Herding Elephants: Anti-Tax Leader Grover Norquist Confronts the Economics of War

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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 antitax 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. …