DLC | Blueprint Magazine | June 30, 2003
Starving the Beast
If President Bush keeps listening to Grover Norquist, Republicans won't have a government to kick around anymore.

By Ed Kilgore

Table of Contents

"Bipartisanship is another name for date rape."

"We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals-and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship."

-- Grover Norquist

President Bush loves to talk about his favorite foreign policy doctrine of pre-emption, the radical notion that even in the absence of imminent danger the United States should use force against any nation that might pose a threat down the road. What the president won't admit is that his administration has adopted the same doctrine toward government -- and Democrats -- here at home. For conservatives, a government that's not mortgaged to the hilt poses too great a threat of social activism. That's why, in 2001 and again this year, the Bush administration has launched pre-emptive attacks on the national treasury designed to leave the U.S. government so deep in debt it poses no threat to the conservative status quo. Its motto is: Stop government before it can help again.

The Bush White House will not acknowledge the existence of this domestic doctrine. It can't: George W. Bush owes his presidency in large part to the masterful illusion that he was a different kind of Republican from Newt Gingrich. He's even careful to avoid making overt spending cuts in popular programs, lest he give the enemy atrocities to point to.

But one of the leading strategists behind Bush's secret war on government is more than happy to tell the world all about it. His name is Grover Norquist, and he is the nation's leading advocate of "kill the taxes and you kill the government." If pre-emption is the most dangerous idea any president has had since Richard Nixon, Norquist may well be the most dangerous adviser. Perhaps more than anyone else, his growing influence on the Bush agenda helps explain not only the country's current economic woes, but also the long-term threat the new conservatism poses to a prosperous future. More and more, the administration seems to be thinking about taxes just like Norquist -- tax cuts are always good, because they take money from government.

Norquist, leader of libertarian-leaning groups like his unofficial leave-us-alone-coalition and Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), is renowned in Washington as the avatar of scorched-earth tax reduction. He's a hero to so-called "movement conservatives" (people for whom conservatism is religion) because they still see, through Reaganesque lenses, the government as always the enemy, never the solution. Norquist is the man who compared any and all recipients of government funds -- presumably excluding the Defense Department -- to cockroaches. He also famously announced that he and his brethren in the anti-government movement wanted to reduce the federal government to a size so small "that it could be drowned in a bathtub."

All this would make for an interesting, if grotesque, sideshow except for one thing: What once was right-wing braggadocio is now the heart of the Bush agenda. "What this administration is doing, and most people haven't figured it out yet, is an annual tax cut," Norquist recently told The Washington Post.

Thanks to the strength of his conservative network and the weakness of the Bush economic team, Norquist has become, in many respects, the most potent influence on the administration's economic plan. Most presidencies take their economic advice from respected economists or titans of industry. The Bush agenda comes from the fevered brain of a movement ideologue and K Street anarchist. No wonder the economy is going nowhere. It's as if President Clinton had turned over the Treasury Department to Jerry Rubin instead of Bob Rubin.

It says a lot about the direction of the administration that Bush has made Norquist's battle -- a battle to paralyze the domestic functions of the U.S. government by repeatedly cutting taxes -- his own. It did not have to be that way. The irony, and the deception, is that Bush got elected in 2000 by proving, in effect, that he wasn't Gingrich. Norquism is Gingrich by other means. Although Bush embraced the idea of a large tax cut as a presidential candidate, his campaign, and the early rhetoric of his administration, had other themes -- most notably the idea of a "compassionate conservatism" that would address entrenched poverty and other social ills through a revival of civic institutions, and the pledge to "change the tone" in Washington through bipartisanship and long-range vision.

But over the past two years, serial tax cuts have increasingly become the alpha and omega of administration domestic policy. The Bush White House has grown notorious for its highly political nature and a degree of partisanship extreme even by the distorted standards of the 1990s. The spirit of the Bush administration is not that of gentle souls like "compassionate conservatives" Marvin Olasky or John DiIulio. The spirit is that of Norquist -- single-minded; full of passionate hatred of taxes, domestic government, and anyone who benefits from either; and ready to do just about anything to elevate "our team" over "their team." Norquist's notion of bipartisanship, he said in May, is that it "is another name for date rape."

Bitter partisanship. It's appropriate that Norquist, a confidant of White House political guru Karl Rove and impresario for an enormous network of conservative and special-interest lobbyists and advocates, was right out in front of the effort to enact Bush's latest tax cut package. One minute he coerced reluctant corporate lobbyists to "get in line" behind the proposal to make corporate dividends tax-exempt (far down on their wish list). Next he used his state-level contacts, usually devoted to policing state legislatures to oppose any kind of tax increase, to get legislative resolutions passed endorsing the Bush "growth package." Following passage of the president's tax cuts, Norquist explained his state-level strategy to the Denver Post: "We are trying to change the tones in the state capitals -- and turn them toward bitter nastiness and partisanship."

Norquist's current status as perhaps the most important Republican lobbyist stems from a remarkable career spanning the rise of the right over the last quarter-century. His restless political energy has led him into an astonishing number of crusades. He was Ralph Reed's mentor in the College Republicans of the early 1980s and helped turn the group from a mild-mannered frat-boy civic outlet into a savage ideological force on many campuses. He subsequently spent many months as an on-location and Washington advocate for South African-financed anti-Marxist insurgencies in Angola and Mozambique. (At one time, he was well-known in Washington for swaggering around wearing combat fatigues and sporting a bumper sticker that read: "I'd rather be killing Commies.") One of his ongoing enterprises is aimed at relentlessly harassing federal, state, and local officials to name things after Ronald Reagan. He was reportedly a principal author of Gingrich's Contract With America. His famous Wednesday meetings have served as a sort of Comintern for Washington representatives of the right.

Norquist's main project, however, has never changed: his effort to shrink government at every level, especially by making tax cuts an ideological imperative for Republicans. ATR's anti-tax "pledge," foisted on a generation of Republican presidential candidates entering the anti-tax abattoir of the New Hampshire primary, and on candidates for high and low office around the country, is the ultimate source of his power.

It's also the source of his connection with the White House, and his role as a Janus-faced figure in the Bush family saga.

It was Bob Dole's public refusal to sign one of Norquist's no-tax pledges that led to George H.W. Bush's upset win in the 1988 New Hampshire primary, which, in turn, led to Bush's nomination and election. And of course, it was the elder Bush's repudiation of his own no-tax pledge that played a major part in his 1992 defeat.

The decision by Norquist -- along with such old associates as Reed -- to back the younger Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries was a key moment in the reconciliation of the Bush family with the conservative movement, based on the idea that W. might be the biological heir of his father, but the ideological heir of Reagan. Bush fulfilled his side of the deal by making a big, gratuitous tax cut for high earners the centerpiece of his domestic policy during the campaign.

Bush's alliance with Norquist and other figures of the right was solidified during his tough primary rivalry with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who not only opposed a big tax cut, but attacked "our team" -- the conservative coalition of libertarians, business interests, and Christian activists that has dominated the GOP off and on since 1980 -- with an unprecedented directness and savagery. Norquist's own organization, which usually doesn't get involved in campaigns, ran ads attacking McCain and praising Bush.

He sure got his money's worth. Bush's first tax cut proposal was significantly larger than the one unsuccessfully proposed by congressional Republicans in the late 1990s. And just as importantly, the White House has followed a strategy that appears aimed at an almost endless series of new proposals: Make the first package of individual tax cuts temporary to get the maximum cuts into the budget space provided; then make them permanent; then make private investment income tax-free (a big part of the latest proposal); and then, presumably in a second Bush term, go for the corporate tax cuts that the White House's business allies have been waiting for.

Supply-side rationale. The strategy, of course, is not public; nor is its rationale.

In 2001, when the federal government was projecting budget surpluses so large that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan worried about a premature retirement of the national debt, Bush argued for tax cuts as a rebate of excess revenues. "American taxpayers have been overcharged, and on their behalf I am here to ask for a refund," he memorably said in his first address to Congress.

As the surpluses melted away, the administration switched rationales and began to echo hoary, if discredited, supply-side theories for additional tax cuts to stimulate a flagging economy. Indeed, they still make those arguments, though they were deeply undercut earlier this year when the Republican-controlled Congressional Budget Office finally agreed to conservative demands that it take the economic effect of tax cuts into account and estimated that the president's budget would have virtually no net effect at all.

But privately, another rationale is often cited by conservatives as the genuine motive for serial tax cuts, regardless of the fiscal and economic condition of the country: Tax cuts are good in themselves because they will ultimately force a shrinkage of government -- without the pain or controversy of identifying specific cuts in popular government programs. Limiting government in the long run, moreover, justifies such immediate negative effects as large budget deficits, burgeoning public debt, higher long-term interest rates, and the inability of government to deal with national challenges.

A recent New Yorker profile of Rove suggested another argument for forcing a reduction of government through tax cuts: It would damage the public-service unions that represent a key funding source for Democratic candidates.

This rationale -- once referred to as "starving the beast" by Reagan Budget Director David Stockman -- is obviously one that most Republicans are a bit reluctant to articulate, representing as it does a kind of gutless Gingrichism.

But Norquist has no problem at all talking about it at length. And he has no moral compunctions about failing to identify which domestic programs to cut, because he pretty much hates them all.

Whenever he talks about taxes and government, Norquist sounds little different from the tens of thousands of American libertarians whose intellectual development ended with their first adolescent reading of Atlas Shrugged, and who go through life expressing contempt for the "parasites" who "confiscate" their earnings through taxes. As such, he represents the ultimate Washington role model for countless young libertarian Internet bloggers living with their parents in suburbs all over America. He's the anti-political guy who made it really big in politics. And he's the radical guy who has gained access to genuine mainstream power. All over the country, state legislators fear being singled out by Americans for Tax Reform as champions of higher taxes. In Washington, he's the go-to guy who can instantly put together a national coalition supporting just about any Republican cause, even matters remote from the tax code, such as judicial nominations.

But there's another and more sinister aspect of Norquist's influence in Washington. The GOP's adoption of his stealth libertarianism is influencing Republicans to become morally lax about fiscal and economic policy.

As the country's fiscal situation has deteriorated during the Bush administration, GOP members of Congress seem exhilarated by the realization that short-term fiscal irresponsibility can be justified as a long-term strategy for restraining the size and cost of government -- a much more satisfying rationale for tax cuts than the complex and largely discredited supply-side economic theory.

Conservative Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, exemplifies the trend. "I came to the House as a real deficit hawk, but I am no longer a deficit hawk," he told The Hill newspaper in February. "I'll tell you why. I had to spend the surpluses. Deficits make it easier to say no."

Deficits seem to make a lot of things easier. As University of California economist Brad DeLong observed in the autumn of 2002: "The whole point of the strategy is to do something that makes the country worse off-create a large deficit that slows economic growth, raises the chances of higher inflation in the future, and diminishes the government's capacity to undertake any expensive new initiatives in the future that national security might require -- and then to count on the fact that one's political opponents care more about the well-being of the country than you do to fix the situation."

It's clear the "starve the beast" theory offers Republicans the political equivalent of a bottomless crack pipe. Tax cuts no longer have to be rationalized by any particular theory of economic growth, efficiency, consistency, or fairness. Politicians are free to defend or extend corporate or other narrow tax subsidies; free to target tax cuts to their favored constituencies; and entirely free from the constraints normally supplied by budgetary arithmetic.

In the end, Norquist is perhaps best understood as a symbol for the respectability of extremism in George W. Bush's Republican Party. Whether or not Norquist is leading the charge in the next tax cut drive, its spirit is his.

And the battle hymn for the Bush administration's other war might well be found in well-circulated anecdotes about the anarchist songs Norquist used to teach his protigi Ralph Reed in their early days in Washington, a city that nauseated the young libertarian with its monuments and other "stuff that looks like Albert Speer designed it." Little did Grover and Ralph know the political power they would wield in this city, as they drove around Washington after midnight, windows down and throats afire with the anarchist anthem:

The state conceived in blood and hate
Remains our only foe.
So circle brothers, circle brothers,
Victory is nigh!
Come meet thy fate, destroy the state
And raise black banners high.

Ed Kilgore is policy director of the DLC and a senior editor of Blueprint.