These are heady times for antitax activist Grover Norquist, the cerebral and energetic president of Americans for Tax Reform. The morale of conservatives is rising, and leaders on the right such as Norquist have high hopes of making big gains in the midterm elections this November. In a recent interview, Norquist talked about the mood of the voters, the state of the Obama presidency, and the tea-party movement of conservatives and populists that emerged last year in reaction to centralized power in Washington and ongoing increases in federal spending. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the tea-party movement?
It's new blood and new activism, and that helps you win elections. And the big change in 2009 was the focus on spending, and I was pleasantly surprised. In two and a half months, people reacted negatively and strongly to "spend too much." Why did that happen this time and not in the past? I think the amount, the unseriousness of how they threw together the bank bailouts, the GM bailout, and the $700 billion–$800 billion dollar stimulus package. That's what made spending something that people reacted to. If we can keep the Republican Party focused on spending, then I'm a happy camper and the election goes really well in November. The tea-party people have changed the focus of the Republican Party.
President Obama held a much-publicized bipartisan healthcare summit in Washington. What's your evaluation?
If you're Obama and the Democrats, you want Republicans in the picture. Right now, you're in the picture, people are unhappy, and you want Republican fingerprints of some sort on the sausages you're making. But then their other thought is, 'Well, you Republicans are not helping, and we think you're bad because you're filibustering and you're being obstructionist.' I'm really not an advocate of sitting in a room with people who are toxic. I'm in favor of sending them memos.
What will be the eventual outcome on healthcare?
What they're going to try to do is muscle it through the Senate with 51 votes, and the question is whether you can get something through the House. I don't see how they fail to get something.
If the Republicans take control of Congress in this fall's election, what should be on their agenda?
If the R's take the House, they can stop the bleeding. What can you undo? It will be issues that people run on at the national, state, and local levels. It's going to be a unified effort. Examples: Fiscal transparency. Texas is the state that's the most advanced on this. Every check the state of Texas writes goes online. Every contract the state of Texas enters into goes online. Second is a waiting period for any legislation [before it can be voted on, so the public can scrutinize the bill]. At the national level, [House Republican leader John] Boehner said you should have a 72-hour waiting period. My argument to him is to make it five working days, federal, state, and local. And then the idea of a BRAC commission at the federal level, dealing with spending [similar to the base realignment and closure commissions that recommend the closing of military bases]. How do you go back and fix stuff? Probably block granting is the most effective way to do that—give the states a lot more discretion. The other team threw $1 trillion, $800 billion in the stimulus package—take that off the table and don't do that again. The Democrats promised all this stuff—we're not doing that. Take the base line back to where it was.
President Obama has created a deficit reduction commission to recommend ways of limiting red ink. Is it a good idea?
No, it's a dirty trick. It gives cover to the other team. They're not going to come up with something that Republicans will buy. The problem is it won't report until after the next election. They'll come up with $2 trillion of budget cuts, imaginary cuts that will never happen. It's a paragraph in every Democrat's speech that makes it sound like they have an alibi, and they don't. The only danger there is that they'll claim that they're doing something. It's not the end of the world, but it's a paragraph in a speech that wouldn't otherwise be there. The whole commission idea is stupid. You don't need a commission. You can get votes on this stuff. The commission is BS.
Congressional earmarks—special projects embedded in legislation—are a source of intense controversy in Washington. Is there a way that they can be minimized or eliminated?
Earmarks are the "broken windows" of government overspending. Earmarks are not the problem, and broken windows are not rape and murder, but when you look around and see there's graffiti and broken windows, everyone says there are no policemen here, and so people do rob and murder and misbehave. If every congressman is busy doing earmarks, they never get to tackling the big questions. Sometimes earmarks are necessary to buy Democratic votes for useful stuff. If I could do it, I'd say only Democrats should be able to get earmarks, no Republicans, because they're bad for your soul, and Democrats don't have souls anyway, so it really won't affect anything. [Earmarks] are used to bribe people to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do. There's one other idea. And that is the re-establishing at the national level the Harry Byrd [former independent senator from Virginia] committee. It was the committee on unnecessary government spending. They had the unappropriations committee. We've been going around suggesting, why don't we re-establish this? So if the Republicans, and I think they will, take the position, you give us the House and Senate we will set up this committee . . . then people running for Congress could say, if elected, I want to be on the unappropriations committee, the antiappropriations committee. And that can be done at the state level and the local level. I think it would change the dynamic in this town if you could get famous unfunding things the way you get famous funding them.
Who is the national leader of the Republican Party today?
There is not a leader of the Republican Party. There is not an obvious candidate for 2012. I don't want one yet. Everybody should be focused on winning elections in 2010. How many House and Senate and governor people do they help elect? My question is what will you do for everybody else, and 2010 is this incredible testing ground.
What is the essence of the Republican Party as defined by Ronald Reagan, which you call the "leave us alone" coalition?
There are two kinds of issues. There are vote-moving issues, and there's everything else. Think of people around a table. Everybody's there for different reasons, but they're all there because on their key issue, what they want from the government is to be left alone. We don't all hang out together. We don't all live in the same neighborhoods. We don't necessarily like each other. But we all look at the candidate in the middle of the room, and he says, "I'm going to leave your guns alone and your kids alone and your faith alone and your money alone and your family alone and your business alone," and the people say, "OK, I'm with you on my key, vote-moving issue." And that's why the coalition holds together.
- Listen to a podcast with Grover Norquist.