Leave Grover Alone
The conservative tax hawk among the believers.
As for Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist's group, times have never been better. After Obama won, the number of attendees at its famous Wednesday meetings went from about 120 a week to 140, spiking at 180 the week of CPAC. "We've got more direct-mail contributors," Norquist says. "It gets us more time on TV and radio." In the end, Obama is good for ATR, even if he's not good for the country. "It's like crime waves are good for private security guard companies," he says.
But still, something feels out of sync this year about the endless tax-slashing quest. RNC Chairman Michael Steele is calling for "fresh ideas" to relaunch the party. What's fresh about tax-cut fundamentalism? Norquist puts the "fresh ideas" people into two groups: Those who want to move the party to the left and those who want attention. "The only way to get attention is to come up with something completely new, which in life, usually means something completely stupid. There's a reason why scientists and inventors are known as crazy people: Because most of them are, and then every thousandth guy invents something really good. But most of the time they're lunatics. The guys who say, 'That won't work' "—he breaks into a whisper—"they're almost always right."
The point, he says, is to find "new formulations" for old principles. "The parents' rights movement is new formulation. Concealed carry is new formulation. School choice. … There are new and different ways to frame the concept of liberty."
That's where his penchant for metaphor comes in handy. The stimulus package in particular has unlocked the creative juices. "If Barack Obama and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi took three buckets of water out of a lake, ran to the other side of the lake, and poured those three buckets into the lake … do you really believe there's more water in the lake?" he likes to ask. "That's their spending plan: Take money out of the productive economy, walk around, and hand it to the politically connected—800 billion times." I ask when he started using that one. "It was actually a phrasing I used to explain Keynesian economics to Zulus in KwaZulu 10 years ago."
Literary coinage, however, is only one part of Norquist's job. The rest consists of meeting with politicians, lobbyists, activists, and organizing anti-tax and transparency campaigns in the states. CPAC, therefore, is like a giant business meeting, and traveling its halls is like one long West Wing tracking shot, with greetings, compliments, and bits of information flying back and forth. "Hey, handsome!" "Hey hey hey!" "How are you?" "Winning on all fronts, and yourself?" "How are things going in Fargo?" "Who's your guy on the ground in Alaska?" "What's Duane focused on now?" He stops to discuss minutiae of various state campaigns as if they are fresh on his mind. Norquist's demeanor—calm, earnest, affable—gives the impression that success is more about sustained focus over long periods of time than flashes of inspiration.
Most of his courtiers he knows. "Hello, fellow godfather," says Ann Coulter in the hotel lobby. At first this sounds like some weird code language. Turns out they actually share a godchild. The rest are randos stopping to express admiration. One asks him to sign his miniature Declaration of Independence. Does he ever get any crazies coming up to him? "Everybody's a little bit crazy," he says. I wonder whether this is my cue to run. (Norquists's humor is relentlessly deadpan. Once, in 2006, Al Gore presented his now-famous global-warming slide show at a Wednesday meeting. One slide showed America shrinking as sea levels rise. After the coasts vanished, all that was left was the center third of the country. "So how does this affect redistricting?" Norquist asked.)
Late afternoon, Norquist heads down to the Exhibit Hall for a few radio appearances. All local right-wing talk—San Antonio, Miami, North Dakota. ("The Limbaugh of the Prairie," one calls himself.) After a couple hours, I make a suggestion. "I think we should go shoot a gun," I say. His face lights up. "Oh, good!"
We mosey over to the NRA booth, where they have a giant hunting simulation set up. The game is called "Varmint Town." Norquist picks up the orange shotgun and presses it against his shoulder. Little prairie dogs scurry across the screen. Norquist's first two shots miss, but the third is dead on. A prairie dog goes down in a bloody heap. Another, sniped, spins out of control and rolls down a mound. A third does a running face plant. Norquist racks up six in a row for bonus points. His final score: 57,000. Respectable for an NRA board member. I ask him whether he ever played Duck Hunt. No, he says. "I missed out on cocaine and Nintendo both."
As we're leaving, he approaches the NRA rep. "Has the NRA done this at CPAC before?" Nope, she says, first time. Apparently more than 1,700 attendees signed up for the NRA mailing list after playing the game. Something about it just lures people in. "This is wonderful," Norquist marvels. "This is the funnest thing." It's as he said before: new formulations for old principles. He just moved to a new HQ, and the game gives him an idea. "Tell Jane to set this up in the new office," he says.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.