Grover Norquist takes me to his bookcase, which is decorated with South Park toys and a Guy Fawkes mask. He strokes his beard as he scans his collection, then pulls out Taxation in Colonial America, by Alvin Rabushka. “There aren’t many histories of taxes,” he says, leafing through its pages. “This is a good one. I like it because it shows how we’ve been having these arguments over taxes since the beginning.”
For Norquist, a 56-year-old anti-tax activist and the president of Americans for Tax Reform, the fiscal-cliff fracas isn’t the denouement of that long-running debate, but an irksome skirmish. He’s confident that he’s on the winning side. “A few congressmen and senators have had some impure thoughts, and the press has pulled the thread,” he explains, as he returns the hardcover to the shelf. “But impure thoughts aren’t mortal sins.”
Norquist acknowledges, however, that his faith in congressional Republicans will probably be tested in the coming days, especially given Politico’s report on Saturday that Speaker John Boehner is open to tax hikes. “Everything is noise,” he says, shrugging. “I still think Boehner knows that raising rates is like stabbing someone, due to the immediate pain.”
Norquist adds that he isn’t merely hopeful. He keeps in close touch with Boehner’s staff and the rest of House Republican leadership. At a recent Wednesday-morning meeting at his group’s office, senior advisers to both Boehner and House majority leader Eric Cantor huddled with Norquist and reassured conservatives that the press was rumor-mongering.
Yet the fear in conservative circles about a potential rate increase, at least on high-end earners, remains palpable. These days, Norquist spends as much time arguing for lower taxes as he does calming down his friends. “I tell them that Republicans aren’t going to raise taxes just so they can seem thoughtful,” he says. “They’ve tried that before, only to be burned.”
Norquist, who started his shop in 1985, says the 1990 budget deal, which raised tax rates, continues to haunt the party. At the time, Norquist warned Republicans about the consequences of raising taxes, but the Bush 41 White House didn’t listen. Two years later, he says, Bush and his allies paid the price at the polls for their decision.
Those lessons, as well as two straight decades of tax orthodoxy, Norquist says, should not suddenly disappear simply because the president won a second term. “If the president isn’t being serious, then Republicans should walk away,” he says. “The cliff isn’t a reason to flip on policy.”
Norquist’s hard-line position has made him a villain on Capitol Hill, loathed by Democrats and several Republicans for his influence and celebrity. But he has no apologies for his politics. “The pledge to not raise taxes is about more than preventing tax increases,” he says. “It’s about your credibility, and if you break your word, there are consequences.”
Norquist got his start as a College Republican organizer in the early 1980s, soon after earning a master’s degree from Harvard Business School. Americans for Tax Reform rose to prominence after the Republicans took over the House majority in 1994. “After the 1990 deal went bad, people started to see the light,” he says.
Ever since, Norquist says, there have been moments of discontent and angst, such as this current standoff, but he thinks the party is so deeply rooted in its tax philosophy that even a Boehner mistake wouldn’t cause total chaos. “If you bring a tax-rate increase to the floor, it’s not going to pass with a GOP majority, regardless of the ingredients,” he predicts.
“In the past 22 years, Republicans have not voted to increase income taxes,” Norquist says. “You can talk about what senators are saying on television, but when they talk to me, they say they’re with us on rates. They want this or that when it comes to tax reform, but when it comes to rates, they’re on our side. That’s the untold story.”
Of course, he says with a smile, he could be wrong. But if he is wrong, Republicans will have more to worry about than his wrath. “If you think the Tea Party was a big deal, just wait for the sequel,” he says.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.