“We had Coburn boxed in, and we beat him,” he said, explaining that the failure of the challenge was important “because if Coburn is trying to make the case that it’s okay to raise taxes, that might confuse some people about the nature of the world.”
Norquist has sought to restore his preferred world order. He said he “inoculated” all the Republicans in Congress against the compromise virus and “cauterized” Coburn’s bipartisan Gang of Six from expanding. “We talked to everybody who might have been tempted to join that group,” he said. And then he declared war on Coburn.
Coburn argued that Norquist has his own interests at heart.
“What’s more conservative? To fix the country and not let it go bankrupt, or to follow a pledge to Grover Norquist?” asked Coburn, who is not running for reelection in 2016 and described Norquist as a well-paid lobbyist. “We cannot allow one individual to have that kind of power over a vote that can help fix the country.”
The senator said Norquist exercises his power by “threatening all these guys here for the first time by saying he’ll send mailers, press releases and make it known to their constituents that they aren’t conservative.” Coburn argued that the support his ethanol measure had from GOP senators was their way of saying: “Grover, you’re stupid, forget it, we’re going to vote the right way.”
Coburn’s criticism of Norquist is unusual only in that it comes from an elected Republican. With the exception of remarks by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who has accused him of “bullying,” almost all the barbs are launched by pundits who don’t face reelection. The vast majority of the criticism is on the substance of his positions or the control he exercises over most Republicans in Congress. But Norquist said he is also a victim of some anonymous shots that have crossed the line.
“Guys have run around saying I’m gay,” said Norquist, who sits on the advisory council of GOProud, a group that represents gay conservatives and their allies. And the anonymous attacks on him for being married to a Palestinian Muslim, the mother of his two children, he said, amount to “a completely different bigotry.”
The main event
In January 2009, Norquist moved the Americans for Tax Reform headquarters from Dupont Circle to the old Verizon building downtown. The selling point was a large space on the sixth floor where he could house the sprawling Wednesday meeting, which has become a main event for conservative lawmakers, lobbyists and policy wonks. Rows of stadium seating that can accommodate nearly 200 guests surround a large oval table.
“I sit here,” Norquist said, his hands on the chair at the table’s head.
Norquist has never been bashful. The oldest son of a Polaroid engineer and a nursery school director, he volunteered for Richard Nixon as a 12-year-old. He graduated from Harvard and Harvard Business School. As executive director of the College Republicans, he worked with Jack Abramoff, who was later ensnared in a lobbying scandal, and Ralph Reed, who would go on to lead the Christian Coalition. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan’s administration picked Norquist to run Americans for Tax Reform, an outside group funded by individual and corporate donors to help pass a tax overhaul.
Norquist has reciprocated by deifying Reagan, despite the fact that the president raised taxes several times. He runs the Reagan Legacy Project, which led the charge to rename National Airport and has stamped Reagan’s name on more than 100 schools, highways, gardens, missile silos and roundabouts around the world. He suggests, half-seriously, that “there is space for one more” on Mount Rushmore.
But Norquist’s main mission is keeping his members devout.
In his airy meeting room, he pointed to a scoreboard-size sign listing the 2010 signatories to the Taxpayer Protection Pledge and expressed confidence that he will “eventually” bring the six Republican House members yet to sign into the fold.
“When there are active primaries,” he said, “that’s the easiest time to get people.”