Friday, August 29, 2008

To Shrink Government So Much We Will Drown It In A Bathtub

Greg Anrig on Grover Norquist's "Leave Us Alone"
Conservative policy ideas have failed again and again. Who will tell the Grover?

A 2005 New Yorker profile aptly described Grover G. Norquist as the conservative coalition’s “ringleader, visionary, and enforcer.” As head of the advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform since 1985, Norquist relentlessly pushed disparate factions on the right to cooperate in electing Republicans at all levels of government and in killing the careers of politicians who dodged or broke his signature “no-new-taxes” pledge. Because Norquist’s ascent to power coincided with the conservative movement’s domination of American politics, when he speaks, everyone across the ideological spectrum listens.Norquist wrote his new book, Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives, to lay out his roadmap for his “Leave us Alone Coalition to continue its progress toward Jefferson’s vision of the self-reliant, independent American—toward a free society where everyone lives off the earnings of no man but himself.” But with the conservative era apparently on the verge of collapsing in November, Norquist’s book is more illuminating as a resource for understanding why his movement’s resounding political successes ended up producing such catastrophic failures of governance. The belief system built on hostility toward government that motivated Norquist and his followers left the public officials they elected with no effective ways to respond to challenges ranging from Hurricane Katrina to stagnating wages to the downward-spiraling health care system to tainted spinach to global warming and so on. Drowning government in a bathtub, to use Norquist’s characteristically blunt language, left the residents of New Orleans on their own when Katrina drowned their city. A large majority of Americans were appalled at what that looked like. Nowhere in his 333 pages of text does Norquist wrestle with the governing failures that knocked down the popularity ratings of President George W. Bush, whom Norquist enthusiastically supported through thick and thin, to historically low levels. Nor does Norquist offer anything other than the same policy ideas that Bush pursued, foremost among them tax cuts and curtailed regulation. Because Norquist’s mission is singularly focused on weakening government’s domestic capabilities, he doesn’t perceive what non-ideologues recognize as obvious failures to be anything other than distractions to be ignored or excused away. Good government still means virtually no government.Sometimes Norquist’s analysis is downright delusional, as when he applauds Bush’s failed proposal to privatize Social Security. He writes: “Bush turned a losing issue for Republicans—Social Security—into a winner. In 2000 and 2004, roughly 50-55 percent of Americans supported reforming Social Security to create personal savings accounts. This was turnaround from 1986 when the Republicans lost eight Senate seats and their Senate majority after discussing ‘reforming’ Social Security by reducing some benefits.” But after Bush proposed his privatization plan in 2005, and the public learned during the course of the debate how, mathematically, it would weaken their retirement security and greatly add to the national debt, support for the idea plummeted. Most other observers across the spectrum recognized that experience as disastrous for Republicans and one of the big reasons why they were clobbered in the 2006 Congressional elections. Norquist is more insightful as a political strategist than as a policy wonk, but even his framework for thinking about coalition-building in its own right illustrates another root cause of his movement’s inability to govern. He argues: “What matters in politics is the one issue that moves a citizen to vote for or against a candidate. The Leave Us Alone Coalition members…find themselves shoulder to shoulder working together for the same candidates and over time the same party because on the issue that moves each of their individual votes—not necessarily all or even most issues—what they want from the government is to be left alone.” Norquist identifies the subgroups of his coalition as focused above all on one of the following: lower taxes, less regulation of their small businesses, gun ownership, home schooling, or property rights. Others strong candidates for his team include “parents of faith who will fight to control what is taught to their children in their schools,” “the growing investor class,” and police, prison guards, the military and other employees of “properly limited government” who “play a role in protecting the life, liberty, and property of citizens.”Early in this decade, Norquist, his close friend Karl Rove, and their movement succeeded in gaining enough votes from that amalgamation of groups to deliver the presidency, the legislative branch, and the leadership of many state governments to Republicans. But what each of those groups and their members wanted, by Norquist’s own account, was nothing more than for government to stay out of some aspect of their lives. Issues that affect all Americans collectively – problems related to the economy, health care, the environment, energy, etc. -- don’t motivate the supporters of conservative politicians. In and of itself, that would help to explain why Republicans in office haven’t done much more than pay lip service to such matters, even though government in the past has succeeded in making progress in addressing precisely those kinds of collective challenges. Just keep talking about the virtues of home schooling, guns, school prayer, low taxes, and so forth, and the Leave Us Alone Coalition will keep on winning, Norquist believes, no matter how many Americans lose their health insurance.At the state level, Norquist and his activists have energetically campaigned across the country for rigid tax-and-spending limits, called the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), like the one that Colorado’s voters approved in a 1992 referendum. Almost entirely because of its TABOR amendment, Colorado was forced to cut billions of dollars that would have financed public services, with the reductions becoming especially severe after the 2001 recession. Colorado – which has the 10th highest median income in the country – saw its national rankings with respect to a wide range of educational and health care measures plummet to the bottom 10 states alongside impoverished Mississippi and Alabama. For example, from 1992 to 2005, the portion of low-income children lacking health insurance doubled in Colorado even as it fell in the nation as a whole – dropping from the top half of the states to dead last. The ratio of teacher salaries to average private sector earnings also plummeted from the middle of the pack to 50th, with teacher shortages so acute that Denver sent letters home with students asking parents to serve as substitutes. In 2004, Colorado’s voters switched both houses of the state General Assembly from a Republican to Democratic majority; in 2005, they voted to suspend TABOR for five years; and the following year they replaced the Republican governor with a Democrat. Undaunted by those results – either the damage to Colorado’s public services or the unfavorable political outcomes – Norquist continues to argue as strenuously as ever that other states should implement TABOR amendments as well.With a similar day of reckoning rapidly approaching in November, Norquist remains emphatic about sticking to precisely the game plan that made him famous and his movement so successful up until now. At a recent discussion of his book, he said that notwithstanding the deep unpopularity of President Bush, “If center-right candidates articulate their positions correctly, they will win 60 percent of the vote just like Reagan did in 1984 and George H.W. Bush plus Perot in 1992.” The Republican presidential nominee John McCain appears to be listening, hewing to much the same domestic tax-cutting, government-slashing agenda that Norquist advocates. But for progressives, the lessons Norquist offers aren’t of the sort that we should try to emulate. Since our whole orientation is to try to make progress in addressing problems confronting society as a whole – to promote the common good -- trying to assemble potential supporters based on which single narrowly defined issue is most important to them undermines how we think about government and each other. Rather, the real value of Norquist’s book is to clarify what we want to defeat: an everyone-for-himself mindset that has caused so much damage to our country. Greg Anrig is vice president of policy at The Century Foundation and the author of The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right-Wing Ideas Keep Failing.
comments (0) make a comment

No comments: