I like and respect Grover Norquist. Despite the many matters on which I disagree with him, I respect his consistent, deeply held belief in limited government, which leads him to oppose higher taxes as an enforcement mechanism.
Norquist genuinely believes that government is a barrier to helping the poor and improving society. That doesn’t make him anti-poor. He simply believes that the best way to uplift lower-income people is by allowing the private market to create jobs and economic opportunity.
He invented the “anti-tax-increase” tax pledge as the head of Americans for Tax Reform as what he believed to be the most effective tactic to achieve his goals.
Currently there are more than 250 House and Senate members who have signed that pledge, as well as every GOP presidential candidate except Jon Huntsman. Norquist proudly keeps the pledge card, co-signed by two witnesses, in a vault in his office. His theory or strategy behind the pledge: Starve the government of new money (higher taxes), and it must shrink.
As he colorfully put it, in one of his most famous quotes: “I don’t want to abolish government . . . I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
I recently heard a liberal host of an evening cable TV show describe Norquist as evil. I don’t get that. Politicians willingly sign the pledge, either because they believe in it or are fearful of voter reaction if they don’t. So whom do you blame — Norquist, the politicians who agree to sign the pledge, or the voters themselves?
As a liberal, I have the same problem with Norquist’s anti-government philosophy as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a classmate of Norquist’s at Harvard.
In an op-ed piece, Patrick questioned the logic of Norquist’s view that “we could live independently of each other, making our own decisions in our own self-interest. But then who puts out the fires? Who answers the calls to 911? Who educates poor children? Who helps people with disabilities?”
Norquist would say, I think, well, government, of course. But much less government, supported by much lower taxes.
What he has never answered, to my satisfaction at least, is how we can afford to take care of our poor and our elderly and our hungry children without increasing taxes on the wealthier in our society and without increasing our unsustainable $14 trillion debt.
Recently Norquist took me to task for describing Herbert Hoover as an anti-tax, anti-regulation conservative in one of my recent columns. His email read: “Herbert-Hoover like: fewer regulations and lower taxes? I am going to have to throw out a great number of history books. Who knew?”
Then his assistant sent me the facts: During his one term, Hoover, to my surprise, raised the top income tax rate from 25 percent to 63 (those earning above $100,000/year); raised corporate tax rates; supported increased tariffs in the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Act; and increased spending from 3.4 percent of the GDP in 1929 to 8 percent in 1933, before FDR took office.
To use Norquist’s expression: Who knew?
Despite his well-known conservatism, Norquist surprises me. He is often willing to defy conservative orthodoxy, especially on issues of tolerance and open-mindedness.
In 2010, he joined the board of GOProud, a Republican political organization representing conservative gays, lesbians, transgendered people, and their allies, which drew criticism from the Christian-right group the Family Research Council.
He condemned the “disgusting bigotry” of those conservatives who politicized and condemned the plans to build a mosque in downtown Manhattan a few blocks from ground zero. He also calls for a withdrawal from Afghanistan to save hundreds of billions of dollars.
Most impressive to me is Norquist’s pride in and love of his wife, Samah Alrayyes Norquist, a Kuwaiti public-relations specialist, and his two beautiful children, Grace Salam and Giselle Salma.
It’s possible for someone to be wrong on policy or political issues, as I believe, as a liberal Democrat, that Grover Norquist is most of the time. But it’s not possible for anyone to be anything but a good person who has such love and devotion to his wife and his children.
Lanny Davis is the principal in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates. He served as President Clinton’s Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of “Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). He can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@LannyDavis).
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