In November 1995, a National Journal reporter boldly went where no member of the mainstream media had gone before: the Washington, D.C., conference room of Americans for Tax Reform on a Wednesday morning. That’s where—and when—ATR’s president, Grover Norquist, had been convening a weekly confab for various conservative operatives for the past couple of years. “Jackets are off and participants devour bagels and cream cheese,” the article relayed. “The goal of the Wednesday meetings … is to make sure the leaders of all the major conservative organizations know what everybody is up to. ‘That way,’ [Norquist] said, ‘no one gets surprised.’ ” Since that story appeared nearly two decades ago, Norquist has invited so many Washington journalists to the sessions that they have become a set piece. “If you believe in a vast, right-wing conspiracy,” an NPR reporter told listeners in 2001, “this is its clubhouse.”
Of course, real conspirators don’t allow outsiders to eavesdrop on their scheming, any more than virtuoso puppet masters put their string-pulling on view. Yet Norquist has managed to be seen as both, largely thanks to the journalists he’s courted. (In a town where reporters can find it hard to get conservatives to return their calls, Norquist rolls out the red carpet for them.) As anti-tax dogma took hold of his party, he rode his media friendliness to disproportionate prominence. As that dogma is now threatening to crack during the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, he’s using it to claim the spotlight again.
Since 1986, Norquist has been getting Republican politicians to sign a pledge to never raise taxes. In the current, lame-duck Congress, 219 House members and 39 Senators have signed it. As the story is being framed in the press, the nation’s future hinges on those lawmakers’ fealty to one activist (or their fear of crossing him by breaking their promise). “Where do you stand on the pledge?” David Gregory asked New York GOP congressman Peter King last week on Meet the Press. “Can this be overcome?” But the media’s fixation on the pledge part of Norquist’s operation is misplaced. As National Review editor Rich Lowry recently wrote, “[E]veryone acts as if Grover is the instrument of the [Republican] party’s Babylonian captivity,” but his oath “represent[s] GOP orthodoxy” and a top priority of its biggest donors. Norquist was just savvy enough to get Republicans to promise to do something they were almost biologically required to do anyway—sort of like getting fish to pledge they won’t leave the water. If Republicans ultimately do agree to raise taxes as part of a fiscal-cliff deal, it will be because, evolutionarily speaking, they had no choice—not because they suddenly worked up the guts to buck Norquist.
In the meantime, Norquist has been even more solicitous toward the press than usual. Last Wednesday morning, right before his weekly meeting, he sat for an hourlong interview with Politico’s Mike Allen broadcast live on C-Span. “I have job security that most people don’t have, okay?” Norquist said. “At least the marijuana-legalization people could end up out of a job in a couple of years, if they win, right? We’re always going to feel that our taxes are too high.”
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