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Herding Elephants

For over 25 years, Grover Norquist has been holding the line on taxes while working to keep together a sometimes fractious conservative movement. It’s not uncommon to see him moderating noisy, bagel-filled meetings of disparate single-issue groups, with an activist promoting a pro-life march on Capitol Hill followed to the microphone by a libertarian policy wonk delivering a spiel on some property-rights lawsuit in Oregon. Norquist cuts each speaker off at exactly the right moment and usually knows their talking points better than they do.

That’s why Norquist raised eyebrows in January when instead of munching on pastries with fellow conservatives he was spotted breaking bread with the liberal New America Foundation. Moreover, the Americans for Tax Reform president’s dinnertime remarks deviated from the approved conservative script on foreign policy. Norquist called for debate on the right over continuing the war in Afghanistan.

“I’m confident about where that conversation would go,” Norquist told his unlikely dining companions. “And I think the people who are against that conversation know where it would go, too.” Making his pitch to fiscal and national-security conservatives, he pointed to the war’s rising costs and the attendant strain on the U.S. military. “Being tied up there does not advance American power,” Norquist said. “If you’ve got a fist in the tar baby Iraq and you’ve got a fist in the tar baby Afghanistan, then who’s afraid of you?”

The liberal writer Dan Froomkin gently tut-tutted Norquist’s use of the phrase “tar baby” but published a generally favorable account of the dinner. Perhaps more surprisingly, so did the conservative publication Newsmax, which featured a brief but polite interview in which Norquist said that “inertia is an insufficient argument” for the status quo in Afghanistan. But the reaction in the most hawkish precincts of the right was apoplectic.

Max Boot complained that Norquist’s position was akin to a withdrawal from “World War II while Hitler or Tojo were still in power” and ending “the Civil War while Jefferson Davis still ruled the South.” Another Commentary blogger accused Norquist of dodging the question by calling for a debate rather than full withdrawal. In the more obscure parts of the conservative blogosphere, cries of “Benedict Grover” rang out.

What Norquist did not hear were actual arguments for the present strategy in Afghanistan. “Shut up is not an argument,” he says, pointing to this Boot barb: “Think of all the millions we could have saved by ending wars prematurely—quite a bonanza, especially if you ignore the rather substantial costs of defeat.” “Okay,” Norquist replies. “Tell me what those costs are.” He also rejects the argument that getting out would constitute “defeat.”

“Many of the people who want us to stay in Afghanistan are smart people,” Norquist says. “There are good arguments for their position. So let’s hear them.” He emphasizes that he is not trying to assign blame, read anybody out of the movement, or even dictate what conclusion conservatives should reach about the Afghan war. “This isn’t about who was right or wrong nine years ago,” Norquist says. “This conversation should be about what we should do now.”

“Only the right can have this debate,” Norquist continues. “The left is wrong about everything. You need people who believe in a strong defense, who believe America can be a positive force in the world, to decide the policy.” As only Nixon could go to China, it might be argued, only conservatives can leave Afghanistan.

It’s certainly a Nixon-goes-to-China moment for Norquist, who was not necessarily predisposed to being circumspect about the use of force. The anti-tax crusader—who entered politics as a Nixon campaign volunteer—was a Cold War hawk even before he was a supply-sider. Or as Norquist himself once put it, “I was an anti-communist first and a free market economics person second.”

“So I recognized that there was an entity out there, the Soviet Union, that was purely evil and statist,” Norquist explained to the libertarian magazine Reason in 2008. “I went from that to saying, well, then we want to be more of the opposite.” Norquist played a leading role in getting the conservative movement behind George W. Bush during the 2000 Republican primaries and originally went along when Bush abandoned his “humble foreign policy” after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

That included using all the conventional Republican rhetoric during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The Democrats were on the wrong side of the Civil War, the Cold War, and now the Iraq War,” Norquist quipped to the Washington Post. “Their batting average on these things is right up there with France.” Despite waving the bloody shirt against the Democrats, Norquist was critical of the Patriot Act, which he thought needed more checks and balances, and Bush’s national surveillance program.

Norquist also began sounding a skeptical note about the Iraq War much earlier than other mainstream conservatives. By October 2004, he was already telling the New York Times, “Iraq was not central to any part of the Republican party or its philosophy,” and conceding that the war could potentially cost Bush re-election. (It didn’t, in no small part because the Democrats nominated presidential and vice-presidential candidates who had both voted for the conflict.)

By 2006, Norquist went even further. “There were no conservative grass-roots group saying, ‘Invade Iraq’,” he said. “If Bush changed the policy, you’d have four neocons whine and the rest of the movement would be fine.” And then further still after Iraq helped cost Republicans control of Congress. “Everything the advocates of war said would happen hasn’t happened,” Norquist contended. “And all the things the critics said would happen have happened.” He later warned about the next possible war, “Iran is three times bigger and it’s not flat.”

Norquist was going public with what was becoming a common private complaint among conservatives who cared primarily about domestic policy: the Iraq War was endangering other priorities. Like good disciples of Adam Smith, the mainstream conservative movement practices the division of labor: economic conservatives concentrate on economic issues; social conservatives focus on social issues; national-security conservatives handle foreign policy and defense. Other conservatives were starting to wonder if their national-security hands, who were predominantly neoconservative in their views, really knew what they were talking about.

When the violence in Iraq initially subsided after the surge, so did some of this conservative discontent with the war. But the period seems to have left an impression on Norquist. “We lost control of Congress because of Iraq,” he says. “That was pretty costly.” He has said elsewhere that Bush, who was re-elected with 51 percent of the popular vote, would have received 58 percent without the “anchor” of Iraq. But it is the fiscal and economic costs that trouble Norquist even more than the political ones.

“You don’t get to run a foreign policy without a cost,” Norquist says, acknowledging that the movement’s division of labor may not have always served the right well. “Some conservatives want to pretend that military spending isn’t government spending. The amount of money you spend shows how much you care about national defense. But we would be the first people to reject that liberal argument if the issue were education or something else.”

Norquist’s changing perspective parallels that of the late Paul Weyrich, an important conservative leader who was initially quiet about his skepticism of neoconservatism for the good of the movement but became more outspoken over time. “After one argument I got a hand written note from [Weyrich] explaining how a dozen of the organizations [at a coalition meeting] had petitioned him to disinvite me,” antiwar conservative activist Jon Utley recalled when Weyrich died. “Over the years I got other notes from Paul encouraging me to go on fighting.”

As important as he was, Weyrich’s criticisms didn’t seem to influence the debate very much. But Norquist managed to get 23 leading conservatives—including the American Conservative Union’s David Keene, New Right “funding father” Richard Viguerie, the American Spectator’s Alfred Regnery, and FreedomWorks’ Matt Kibbe—to sign a letter arguing that military spending should be on the table when Republicans look to make budget cuts. “To say that nothing in a budget of that size can be cut doesn’t even pass the laugh test,” says Norquist. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor reportedly circulated the letter to the entire GOP conference.

Norquist argues that grassroots conservative sentiment, not attitudes among movement leaders, is what is driving his call to debate the war in Afghanistan. He and the New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons cite a poll by the Afghanistan Study Group that finds widespread conservative opposition to the current policy. It reported that 71 percent of conservatives and 67 percent of those of identify with the Tea Party believe the Afghan War costs too much; 66 percent of conservatives and 64 percent of Tea Partiers want reductions in troops; and only 24 percent of the former and 28 percent of the latter agree with the war as it is presently being fought.

Yet there are antiwar voices on both the left and the right that don’t feel this goes far enough. James Joyner, for instance, called the poll a “publicity stunt of dubious probative value.” Others have pointed out that less than 30 percent of conservatives or Tea Partiers favor complete withdrawal. There have also been criticisms of Norquist’s focus on Afghanistan rather than Iraq or Iran. Even many noninterventionist conservatives believed that the Afghan War was a necessary response to 9/11, and they dislike Norquist’s contention that withdrawal from Afghanistan would free up resources to meet other national-security threats. (“News to me,” Norquist says of the argument he wants to fight other wars instead.) Some antiwar conservatives also have yet to forgive Norquist for backing an unsuccessful Republican primary challenge to one of their few allies in Congress, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina.

Norquist’s Afghanistan and Pentagon budget comments have also re-opened old wounds over his Muslim outreach efforts. He has at times been openly dismissive of conservative concerns about Islam and immigration. But Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy is the most prominent conservative to have accused Norquist of having ties to radical Muslims, most recently the Muslim Brotherhood. “This is a ticking time bomb for the conservative community,” Gaffney told WorldNet Daily. “An influence operation is contributing materially to the defeat of our country.”

Conservative columnist Don Feder has opined about what he describes as Norquist’s “attempts to make the conservative movement jihad-friendly,” cheerfully asking of the Norquist-founded Islamic Free Market Institute, “Do they cut your taxes before or after they cut off your head?” Norquist also figures prominently in the boycott of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) by organizations such as the Family Research Council: hawks annoyed by Norquist’s foreign-policy views banded together with social conservatives irritated by his advisory role in the gay Republican group GOProud. It’s the inverse of when national-security conservatives found themselves isolated from economic and social conservatives in the Kentucky Republican primary who nominated Rand Paul for the Senate seat he won last November.

Today the question is whether the man who made the Taxpayer Protection Pledge a litmus test for all serious Republican candidates can influence the intra-conservative foreign-policy debate or whether that debate will cost Norquist some of his influence. The Cato Institute’s Benjamin Friedman found that only 4 percent of congressional Republicans—that includes both houses—are against the war in Afghanistan and only 5 percent unambiguously favor cutting defense spending. Factor in ambiguity, and these numbers rise to just 10 percent and 13 percent. A full 80 percent support the war and about 60 percent are at least somewhat opposed to cutting military spending. (Friedman didn’t ask about Iraq, however, which might be a better proxy for general foreign-policy views.)

Norquist nevertheless fights on. “Conservatives shouldn’t just support things because George W. Bush did,” he says. “We shouldn’t use the phrase ‘support the troops’ dishonestly, to say support our policy or you favor abandoning the troops in the desert in their underwear. I didn’t like it when we did that to the Democrats, though I didn’t say much about it, and I really don’t like it when we do it to other conservatives.”

In some ways, Norquist may be positioned to understand this debate better than most conservatives. “When the United States was hit on September 11, there was a sense that we needed to do something to protect ourselves. People were pretty much open to just about anything because they hadn’t thought it through. They wanted something done,” he told Reason. “The response of going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan seemed to make some sense. The jump from there to Iraq was kind of made based on faith—that certain things were true that in retrospect may not have exactly been true.”

That’s exactly how most of the country feels. Norquist argues that he understands national defense is the most important function of the federal government and that he values the contributions of national-security conservatives. But he insists national-security spending must be subject to the same cost-benefit analysis as other government outlays. “When it comes to war,” he says, “you damn well better.” Just what you might expect the founder of the Leave Us Alone Coalition to say.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.

about the author

W. James Antle III, contributing editor, is the Politics Editor at the Washington Examiner. A former senior writer at TAC, Antle also previously served as managing editor of the Daily Caller, editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation, and associate editor of the American Spectator. He is the author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Antle has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and NPR, among other outlets, and has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Politico, the Week, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the Daily Beast, the Guardian, Reason, the Spectator of London, The National Interest and National Review Online. He also serves as a senior adviser to Defense Priorities.

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