Grover Norquist is one of the most influential conservative operatives and sharpest political strategists in Washington. As president of Americans for Tax Reform, the taxpayer advocacy group he founded in 1985, each week he chairs the "Wednesday Meeting," a gathering of more than 120 elected officials, political activists and movement leaders. It's just one of many reasons The Wall Street Journal has called him "the Grand Central Station" of the conservative movement. Norquist's new book, “Getting the Government's Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives” (William Morrow), examines what he says are two competing "teams" in American politics -- the “Leave Us Alone Coalition” and the "Takings Coalition” -- and explains the demographic, economic and political trends that are shaping their futures. I talked to him April 22 on his cell phone as he raced around to various meetings in Washington.
Q: The Leave Us Alone Coalition is who?
A: Taxpayers who want their money left alone. Property owners who want their property left alone. Gun owners who want their Second Amendment rights left alone. Home-schoolers who want their kids left alone -- and everyone for whom the most important thing in their life is their faith and their family and who don’t want the government attacking their faith or throwing prophylactics at their kids.
Q: And the Takings Coalition people would be?
A: Trial lawyers, labor unions, big-city political machines, government workers, people with government contracts.
Q: Who is your book written for?
A: Anyone who is interested in the politics of the United States for the next 25 years.
Q: Why did you write it?
A: Well, since I do political work and have been doing political work for the last 25 years, I’ve learned how the center-right coalition works and how the left coalition works. And the mistakes that each team makes come from misunderstanding the nature of their own coalition. It’s the equivalent of a book that tells you how a car works, so that people who are interested in riding in cars can get somewhere. It’s about how political coalitions work. And how smart politicians damage themselves when they misunderstand what moves voters. Since I’m center-right, I’m hoping that the center-right will learn more from it than the left, but a smart person of the left could learn quite a bit too.
Q: Are these two coalitions evenly divided or is one gaining?
A: Over the last 10 years, they’ve been fairly evenly divided. You saw two very close presidential elections. You’ve seen a series of close congressional elections. The book talks about 30 or 40 different trends, some of which advantaged the Leave Us Alone Coalition, some of which advantaged the Takings Coalition, and some of which are up in the air – meaning depending on how one team or the other behaves, they can either take advantage of opportunities or push them away. It’s not inevitable that one team or the other will win.
Q: You point out many demographic trends or changes that mostly bode well for the Leave Us Alone Coalition.
A: There’s probably 40 different shifts -- the growth in the number of the investor class – how many Americans own shares of stock is up from 20 percent in 1980 to over 60 percent today makes people more sensitive to taxes on businesses, and therefore more Republican. The decline in organized labor from 30 percent of the private sector workforce in 1970 to 7 percent of the private sector workforce today….
There are some groups that tend to be Republican – orthodox Jews are growing. Mormons are having more kids. If you just divide people into conservatives and liberals, the average 100 conservatives have 41 more kids than 100 liberals chosen at random…. These are exactly the sort of things over time that cause problems for the left: The growth of home-schoolers, people who absolutely want to educate their own kids and want to be left alone to do so. The challenge for the right is the growth in the number of Hispanics. They have to decide whether they are capable of carrying out a conversation about immigration that doesn’t come across as mean-spirited, and do with the Hispanic vote what they did in the 1960s with the African-American vote, which is to kick it away for a least a generation. That’s the question mark, because Bush was doing very well and then in 2006, the Republican Party went the other way on immigration – on the tone, sound and the way they were heard on immigration. It’s not so much the policy as your tone. The tone of the conversation determines whether Hispanics think you want them to be Republicans or you don’t want them to be Republicans.
Q: Is there any single trend or shift that gives you hope that the Leave Us Alone Coalition is in the ascendancy?
A: The growth in the number of people with shares of stock -- because those people, when they hear people wanting to tax businesses, understand that they’re taxing their retirement. If you own shares of stock, it makes you more Republican and less Democrat, and it makes you more independent. You don’t need to get the government -- if you’re saving for your retirement -- to come and say “We’re going to take care of you – and by the way, if we don’t raise your taxes, we won’t be able to take care of you.”Q: And that’s why you’ve said the privatizing of Social Security is the end of the Democrat Party? A: It takes 60 votes to reform Social Security, because the Democrats will filibuster. The Democrats know that if every American saved 10 percent of their income for their own retirement, and they watch that 401(k) or personal savings account grow, that the party of trial lawyers and labor unions and corrupt big-city machines has nothing to offer an American with a 401(k). Every idea Hillary Clinton has ever had in her life will make your 401(k) smaller.
Q: Would you put gays, recreational marijuana users, Amish in the Leave Us Alone Coalition? In a libertarian sense, they are very much a part of it.
A: The question is, “Is this an issue you vote on?” Nobody’s voting on the marijuana issue right now, and so it doesn’t show up as a vote-moving issue. For gays, some gays say, “Look. I may be gay, but I vote on the fact that these guys want to steal my guns. These people want to raise my taxes ….” The Republican Party gets about a third of the gay vote because they can speak to gays whose voting issue is taxes, guns, their faith, their property rights and they don’t like trial lawyers. But there are other gays who hear some of the rhetoric that comes from some Republican politicians and who are concerned that they would use the power of the state against them. I tend to think that in point of fact that’s not the position of the modern Republican Party – that they are not wanting to use the power of the state to annoy or pick on gays, and that there is more of the gay vote that Republicans can win.
Q: What is the most important information in your book that you would want everyone to know or want to disseminate most widely?
A: I think it is the nature of the leave Us Alone Coalition and the modern center-right or Reagan Republican coalition: the understanding that everybody’s there because on the issue that moves their vote, what they want from the government is to be left alone. What that means is -- a lot of the religious right, traditional-values conservatives -- don’t want the government messing with their churches, and their religious radio stations. There may be some leaders who give speeches about “Let’s go down and be mean to other people or other religions,” but the voters are not voting on those issues. As a matter of fact – what’s that line from the Tom Cruise movie – “You had me at hello”? – when you go to traditional-values voters and say to them “I’m going to leave you and your family and your kids alone and your faith alone,” they say, “Good, because the Democrats won’t do that for us. The Democrats do want the state to come in and micromanage our family.” Anything beyond that does not win votes. Although Pat Robertson sometimes says things about being mean to Muslims or Catholics, or whatever, that’s not where the voting bloc is; that’s not where the votes come from, even if sometimes some rather unfortunate rhetoric gets said. Again, the gun vote doesn’t ask for gun stamps; the religious community is not asking for subsidies; the religious guys are not asking the government to come and make everybody be a Baptist. What they want is to be left alone – and that’s what moves their vote.
A: Yeah. The nature of the center-right coalition is the most important, because for anybody who cares about liberty, you have to understand what moves the votes of your allies and not misunderstand and lose elections by offering them things that don’t move their votes.
Q: There’s a lot of talk about how good the Obama and Clinton campaigns have been about finding new ways to raise money from the bottoms-up by using the Internet. Does that mean the Takings Coalition is getting stronger or smarter?
A: People tend (echo sounds in a hallway; voices in background) to react to fear very strongly. If trends continue, organized labor is a spent force in politics in the next 10 years. If trends continue, and judges keep moving to the right, the trial lawyers will not be able to win billion-dollar decisions. Therefore in this election, as in 2004 and for some time in the future, the Takings Coalition sees their livelihood at stake. That’s why you are seeing a lot more money out in support of Obama and Clinton than for the Republican, because the Republicans haven’t figured out that they are threatened with tax increases. But even a Republican threatened with a tax increase, or a Leave Us Aloner threatened with a tax increase, is not as active a participant as a government contractor, trial lawyer or government worker who thinks he or she wont have a job unless the Democrats win. So what you are seeing, I hope, is the last ditch defense of the Takings Coalition. But a cornered rat defending a lot of stolen gold will fight very, very hard.
Q: Is John McCain part of the Leave Us Alone Coalition, or does he understand it?
A: I think there was a time when he and Bush were fighting that this was not true. But since then he has now come out to continue the 2002-2003 tax cuts. He’s advocated abolishing the AMT (Alternative Minimum Tax), dramatically cutting the death tax to 15 percent and cutting the corporate income tax. He’s called for fighting against spending. He wants a war against the appropriators. I think that’s extremely important. And frankly, in some ways, he’s a better Leave Us Alone candidate than Bush, who was good on taxes but didn’t focus on the necessary fight against spending.
Q: Are you more or less optimistic about the direction we are going politically after seven years of President Bush? There’s been a lot of spending and a lot of un-conservative behavior going on.
A: The Bush years had a great number of missed opportunities. That is certainly true. I remain optimistic that the center-right will win, because my optimism is not based on the theory that we win all battles and are always smarter than the other team, but rather that we are competing in the United States, the country that wants to be a center-right Leave Us Alone Coalition country – which would not be the case if we were looking at France or Bulgaria. I would not bet on the center-right Leave Us Alone Coalition in France or Bulgaria. I do tend to think that in the United States that’s the more likely team to win. But both teams get times at bat. Both teams get to be smart and stupid. And certainly in the last seven years we have missed opportunities to move the ball forward more rapidly.