fiscal and economic
condition of the country: Tax cuts are good in themselves because they
will ultimately force a shrinkage of government -- without the pain
or controversy of identifying specific cuts in popular government programs.
Limiting government in the long run, moreover, justifies such immediate
negative effects as large budget deficits, burgeoning public debt, higher
long-term interest rates, and the inability of government to deal with
A recent New Yorker profile of Rove suggested another argument
for forcing a reduction of government through tax cuts: It would damage
the public-service unions that represent a key funding source for Democratic
This rationale -- once referred to as "starving the beast"
by Reagan Budget Director David Stockman -- is obviously one that most
Republicans are a bit reluctant to articulate, representing as it does
a kind of gutless Gingrichism.
But Norquist has no problem at all talking about it at length. And he
has no moral compunctions about failing to identify which domestic programs
to cut, because he pretty much hates them all.
Whenever he talks about taxes and government, Norquist sounds little
different from the tens of thousands of American libertarians whose intellectual
development ended with their first adolescent reading of Atlas Shrugged,
and who go through life expressing contempt for the "parasites"
who "confiscate" their earnings through taxes. As such, he represents
the ultimate Washington role model for countless young libertarian Internet
bloggers living with their parents in suburbs all over America. He's the
anti-political guy who made it really big in politics. And he's the radical
guy who has gained access to genuine mainstream power. All over the country,
state legislators fear being singled out by Americans for Tax Reform as
champions of higher taxes. In Washington, he's the go-to guy who can instantly
put together a national coalition supporting just about any Republican
cause, even matters remote from the tax code, such as judicial nominations.
But there's another and more sinister aspect of Norquist's influence
in Washington. The GOP's adoption of his stealth libertarianism is influencing
Republicans to become morally lax about fiscal and economic policy.
As the country's fiscal situation has deteriorated during the Bush administration,
GOP members of Congress seem exhilarated by the realization that short-term
fiscal irresponsibility can be justified as a long-term strategy for restraining
the size and cost of government -- a much more satisfying rationale
for tax cuts than the complex and largely discredited supply-side economic
Conservative Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Republican
Conference, exemplifies the trend. "I came to the House as a real
deficit hawk, but I am no longer a deficit hawk," he told The
Hill newspaper in February. "I'll tell you why. I had to spend
the surpluses. Deficits make it easier to say no."
Deficits seem to make a lot of things easier. As University of California
economist Brad DeLong observed in the autumn of 2002: "The whole
point of the strategy is to do something that makes the country worse
off-create a large deficit that slows economic growth, raises the chances
of higher inflation in the future, and diminishes the government's capacity
to undertake any expensive new initiatives in the future that national
security might require -- and then to count on the fact that one's political
opponents care more about the well-being of the country than you do to
fix the situation."
It's clear the "starve the beast" theory offers Republicans
the political equivalent of a bottomless crack pipe. Tax cuts no longer
have to be rationalized by any particular theory of economic growth, efficiency,
consistency, or fairness. Politicians are free to defend or extend corporate
or other narrow tax subsidies; free to target tax cuts to their favored
constituencies; and entirely free from the constraints normally supplied
by budgetary arithmetic.
In the end, Norquist is perhaps best understood as a symbol for the respectability
of extremism in George W. Bush's Republican Party. Whether or not Norquist
is leading the charge in the next tax cut drive, its spirit is his.
And the battle hymn for the Bush administration's other war might well
be found in well-circulated anecdotes about the anarchist songs Norquist
used to teach his protigi Ralph Reed in their early days
in Washington, a city that nauseated the young libertarian with its monuments
and other "stuff that looks like Albert Speer designed it."
Little did Grover and Ralph know the political power they would wield
in this city, as they drove around Washington after midnight, windows
down and throats afire with the anarchist anthem:
The state conceived in blood and hate
Remains our only foe.
So circle brothers, circle brothers,
Victory is nigh!
Come meet thy fate, destroy the state
And raise black banners high.