WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith. And today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with tax reformer, Grover Norquist.
Grover Norquist was one of the leaders of a wave of young conservatives who came to Washington in the 1980s, inspired by President Ronald Reagan. During those years he was a friend and political ally with evangelical leader Ralph Reed and subsequently disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. They were then listed among the “young turks” of the Reagan Revolution. It was then, in 1985 and at the request of Ronald Reagan, that he founded Americans for Tax Reform.
During the 1990s, Norquist rose to even greater prominence as one of the architects of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America that allowed Republicans to take back the House of Representatives in 1994. He was also the mastermind behind getting Republican office holders and candidates to take a pledge not to raise taxes.
Norquist has continued to be a D.C. power broker in part because of his so-called “Wednesday Center-Right Coalition” meetings. Every Wednesday, 150 to 200 conservative activists meet in a specially designed auditorium in his office to hear Norquist and others give short reports, ask for help with coalition-building activities, and network. The meeting often includes senators, members of the House of Representatives, and other high-ranking government officials.
Grover Norquist was one of my first guests on Listening In, back in 2014, when we discussed his book “Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands off our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives.” Given his long-time tenure in Washington, and his experience with both the Republican Party and the conservative movement, I wanted to talk with him again, to discuss the future of the Party and to get his assessment of Donald Trump’s long-term impact on both the GOP and the nation.
Well, Grover Norquist, welcome to the program. And, you know, I’ve got a lot of things I want to talk to you about, but I think the first thing I want to talk to you about is just to ask you how you’re doing and how Americans for Tax Reform is doing, and how’s your Wednesday meetings are doing. I haven’t been able to travel. Usually I can connect with you a couple or three times a year by getting up to D.C. and attending your meetings. But haven’t been able to do that in the COVID crisis. Everything going okay?
GROVER NORQUIST, GUEST: It is. We shifted almost immediately to virtual. So, we have 160 people who get together every Wednesday for an hour and a half. And we always have two people presenting from other countries and a number of people presenting from the various state meetings. There are at least 40 states that have center-right meetings like the Wednesday meeting. And they vary from, you know, 20 people in some states to 80 in New Hampshire. So, those are going well, very helpful. And working on keeping state government and the center-right activists who care about state government together, focused. And then of course in D.C., we deal with national issues as well as state. And there are now about 25 center-right meetings internationally as well.
SMITH: So, it sounds like that obviously COVID has impacted everybody and I’m not trying to make light of it, but it sounds like with these virtual meetings, you maybe have even more people attending virtually than are able to get to your office every Wednesday. Is that fair?
NORQUIST: Yeah, it is. We had about 160 in person, but now it’s much more diverse in terms of people from Alaska and Maine and so on coming in. And you know, we have people from all over the world coming in by, well, it’s Microsoft Teams for us, but what it also does is allows us to go and get speakers from anywhere in the world. We have an international meeting, which is all the folks that deal with international stuff. We do a meeting on international trade. And those are all truly international with people from all over the planet, getting together once a month in a way they could never do otherwise. And of course, I have a team of five who travels around to the satellite meetings around the country, which used to cost us $50,000 a month. And now we do it online. I go to almost every state meeting, which really fills my days. But what it does do is let me meet everybody in Ohio and Florida. And in Florida, the Miami meeting, the Tallahassee meeting and the Orlando meeting. You get a real sense of who’s competent, who’s hard-working, who’s doing what, and you’re no longer limited to the one person, you know in a state and calling them and asking what’s going on. You can talk to 20 and 30 people about what’s going on in the state. You get a much more nuanced understanding.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, it sounds like those meetings are going well, but I do have to ask about the conservative agenda that Americans for Tax Reform is concerned with advancing. How would you characterize the last four years of the Trump administration, if the measurement is size of the federal budget, size of the federal deficit, and the reach of government into all areas of life. I mean, you can’t be super happy about what’s happened over the last few years.
NORQUIST: Well, there’s pro and con. And start with the pro. The three judges at the Supreme Court level and the circuit court judges save the Constitution. There wouldn’t be a second amendment in the Constitution if our friend Hillary Clinton had nominated and confirmed her three judges. The second amendment wouldn’t exist, the first amendment would not exist in a meaningful sense. The ninth and 10th amendment would not exist. So that’s a big deal. Saving the constitution actually means something for decades into the future. Second, the tax cut took the corporate rate, the business tax from 35 percent, which is hard as it is to believe, that was the highest of the world. We had the stupidest corporate income tax in the entire world—dumber than France, higher than communist China, higher than everybody, higher than Japan. And we took it down to 21 percent, which is lower than China, lower than most of Europe, made us competitive. And in 2019 alone, the median income in this country increased by 6.8 percent. Meaning half the people make more than that guy and half make less. The middle guy went up 6.8 percent and it was during the first three years of the Trump administration. Went up 9 percent then got hit by COVID, but you didn’t see during eight years of Obama, it didn’t go up 6 percent. So, that’s middle-income people doing better. That’s not some rich guy getting rich and the average goes up. The median income going up only moves when tens of millions of people get significant pay increases. So, that increase in the base pay that people have, certainly the deregulation helped. We didn’t get into any new wars. And the president started a campaign that I don’t think Biden will be able to undo to promote religious liberty around the world. And unlike the Obama administration, which agreed with how China was dealing with the Uighurs, the Trump people decided to take that on. So those are the good things.
The bad thing is the trade wars. Trade wars are wars of choice like invading Iraq or Afghanistan. You don’t get to decide when they’re over. You don’t get to decide how long they last. And it’s very unclear how much they cost because the costs are always hidden. So, the trade wars were expensive. I think the president expected China and others to come to an agreement. They didn’t. So, all the tariffs stay, all the costs were there, and there were no benefits because the trade war didn’t end. So that was the big disappointment in terms of economic policy and the job loss that’s involved there. We do have to take on China’s bad trade policies, but tariffs were not the way to do that. Or at least they certainly didn’t succeed at that. The government spent too much money. Taxes were lower. That’s progress. The challenge, of course, is that partially because of the personality conflicts that Trump had, we lost the house in 2018. That was very expensive. We did not lose the House because of something the House did. We lost the house because people—some people, a small percentage of people, but enough to sway an election—were just mad at the guy with the orange hair. And that was an expensive effort. And then we lost the Senate because the president was focused not on holding the Senate, which would have protected 90 percent of his successes in life. 90 percent of his legacy would have been protected by a Republican Senate. And instead he wanted to get on TV and talk about voter fraud, which is real, but it was settled. You weren’t gonna be able to re-litigate that. And instead of winning in Georgia, we lost in Georgia. And also nothing improved on the question of voter fraud.
SMITH: Well, you mentioned that if the Republicans had retained the Senate, 90 percent of his legacy would be intact. And you also mentioned the corporate income tax, which went from 35 down to 21. What do you think, speaking of legacy remaining, intact or being undone depending upon circumstances, what do you think is going to happen to the corporate income tax?
NORQUIST: Well, I think the Democrats just have to bring it up because they’ve just talked about it so much and they need the money they think will come from it and they don’t know and don’t care what it does to median income families. Those are real challenges. We have been in this position where we are right now, twice before in recent history. Bill Clinton won in 1992, won the House, won the Senate, had good majorities in the House and Senate. Two years later, he raised taxes, he increased spending, he regulated, he went after people’s second amendment rights. And the Republicans swept the House and Senate in ‘94. That is the year that over 95 percent of Republicans signed the taxpayer protection pledge that we offer people saying, I will never vote for a tax hike. And since ‘94, the Republicans have held the House and the Senate more often than not—more than 50 percent of the time they’ve had the House and the Senate since they became the party that would not raise your taxes. Before that, for the 62 years before 1994, going back to 1932, the Democrats, the Republicans held the House and Senate for four—not half the time, not 60 percent of time—four years out of 62. One out of every 15 years, they had the House and the Senate. So we have turned into a party that more often than not holds the House and the Senate, not always the presidency, but more often than not the House and the Senate. And then of course Obama came in thanks to Bush’s decision to stay and occupy Iraq as long as he did. We lost the House and the Senate in 2006. The economy was going fine in those years, the previous four years. The economy was growing great. Iraq and Afghanistan were not. And we lost the House and the Senate. And then in 2008, Obama came in—Democratic House, Democratic Senate, Democratic president. He had 60 votes in the Senate until Teddy Kennedy passed away. 60 votes in the Senate. And he lost the House two years later in 2010 and half of his majority in the Senate—lost about five, six seats in the Senate—and then lost the Senate completely a little bit later. So the path is clear for the Republicans: be the party that won’t raise taxes, do not be complicit in massive government programs or massive spending programs. Do not put your fingerprints on the murder weapon for big spending bills or big growth of government issues as Republicans refuse to do after the 1992 election. And as they refuse to do after Obama won in 2008. And then you just have to go and pick up the pieces because there’s going to be a lot of spending wasted, and it’s going to be a great deal of taxes imposed, and a lot of executive order regulation. You can stop the bleeding two years from now with taking the House and perhaps the Senate. The House is more likely to be down five, six, seven seats in the House. Redistricting will give us six more seats in red states. Redistricting also has four times as many congressional seats will be redistricted by Republicans as by Democrats. So the Democrats should not be able to steal it through gerrymandering, and it should fall back to the Republicans when those 20 suburban seats that were mad at Trump now realize what Biden intends to do to their 401k, their IRA. Half of Americans have a 401k or IRA for their lifetime savings. And Biden wants to raise the corporate rate, which will make them all worth less.
SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith. And you’re listening in on my conversation with Grover Norquist. Let’s get right back to that interview.
Grover, you talked about the 20 seats that were mad at Trump and others that were mad at Trump—personality conflicts, the quixotic campaign. I almost said chaotic. It was a little chaotic, but I mean “quixotic” like Don Quixote campaign around election fraud. What if we discover, I mean, or let me ask it in a different way—is it possible that the American people, or at least the American people in those 20 districts that you’re talking about are not just mad at Trump, but they’re mad at the Republican party? Is it possible that Trump has ruined the GOP brand?
NORQUIST: Well, let’s see Trump, polled three points below the Republican House candidates this year, the Republican House candidates and Republican Senate candidates generally pulled ahead of Trump. So, Trump pulled himself down, but the Republican party was stronger there. You saw on state legislators, the Democrats, oh, a hundred million dollars targeting state legislative bodies, hoping to gerrymander their way into a permanent majority in the house. They lost every single targeted state: Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Arizona. They didn’t get a single one of those states to help them redistrict. As a matter of fact, they lost both bodies in New Hampshire, which will now redistrict against them.
SMITH: So your short answer to the question is, no, you don’t think that’s going to happen.
NORQUIST: I don’t, but it’s not just because it didn’t happen. It’s because people have not yet figured out how expensive Biden and the Democratic House and Senate are going to be for them personally, when their 401k gets smaller, when you see the job losses that come from some of their labor initiatives. They’re trying to ban and threatening to ban independent contractors. That is, oh, it’s 10 million people they’re messing with. And those people haven’t even figured out their livelihoods are threatened yet. But they will. And that is when the swing takes place. It’s not going to be people going, oh, I like Trump. It’s going to be, I was mad at Trump for personality things, but Biden is making me poorer when it comes time to retire.
SMITH: Well, let me ask a related question, but sort of on the other end of the spectrum: do you see that there’s any chance that there could be some sort of a Patriot party or a MAGA party coming out of sort of the ruins of the 2020 election?
NORQUIST: President Trump has said, no. He is talking with the House leadership in terms of making sure that we take the house back, which is the most cheerful news I’ve heard recently. This is Trump focusing on something other than Trump looking forward. And the other factor here is third parties are very, very difficult to get on the ballot, to organize. It takes structure everywhere. The libertarian and green parties are barely able to get on the ballots each year. I think it’s less of a concern. Former presidents do fade a bit when it comes to your ability to control the agenda. And the agenda is going to be controlled by the very left-wing policies of Biden and the Democrats. And that is going to shout so much louder than anything else.
I mean, one thing to keep in mind, I have read enough history to remember that the Republican party was pronounced dead in 1964 when Goldwater lost. I mean, we’re even in the Senate and down five or seven seats in the House, and we control 30 state legislatures, both the house and the Senate. We didn’t have anything like that after the ‘64 election. We were gone. But the party came back, got 60 seats the next election elected Nixon president. The party was pronounced dead again in 1974 with Watergate. Except it wasn’t, and Reagan came back and took the Senate as well. They’ve pronounced the Republican party dead—they meaning the establish press and so on—have been pronouncing the Republican party dead with some regularity. You never hear the Democratic party is dead after ‘72, when the president gets 49 states. The Democratic party was not dead. The Republican party is dead when it picked up in the House, lost the presidency, but not by some massive percentage, like in previous elections. And I think the Republican party, if we hadn’t lost the Senate two seats, this election would have been a significant strengthening of the modern Republican party nationally as it was at the state legislative, governors level, and in the U.S. House.
SMITH: Well, Grover, I accept that. Let’s just accept that as given. But let me sort of take us away from the Republican party just a little bit and talk about the country as a whole. Something you said a moment ago is motivating my question. You said that the Republicans have to be careful not to be caught with their fingerprints on the murder weapon, which are these massive spending bills. So, let’s just stipulate for the record that, okay, the Republican party can come back, that all they have to do is do the things that you just said. Among them, you know, not be complicit in these massive spending bills. But I think you’ll agree with me that these massive spending bills just keep happening. They happen on Republican watches. They happen on Democratic watches. The Republicans can sometimes bend the curve a little bit or slow the bobsled ride to perdition you might want to say. But I mean at what point have we reached a point of no return with these massive deficits and massive bills?
NORQUIST: That’s a very good question. Here’s the cheerful news: We were within one vote in the Senate and that was John McCain who competes very successfully with Trump in terms of self obsession and in order to be important, he lied to the Republican Senators that day and he lied to the people of Arizona and he turned around and he voted no on reforming Obamacare and Medicaid. Had he voted yes and we had 50 votes plus the vice presidency, then the following: we would have saved $1 trillion this decade. Five to $7 trillion in the next 10 years and five to $7 trillion in the next 10 years. That is the cost of a single vote. So the modern Republican party was within one vote of reforming Medicaid, Obamacare, and some of the other entitlement programs in the way that it was put together and advocated by Paul Ryan, former Speaker of the House. That was as close as you can get to bending the cost curve down significantly. I mean, that’s looking at 30 years and taking $15 trillion off of the spending and deficit. And you could do more once you’ve done that cut there. And now technology allows us to do a lot of this stuff significantly easier. I’m not sure how quickly Biden’s willing to move on that. But the Republican consensus of doing what Reagan suggested in 1971 and what Clinton signed—vetoed it twice, but signed the third time—block granting aid to families with dependent children, known as welfare, out to the 50 states and letting the 50 states compete to handle welfare in the most competent way. One size fits all is very expensive. It’s tough to know what’s working, what’s not working. You have 50 states doing government supported health care differently, doing welfare differently, doing food stamps differently. You will find dramatic advantages when one state does it right and the other states follow. That’s what happened with aid to families with dependent children—now TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. We were one vote off and only the peak and self-obsession of one Senator cost us $15 trillion in overspending over a 30 year period. So that’s a very expensive one vote, but the next time around, we got to come back with enough people so that even the self-obsessed people can’t stop things
SMITH: Well, I mean, hopefully there will be a next time, but, Grover even stipulating for the record that everything that you just said is true. It sort of falls into the category of woulda coulda should, or if dreams were horses, we would all ride, right? I mean, it didn’t happen. And it to not happen time after time.
NORQUIST: What happened is we came within one vote. We haven’t been there. We came within one vote only because one guy didn’t even vote his own interests or his own promises. He got elected one way and did something else just to be mad at somebody else. Mind you, the guy he was mad at has done the same thing back to him. So, need everybody to be a grownup in the future. We need most of the Republican Senators to be grown up. They don’t all have to be grownups, but most would be good. And yes, I do think we are so much further along in an understanding of what it takes to fix things. It’s not going to get much of a discussion on national television. It didn’t at the time. I don’t ever remember the numbers. I was just talking to Paul Ryan about just this question of how much we would have saved if McCain had voted the way he told everybody he was going to vote. If he’d kept his word to the people of Arizona and to the Republican leadership who he said, I’m going to vote with you today. And the numbers are just staggering because the kind of reforms you have, you don’t cut the budget, you reform government programs to cost less. And that is the way you make significant reductions.
SMITH: I’m Warren Smith. And today you’re listening in on my interview with tax reformer, Grover Norquist. Let’s get right back to that conversation.
Grover, I want to shift gears just a little bit again and ask you this. You said some things, I mean, you’re very closely aligned with the Republican party. I don’t think you would disagree with that.
NORQUIST: The Republican party is very closely aligned with my tax position. I appreciate their support.
SMITH: Very good. All right. But on this phone call and other places, you’ve been pretty careful not to get too heavily in bed with Trump. You have criticized him, his temperament, and some other aspects of Trump here. Do you face any backlash for that? Jeff Flake, Mark Sanford, these are guys that stood against Trump and kind of had their heads to them. Do you feel that kind of a fear when you’re trying to moderate your position for public consumption or even in private?
NORQUIST: No, because I work—look, I work with any elected official who wants to limit the size, power, and cost of government. I work with Van Jones on criminal justice reform. I mean, I’ve worked with left wing state legislators and Democrats on issues of reducing the fines and fees that they make the police go out. I mean, one of the reasons police are unpopular some places is they have to collect all these fines and fees. So I’ll work with anybody R and and D who’s good on spending and taxes in a particular area. They don’t have to be perfect all the time.
SMITH: Well, and I was at a meeting, one of your Wednesday meetings a few years ago when Ralph Nader was there and you guys were both in favor of prison reform for completely different reasons. I think your reason was that prisons are one of the largest government programs in the country. And, of course, Ralph Nader had different reasons, I think, for wanting prison reform. So I acknowledge that you will work with anyone, but latitudinarian temperament and personality hasn’t always been welcome in an environment where you were either whole-hog 100 percent in favor of Trump, or you are persona non grata.
NORQUIST: Well, as you, as you mentioned at the beginning, I run the center-right meeting in D.C. It represents the 60 percent of the country that voted for Reagan or would have if they’d been the right age. And so you’re talking about a very large group where people who do not agree on all issues, and don’t agree on many. And part of my job is to make sure that people who don’t agree on all issues understand you don’t have to agree with everybody else in the room all the time. You work on your issue and when others can join you and get to 51 percent, then you get to win. And sometimes you help other people on their issue. And you can do that. You win as well. But look, try getting six people to agree what restaurant to go to for dinner, and then try to get 330 million Americans to agree with what direction the country should go in. It’s going to take a lot of discussion and a lot of compromise. It’s not something that you do these edicts and say, this is right. And everybody who doesn’t agree with me as an idiot, because if you, as soon as you lock that down, you can’t grow and you can’t build a coalition to accomplish the things you wish to do to make the country stronger,
SMITH: Grover, I want to close our conversation if I could with just a lightning round of some questions. One is the minimum wage. President Biden has proposed a minimum wage. Give me a quick answer on why I’m guessing you think that’s a bad idea. Tell me why.
NORQUIST: Congressional budget office says it’ll cost over 3 million jobs. You’re making it a crime to work for $10 an hour in rural America and in areas that have lower costs of living. It’s designed by rich blue states to stop young people from getting jobs in red States.
SMITH: Another quick round, if I could with HR-1 and S-1. These are the first bills that have been introduced under the new administration in both the House and the Senate. Tell me about those bills. What’s wrong with them?
NORQUIST: Those bills do a number of things. They federalize all election laws. So, they would tell states you can’t require a voter ID card, which the Supreme Court has said is perfectly acceptable to require somebody to show an ID as to who they are, and that they’re a citizen and they’re at least 18 years old, and that they live in the state. And so they really would collapse any effort at holding honest elections. They also would take the federal election commission and make it partisan. Right now it’s two Republicans, two Democrats. They would allow the Democrat president to have three to two, and then guess what only Republican problems would be brought up in that court. It completely politicizes campaign finance law. It’s a disaster in terms of—Oh, and it also gets rid of privacy for contributions. I mean, the NAACP, back during the civil rights movement, the Alabama state wanted their list of donors so that people could go harass them. And the Supreme Court said no to that. And we now know that people who give to pro-life causes or to traditional marriage causes can find their homes and their businesses attacked because they donated to something that was unpopular in the view of some violent people. And this is designed to make it easy for bullies to go and throw rocks through the windows of people’s businesses or individual houses of people that contribute to things they don’t like. This is exactly what you don’t want to have happen. So, it’s luckily right now, without the filibuster being destroyed, if that continues, if Manchin and the lady Senator from Arizona keep their word not to get rid of the filibuster, the Democrats will not be able to kill the first amendment in politics.
SMITH: And finally, a couple of questions about COVID relief. The Democrats are proposing about an additional $2 trillion. The Republicans are also proposing COVID relief, but something less than $1 trillion. Have we had enough COVID relief? Where do you stand on that?
NORQUIST: Yeah, well, some of the COVID relief is useful. It’s paying for vaccines and so on. Some of it is counterproductive. They added $600 per week to unemployment benefits, which meant that over 60, 70 percent of Americans made more money unemployed than going to work. That’s the reason why you had such high unemployment earlier in the year. It remains a problem at $300 a week or $1,200 a month. Still, most Americans would make more money on unemployment than going back to work. And that slowing the recovery. You see this in blue states versus red states. The blue states have much higher unemployment than the red states and their COVID numbers aren’t any better. So, some of the money they’re looking to spend—Oh, they also want to bail out states that have wasted money and governed poorly, which means no one will reform their pensions. They’ll just say, we’ll wait for another Democratic House, Senate, President, and we’ll steal money from everybody else and backfill the pensions that we promised people that we couldn’t afford.
SMITH: Yeah. One more COVID question. Americans for Tax Reform, your organization, took PPP funds back during the last round. Any regrets about that? Do the optics of that worry you?
NORQUIST: No, they didn’t because all the liberal groups and the conservative groups did. What it said is if you have to lay off people, we will lend you this money so you don’t have to lay off people. If you do let them off and you don’t get to keep the money. And what happened was the government said you cannot work your business or a nonprofit—I run a nonprofit—because we’re shutting you down and you can’t come to work and you can’t do this. You can’t do that. You can’t do that. And if they built a road through your backyard, they’d pay you for it. And if they shut down your restaurant one, they shouldn’t shut the restaurant down. But two, if they do, it’s not unreasonable for them to compensate the people who lost their jobs because of the decision by the government to tell people they can’t go to your restaurant. I also think they shouldn’t collect property taxes. If the city says you can’t keep your restaurant open, they got some nerve continuing to make you pay your property taxes.
SMITH: So, the fact that you had to endure charges of hypocrisy, they just sort of went off of your back and it’s sort of like that’s life in the big city?
NORQUIST: No, it’s not hypocrisy at all. I’m in favor of the government compensating people when the government does damage to people. And when the government shuts down your ability to function and then helps compensate you so you don’t have to fire people—I mean, better off not to do the shutting down in the first place or to keep it down to a dull roar, but that kind of compensation is perfectly legitimate. And governments ought to be doing that. They should no be able to take your property or shut down your business and then treat you as if they’ve not done any harm.
SMITH: Very good. Grover Norquist, thank you so much for being on the program today. I really appreciate it.
NORQUIST: You got it.