Is Grover Norquist the Darth Vader of conservative politics, with sinister powers beyond those of ordinary mortals? Or is he just another ideological tribune, the personalized right-wing equivalent of labor unions and other prominent leftist advocacy groups?
It depends on whom you ask.
Pennsylvania-born, Ivy League-educated and Washington-based, Norquist rates as a hot topic in Louisiana, together with the issue of his influence, whether baleful or benign.
The reason is the Norquist-designed “pledge,” Gov. Bobby Jindal’s adherence to it and the implications it holds for efforts to solve the state’s budget crisis.
The pledge is more formally known as the taxpayer protection pledge. It comes in slightly different versions for different elective offices, but for a governor, it’s a simple promise “to oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes.”
The pledge “has been a very successful tool for elected officials and candidates to accurately and convincingly communicate to voters who and what they are,” Norquist said.
Jindal has signed the pledge, as have dozens of Louisiana state legislators, hundreds more state officials across the country and the vast majority of Republican members of Congress. So have almost all of the prospective Republican candidates for president in 2016; that may be most significant for Jindal, who is strongly considering a White House campaign.
“The pledge is the commitment to reform government rather than raise taxes for it,” Norquist said. “It’s very powerful, and long after I’m gone, the pledge is going to keep helping elected officials communicate.
“The point is, government is larger than it needs to be,” he said. “Total taxes and spending need to be reduced. Only limits on spending and limits on tax increases will generate the political pressure and the will to reform government.”
To help close a projected $1.6 billion shortfall in the 2015-16 state budget, Jindal has proposed, in part, a complicated scheme involving changes in the existing system of state refunds to businesses for taxes they pay to local governments. The net effect would increase state revenue by more than $450 million.
A Jindal staff member has acknowledged that the Jindal administration consulted with the Washington organization Norquist heads, Americans for Tax Reform, in crafting the plan so that it didn’t constitute a violation of the pledge. That has generated sharp protests — predictably from Democrats but also from some Republican legislators.
‘Buffoonery’ or ‘insanity’?
In a letter to the school newspaper at LSU, his alma mater, prominent Democratic political operative James Carville called the Jindal administration’s machinations “buffoonery.” He referred to Norquist as “pond scum.”
“He is the single most influential person in the entire state of Louisiana,” Carville said in a subsequent interview. “The state has turned its sovereignty over to him.”
“I wouldn’t want sharia (Islamic) law to govern Louisiana,” he said, “nor would I want Grover Norquist.”
In an email to his supporters about the budget crisis, state Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, wrote, “The insanity has its roots in the governor’s pledge to Americans for Tax Reform.” Morris said the way ATR judges revenue proposals for acceptability is “illogical, inconsistent and downright misleading to the public, or, in the opinion of some, crazy.”
When asked in a recent interview about the issue raised in Morris’ email, Jindal said, “Of course, I’m going to keep my pledge. My pledge means something.”
Jindal referred to his promise as a “campaign pledge,” without directly mentioning Norquist or ATR: “When I told voters — I wasn’t secretive about this. I wasn’t ambiguous about this. I was very clear: We are not raising taxes.”
In 2011, Jindal stayed true to the Norquist pledge by vetoing a renewal of 4 cents’ worth of the tax on cigarettes; ATR’s rules would have required that to be offset by a specific tax cut elsewhere.
Jindal’s politics have won him the approval of Norquist, who touted Jindal as a running mate for Mitt Romney on the national Republican ticket in 2012.
Norquist, 58, “made his bones years ago,” said Craig Shirley, a longtime Republican political operative and biographer of former Republican President Ronald Reagan. Norquist traces his conservative leanings back to his adolescent enthusiasm for Richard Nixon, and he says the idea for the tax pledge dates to his teen years.
He worked for Reagan in Massachusetts in 1980, Shirley said. Norquist has said he formed ATR in 1985 at the behest of the Reagan administration, which was developing a tax overhaul proposal, and he drew up the pledge then.
A key moment in the history of the pledge came in 1990, when Republican President George H.W. Bush famously broke his own version of the covenant — which he had articulated as “Read my lips: no new taxes” — by agreeing with Democrats on a budget plan that included tax increases. Bush’s reversal cost him right-wing support, and he lost his bid for re-election in 1992. Despite occasional grumbling in the ranks, the pledge has endured as an inviolable principle of Republican orthodoxy ever since.
“The entire Republican Party learned the following lesson: Take the pledge, win the primary; take the pledge, win the general election; break the pledge, lose,” Norquist said.
“Historically, Norquist and his organization have been the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for fiscal conservatives,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican campaign consultant who now directs the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “He still commands a tremendous amount of respect, and a conservative politician at any level looking to move up the ladder benefits immensely from his support and can be greatly damaged by his opposition.”
But his role as enforcer of the pledge is not the only source of Norquist’s influence. Nor is it just his quotability: He may be best known for saying he does not want to abolish government, just “shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
ATR backs a variety of causes, and in the 2012 presidential election year, it attracted more that $30 million in contributions, according to its latest IRS filing — which also reported annual compensation to Norquist of $250,000 from ATR and related organizations.
Norquist has been called an impresario of center-right conservatism: He presides every Wednesday morning at a meeting of 100 or more activists, lobbyists, right-wing media figures and congressional aides at ATR headquarters in Washington. His nationwide contacts and voluminous mailing lists are legendary.
“Grover is a force of nature,” said Charlie Cook, director of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, in an email. “Political scientists could study how Grover networked and masterminded becoming the single most influential conservative in Washington or, for that matter, the United States,” Cook wrote.
“If he didn’t have a following at the grass-roots level, he wouldn’t be as influential as he is,” said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist in Washington who is currently advising one of Jindal’s potential 2016 Republican rivals, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida. “He would just be some smart guy in Washington.
“Because he is able to influence and communicate with vast numbers of conservatives, it gives him the ability to flex some political muscle.”
Few will cross him
That makes Norquist a figure that few politicians dare cross — certainly not those conservatives facing challenges in Republican primaries.
“Grover is fearless,” said Shirley, the GOP operative. “He will take on members of his own party if he deems them to be heretics.
“Signing the pledge is kind of a fail-safe position. I don’t think you get a lot of hosannas for signing it, and you get a lot of condemnation if you don’t sign it.”
And the fate of a politician foolhardy enough to sign it and then break it? “Purgatory,” Shirley said.
Norquist himself has hit some rough spots along the road. He was closely linked to Jack Abramoff, a high-rolling Washington lobbyist who pleaded guilty to fraud and corruption in 2006, although Norquist was not charged with a crime. Another, more distant former Norquist associate is serving a 23-year prison term for plotting with Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya to assassinate the ruler of Saudi Arabia. (Norquist’s wife is a Muslim of Palestinian heritage, and he has long been active in outreach to the U.S. Muslim community.)
Norquist is a favorite target of Democrats for what they view as his obstructionism, inflexibility and dictatorial rule over the Republican Party. But Harris, the Rubio adviser, said Norquist is little different from the president of a big labor union or a rich environmentalist who exerts political pressure on the left.
“Grover gets vilified in the press, but ultimately, the guy’s main priority is to keep taxes as low as possible and be a check on the growth of government,” Harris said. “I think that should be a pretty important voice in the conversation.”
Harris added: “Both parties have ideological lanes that most candidates tend to stay within. If you are running for office as a Republican, then defaulting to low taxes and small government is not a bad place to be.”
Jindal is barred by term limits from running for re-election as governor. Although undeclared, he is acting much like a presidential candidate, making repeated trips to the early primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“Bobby Jindal’s audience right now is really not the voters of Louisiana,” said Kyle Kondik, of the nonpartisan Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “It’s the Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina, who are very evangelical, very anti-tax and very conservative.”
From that perspective, Kondik said, the question regarding the budget process in Louisiana is “just how does Jindal get through it without damaging himself in the presidential race? If people want to think that’s a different job than being governor of Louisiana — well, it is.”
Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog.