Norquist Eyes McCain
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
You’d have thought conservative godfather Grover Norquist would have been subdued, even glum the day after the Republican National Convention.
He had to get up very early to catch a flight, it’s supposed to be the liberals’ year, and his party had just nominated for president a guy known for annoying conservatives. Three years ago, Mr. Norquist had called John McCain “the nut job from Arizona” and later told a reporter, “I meant to say gun-grabbing, tax-increasing Bolshevik.”
Mere history. Now Mr. Norquist, who founded Americans for Tax Reform but is best known as a libertarian-leaning hub of any “vast right-wing conspiracy,” feels pretty optimistic. Chastened, the out-of-power Republicans are regaining an allergy for overspending, he feels. Their stars, like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, are bright and young, and offering brilliant plans for opt-in flat taxes and entitlement reform.
And Senator McCain himself is now strong on restraining both taxes and spending.
Atop that, he had the sense to pick Sarah Palin as a running mate. “I like Palin,” Mr. Norquist says. “Good choice. She is the leave-us-alone mom.”
That is, she’s in the center of a winning conservative coalition, what Mr. Norquist called in his latest book the “leave us alone coalition.”
The center-right coalition that Reagan built is still politically vital, Mr. Norquist argues. Find people of varying beliefs for whom the most important issue, the “vote-moving issue,” is that government is getting in their way in some important part of life, whatever it is. Stop the government from doing this, and you win their hearts and votes.
These groups, argues Mr. Norquist, outweigh the “takings coalition” now at the heart of the Democratic Party — groups who feel the role of government is to take money, property, or power and give them to someone else. These include those on the take, such as trial lawyers or public employees unions, and people with a cause they can’t sell except by making obedience mandatory — “coercive utopians,” Mr. Norquist calls them.
The takings coalition tends to be growing slowly if at all: Fewer people are in unions, New Deal voters are senescent, liberals tend to have fewer children.
Meanwhile, the people who want to be left unmolested are growing: 401(k) plans now link a majority to the fate of business and home-schooling, and parents’ skepticism about union-run government schools are on the rise. Gun owners, meat eaters, and others who sense the disapproval of would-be regulators are increasingly aware of the utopian threat. All are natural constituents for a consensus that isn’t anti-government but, rather, in favor of limiting government’s power to get in your face.
Taxpayers, too: Those whose votes are moved by taxes are central to seeing a smaller government. The key number, says Mr. Norquist, is federal spending compared to the economy as a whole. The number has been rising during the Bush years, mainly because President Bush is clear about taxes — never raise them — but he doesn’t have spending under control.
Republicans, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, did, forcing key tax and spending reforms one at a time on an unwilling President Clinton. Spending grew but slower than the economy. Had the trend continued, the feds’ share of our prosperity would have fallen to 15% by now instead of the 20% it is.
“It can happen again,” Mr. Norquist says, and he suggests reforms to bring it about, such as school choice and converting Social Security, at least for young workers, into personal accounts. Mr. McCain has favored both, while Barack Obama has backed off school choice and talks of raising Social Security taxes.
Anyhow, Mr. Norquist is now satisfied that Mr. McCain is on board. Earlier this summer, he was sending out videos of the Arizona senator promising not to raise taxes. He notes that the senator wants to keep capital gains taxes down and cut the corporate income tax.
Then there’s spending. Mr. McCain remains a Reagan Republican at heart, Mr. Norquist says. What fools people is his fling with campaign finance, which Mr. Norquist sees as weird penance for a fringe role in the Keating Five scandal 20 years ago. The McCain-Feingold bill was offensive to a huge array of conservatives because it so interfered with the way they could pay to get their message past unsympathetic news outlets. But to Mr. McCain, it was a one-off: The tell is that he never stayed with the issue the way he has with spending restraint.
What is more, Republicans now have the issue of earmarks — note how Mrs. Palin has come round to the long-time McCain view. This harmonizes with another Norquist cause, making government more transparent to taxpayers. Overspending is vague, but the Bridge to Nowhere is powerful because, Mr. Norquist says, “it’s the government insulting you as well as wasting your money. It’s like, ‘We’ve got your money, and you know what we’re going to do with it? We’re going to piss it away on a bridge to nowhere.'”
That’s the kind of arrogant taking that enrages voters. When Republicans dallied with it, voters threw them out. Now that they’ve nominated a spending hawk for president and a reform-minded gun-toting carnivore as his veep, even as the Democrats talk of a bigger, revenue-enhanced federal government, Mr. Norquist seems confident they’re again clear on what most of us want.
Mr. McIlheran is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.