September 24, 2003,
Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, is a pretty hard-core libertarian-conservative activist. I recall his ending one speech with the words, "In conclusion: FDR was a communist, get him off the dime." Provocativeness is part of his shtick, but he basically means what he says. Norquist is also, however, extremely pragmatic as a matter of strategic conviction. That's how he can support President Bush. He thinks that the president's many deviations from small-government orthodoxy are worth tolerating because the long-term effect of Bush's presidency will be to make it easier to shrink the government. (His reasoning in arriving at this conclusion more or less parallels my own in the cover story of the latest NR, for what it's worth.)
But the pragmatic Republican argument for Arnold Schwarzenegger is not one that Norquist is yet prepared to endorse. What troubles Norquist is that the candidate has yet to take his organization's pledge not to raise taxes. He thinks that the record of two Republican governors elected last year should serve as a cautionary tale. "Last year, Bob Riley in Alabama said he wouldn't raise taxes but he didn't need to take the pledge. He got elected and tried to raise taxes. . . . That guy in Georgia, what's his name" it's Sonny Perdue "said it wasn't necessary to take the pledge. He tried to raise taxes too. You know what? It's necessary." A candidate who won't take the pledge probably wants to raise taxes. But if he sincerely wants to resist tax hikes, he will find himself with less "moral authority" to do so if he has not taken the pledge. "When Schwarzenegger says 'almost certainly not' to a tax increase, what Democrats hear is 'maybe.'"
Norquist believes that a tax hike imposed by a Republican governor would hurt the state's GOP and set back his national anti-tax campaign: "Since 1992 we haven't had a Republican at the national level vote to raise taxes. We are taking [that ideological discipline] to the state level now." So far, his campaign is succeeding. No Republican governor with national ambitions has raised taxes during the state's current fiscal meltdown, he says. "The ones who raised taxes weren't the ones with the biggest budget gaps but the ones with dead-end careers, who aren't going anywhere. They're the slackers of the Republican party."
Stephen Moore, the head of the Club for Growth (and an NR contributing editor), has talked to Schwarzenegger and his advisers about taking the pledge. The answer he's gotten is that the candidate is a new kind of politician who doesn't take pledges that leave him beholden to anyone an answer that seems to position taxpayers as a special interest. Moore is, however, very pleased with Schwarzenegger's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, in which he comes out for (unspecified) tax cuts and for a constitutional spending cap. "I'd prefer to have a pledge locked in a vault, but this is the next best thing," says Moore. The Club for Growth has not taken a position on the race its members are divided, as conservatives generally are but Moore himself leans to the view that it's so important to oust Davis and Bustamante that Schwarzenegger should be supported.
Norquist hadn't read the Journal op-ed when I spoke to him today, but said it sounded good, as had previous Schwarzenegger statements. "That's his standard line which is very, very good, but it's not sufficient." He hasn't given up on getting Schwarzenegger to take the pledge. "He can still do it," says Norquist. If Schwarzenegger was under the mistaken impression that the pledge would preclude revenue-neutral changes in tax policy, he could, upon learning that he was wrong, say that he now understood the pledge better and was willing to take it. "[Candidates] are always doing that to me," says Norquist. If Schwarzenegger really believes that any signing of pledges compromises his independence, he could write a letter committing himself to the same position as in the no-tax-hike pledge.
So it's not too late for the candidate to take the pledge, according to Norquist. "I think he can. And I think he will."