Grover Norquist is definitely not an “ass hole.”

Some months ago, when the world seemed to care about debt, deficits and super committees, a veteran government relations person told me “Grover is just an ass hole.” Well, that was what I was expecting when I came to lunch, but I am really glad I did not write it because Grover Norquist is definitely not an “ass hole.” The disdain of his opponents seems to be about as good a measure of his success as any.

In some settings, “lunch” is a verb. It is definitely so where Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform, and I had lunch yesterday. Skip the next sentence if my image of “insider-ness” is important to you. Grover and I were joined by about 100 others and he had a podium while I sat in front of a plate of trout. Uncharacteristically, I did ask a question (the shortest of all and definitely a question not a speech) and we had a brief chat as he left. I will be e-mailing this article to him. Do we love outrageous self-promotion under the guise of journalistic disclosure or what?

Some months ago, when the world seemed to care about debt, deficits and super committees, a veteran government relations person told me “Grover is just an ass hole.” Well, that was what I was expecting when I came to lunch, but I am really glad I did not write it because Grover Norquist is definitely not an “ass hole.” The disdain of his opponents seems to be about as good a measure of his success as any.

The success of Americans for Tax Reform is built on the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which comes in several flavors depending on the office to be held by the signer. Broadly, the pledge makers agree that they will oppose any and all efforts to increase taxes. The pledges are made to the voters in most cases to obtain the ATR “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” Because the voters are an amorphous group, the pledges are, essentially, irrevocable. The pledges are signed and dated by the candidate before two witnesses and forwarded, presumably with considerable publicity, to Americans for Tax Reform, which then the frames them, pops them up on the wall, monitors compliance and reports noncompliance very loudly to the affected constituents.

It is a powerful tool for getting elected but it is also a powerful tool against lying (or flip-flopping as it is called in politics). Presumably, at least for Republicans, the prospect of getting elected is more important than the freedom to lie. As of February 9, 2012, the pledge had been signed by 13 governors, 5 lieutenant governors, 4 attorneys general, 3 secretaries of state, 3 treasurers, 1 auditor, 1 board of equalization member and 1278 state legislators. At the federal level, 41 senators and 238 representatives (a majority of the 435) are also on board.

Norquist began his remarks with a historical look back. Beginning with the Civil War, being a Republican meant you were from the North and being a Democrat meant you were from the South. It didn’t really matter what anyone thought; your party spoke to where you lived. Congressional political battles had liberal Democrats and Republicans on one side and conservative Democrats and Republicans on the other. Compromise was possible and it appeared to be bipartisanship. But all of that has changed and now the battles are waged along ideological rather than regional lines. Republicans come in more flavors than Ben & Jerry’s but all the flavors are ice cream and, in the case of Republicans, the ice cream is the desire to be left alone. According to Norquist, being left alone, especially by your government, is the essence of the Reagan coalition.

Not sure quite how we square this with pro-life and anti-gay positions. Would those whose lives are impacted also like to be left alone?

As he describes it (might be time to pass the salt as a grain might be needed), the Democratic coalition is as dependent on the flow of federal dollars as the Republican coalition is on being left alone. Diminish the dollars; diminish the coalition.

Our “lunching” locale is inhospitable to business papers so it was unusual to find two handouts at each place. The first was a multicolored map of the United States showing the 24 states in which Republicans control both the executive branch and the legislature. Unsurprisingly these were red. There are 12 blue states in which Democrats control both the executive branch and the legislature. The remaining 14 are split in a variety of ways. This is significant because we are in the very early stages of the decennial census so, at least until 2020, Republicans will have a substantial redistricting advantage, making it much easier to control the House of Representatives.

The second handout was a short article called “The Road to 60″ with 60 representing the number of Senators required to overcome a filibuster and control the Senate. In the Senate, if a party is successful in one cycle it then has to defend itself six years later. The Democrats were very successful in 2006 and 2008 first electing 23 of their own followed by 20 two years later. Those were difficult years for the Republicans who elected only 10 senators in 2006 and 13 in 2008.

But now all of those seats need to be defended and many can be lost. For these two reasons (probably, among many others), this is not the moment in which Norquist would recommend compromise. He is pretty sure his team is about to win.

For him, the Republicans have completed the same transition from being a Presidential party to a Congressional party that the Democrats made 30 years ago. The audience was in hysterics as he described even a three-fingered president just signing the bills that were placed in front of him then going to play with his plane.

Compromise often takes the form of a multiple of spending cuts for each dollar of tax increase, but Norquist doesn’t trust the cuts. For example, we are cutting spending when we cease fighting a war, but would it be appropriate to continue counting the cuts from World War II or the Spanish-American war? After Reagan agreed to a 3 to 1 cut-to-tax ratio and President Bush (41) agreed to a 2 to 1 ratio (costing him the election in 1992), the Republicans, according to Norquist, “have chosen not to get suckered again.” The cuts don’t happen. The tax increases do.

This sounds cynical, which is, of course, what makes it believable to me. Norquist had a couple of other cynical examples: some programs and tax breaks are reauthorized every two years rather than made permanent so that campaign funds can be raised each time; and the focus on the top line of spending cuts – “not a dollar from defense,” for example – are eye wash. There is plenty that can be cut everywhere without noticing it.

For many in politics, Norquist ranks high on their equivalent of the “FBI 10 Most Wanted List” especially when it appears that he makes compromise impossible, but what should they think of him when they lament the absence of long-term thinking in Washington? His strategy is aimed at the 2020’s. What should they think when they complain about flip-flopping? The tax pledge makes that impossible. Finally, what should any of us think when we look at some of the dimwits appearing on our television screens? Grover Norquist is a very funny, articulate and thoughtful man. I expected a partisan attack dog, which he is, but I did not expect such a thoughtful and articulate one.


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Haven Pell

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

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