For more than two decades, signing Norquist’s pledge has been an almost religious rite of passage for Washington Republicans.
The 54-year-old president of Americans for Tax Reform is Washington’s anti-tax doctrinal watchdog, his stature derived from the faith of his Republican signatories. He is using all of his authority to prevent GOP leaders from giving an inch on taxes as President Obama and congressional leaders seek a historic compromise to raise the debt ceiling and bring down the deficit.
Since he first collected the signatures of Jack Kemp, Dick Armey and Newt Gingrich 25 years ago, Norquist has prepared for this very clash, enlisting about 95 percent of the Republican members of Congress in the crusade against tax increases. Along the way, he has become one of Washington’s most visible and idiosyncratic characters: a zealous, self-promoting tax scourge who presides over a weekly meeting of conservative power brokers and dabbles in stand-up comedy.
On Monday afternoon, as Republican congressional leaders again refused Obama’s entreaty to raise taxes on the wealthy to restrain the nation’s ballooning debt, Norquist, sporting glasses and a closely cropped graying beard, sat at his desk in his 12th Street offices, describing the pledge as a “self-enforcing” and “powerful” tool.
He said it is an immutable covenant with voters, regardless of the mundane demands of governance, one so serious it must be co-signed by two witnesses. As he meticulously folded sheets of newspaper, adjusted business cards, repositioned scissors and laid down a stress ball next to a pair of hand grips, Norquist acknowledged issuing gentle reminders to pledge-takers.
He has, he said, been in e-mail contact “on a regular basis” with “leadership and leadership staff” during the debt talks, “just to check in to see if there was anything they needed from me.” When he read in the news that House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a pledge-taker, was apparently considering a compromise, he simply dropped him a note asking, “What did you say?”
Norquist said he has also been in frequent touch with the Republican presidential candidates, who have emerged as a solid bloc against a compromise. Copies of their pledges — with the exception of holdout Jon Huntsman Jr. — are kept in a black binder on the desk of one his interns.
“I talk with [Mitt] Romney directly,” Norquist said. He mentioned that Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) will be attending his Wednesday meeting this week and that Gingrich recently sent him an unsolicited statement strongly opposing backing down in the debt talks. For Norquist, any other position would be unacceptable.
“This is team ball,” he said of the pledge-signing presidential candidates. “When somebody seems to be off, first you call them, then you write them, then you have an argument with them. And nobody running for president has done anything that has made me want to call them on the phone and say, ‘Did you say that?’ ”
The stakes for the anti-tax orthodoxy have never been higher, he argued. “If the entire Republican Party decides, ‘Okay, this once we’ll trade a tax increase for something,’ then the pledge would be meaningless,” he said, discounting the suggestion that such a break would dilute his own power. Instead, he calmly predicted that the White House will give in on spending because Boehner and the GOP congressional leadership are “in line.”
“The speaker has never voted for a tax hike, and he never will,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner. “Like Mr. Norquist, he has always fought for lower taxes, and a smaller, less costly government in Washington.”
A very personal library
Norquist likes reading about himself. In his headquarters’ library, opposite the 100-plus copies of his own book (“Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives”), are shelves reserved for tomes in which he is quoted. A hallway is lined with framed newspaper and magazine stories about him. One is in Japanese. In his executive office, decorated with a green lava lamp, a Janis Joplin poster (“a high point of Western civilization,” he said) and stuffed “Sesame Street” Grover dolls, another floor-to-ceiling bookcase holds titles including a 1994 comic book called “Taxpayers’ Tea Party” in which he is depicted. He plucked a copy of Ralph Nader’s “Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us” out of the stacks, because, he said, “I’m a major character in it.” The green tags on the pages, he explained, mark every time his persona appears.
Norquist is also a frequent and combative presence on television. As he offered a tour of his office, he asked his communications director to confirm an in-studio radio interview at 10 p.m. with Jim Bohannon.
His hunger for the spotlight extends to less likely stages, as well. Last year, his political and family humor earned him third place behind White House speechwriter Jon Lovett and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) in the “D.C.’s Funniest Celebrities” contest. He said he specialized in Steven Wright-style one-liners. (“When midgets play miniature golf, do they know?” he deadpanned.)
Norquist is better known for more controversial lines, such as saying he wants to shrink government enough so that he can “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Being willing to speak in absolutist, brook-no-dissent sound bites has made him extremely valuable to political media built around conflict.
And all that attention is highly valuable to Norquist, who depends on the media to magnify the fate of pledge-breakers. For instance, when President George H.W. Bush lost in 1992 to Bill Clinton after breaking his “read my lips” vow not to raise taxes, “I didn’t have to buy ads — CBS, NBC and ABC told everybody,” Norquist said.
However much he likes to describe himself as a man of peace, letting the pledges work their own magic, his organization has sometimes taken matters into its own hands. His office prominently features posters, once displayed in Metro stations, targeting Republicans who refused to take the pledge. “There are times,” he boasted, “when we’ll call everybody in the congressional district and let them know that one guy signed the pledge and one guy didn’t.”
Last month, Norquist’s hold on Republicans seemed to slip when he faced an insurgency from conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), who led 34 of 47 Senate Republicans in a vote to reduce the deficit by eliminating $6 billion in ethanol subsidies. Norquist, who is opposed to government support for ethanol but more opposed to any whiff of a tax increase, spoke of the eventual defeat of the bill, which he considered a test run for the current negotiations, in triumphant terms.
“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.”