Rolling Stone recently sat down with anti-tax crusader and key Karl Rove ally Grover Norquist — head of Americans for Tax Reform — to handicap the Republican frontrunners from the perspective of an economic conservative. Norquist finds a lot to like among RudyMcRomney, and believes that the supposed veto powers of James Dobson and Pat Robertson in the GOP nominating process have been wildly overstated.
Rolling Stone: Much has been made that the frontrunners may have trouble clearing the bar with religious "values voters." What's your assessment?
Grover Norquist: What brings social conservatives to the Republican party is not some list of 20 things that James Dobson would like to see. It's a much lower threshold. Social conservatives are best understood as a parents-rights movement. They don't like guys throwing prophylactics at their kids in public schools. They don't like their faith being made fun of, they want to be able to send their kids to private schools or home school. They are worried about raising their kids in their own faith and being left alone. On the abortion issue, pro-lifers need the same thing the chamber of commerce wants: serious judges. If you promise them that, credibly, you can have their support.
And each of the Republican candidates passes that threshold.
You can make the argument that some candidates would be more enthusiastic about going further on the social conservative agenda, and some may well excite the leadership of the social conservative movement, but I don't believe that it moves votes. Take a look at how McCain and Giuliani and Romney are polling. Who are the three top guys? Pat Robertson sees two pagans and a Mormon. Everybody's heard that Giuliani dressed up in drag. If my analysis was wrong, would he be polling as well as he is? Romney is a Mormon, which evangelicals see as theologically flawed, and McCain picked a public fight in 2000 with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Those are the three Republicans polling the best!
If 40 percent of the GOP base truly had Dobson's 20 point test then a candidate such as Huckabee should be one of the frontrunners. He's not, and that's why I think my analysis is the correct one. The press is going to want to talk about and solicit quotations from self-appointed leaders about how unacceptable certain of these candidates are. I don't think that translates. You have to convince people that one of these candidates would work actively against their privacy zone on faith and childrearing. And I'm not sure that anyone of them is going to fail that test.
Rolling Stone: Let's run through the frontrunners from a small-government perspective.
Norquist: Giuliani has a record of 23 tax cuts as mayor New York and tussled with unions. That is not what weak mayors do, which is roll over and let spending go too high. He's got a good record in a tough city.
Romney never signed a tax increase in Massachusetts. There were some fees but in general he was pretty good, he showed some spending restraint. Like the mayor of New York, he was in a difficult environment. You've gotta grade on a curve a little bit.
Our friend McCain's challenge is, having been elected as a Reagan Republican and running in 2000 as a Reagan Republican, he — for reasons I don't understand, butÂ it looks like pique at Bush — voted against every one of Bush's tax cuts. Now he says he wants to continue the Bush tax cuts and never would vote for an increase. So that's the big question mark. He's not running as a candidate who's against lower taxes. But in the last 6 years he kind of went AWOL on the fight. But now he wants to run as a guy who won't raise your taxes and supports the tax cuts.
The good news for economic conservatives is that the candidates are all running to be your friend. Some may say "you can trust me more, I have a better track record I haven't let you down in the past." But they're all very nice to me, and they're all making the case that they can most competently be seen as a Reaganite. There isn't any Republican running saying that 'being against more spending is so 1990s' or 'there may be a good case for a conservative tax increase.' We have as-good-as-you-get unanimity in the taxes and spending fight.