Wednesday, March 19, 2008

You're No Bill Buckley, Grover Norquist

Democrats are the enemy. Democrats are evil.

Even in Washington, these comments exhibit an unusual pugnacity—so much so that I asked the speaker, the illustrious Grover Norquist, if he were simply being playful, interspersing witty asides into his diatribes, as seems to be his wont. (The question followed a 40-minute talk on his new book, Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government's Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives, and took place earlier this week at the office of Americans for Tax Reform, of which Grover is president.)

Certainly not, he retorted, his voice rising. Politics is a deadly serious game, and when certain ideas have the effect of destroying both you and your country, then they absolutely warrant the appellation "evil."

For example, he continued, we all agree that when Alabama Governor George Wallace, in 1963, physically blocked the entrance of black children into a "whites only" public school, that was evil. By the same token, when Senator Ted Kennedy denies black children the opportunity to escape, via private education vouchers, the swampland that public education has become—that, too, is evil.

Of course, there's evil and then there's evil, I countered. When 19 men crash two jumbo jets into a skyscraper and slaughter 3,000 innocent civilians, that's evil. When someone tries to ameliorate our education system even in a counterproductive way, call him incompetent and call his legislation asinine, but don't equate disagreements over public policy to mass murder.

Yes, there are levels of evil, Grover conceded, but the violence Democrats seek to visit upon us—steal our money, ban our guns, regulate the size of everything from our cars to our toilet seats to stop global warming—is still evil.

If you buy this, my bet is you're an Ayn Rand fan. (Collapsing the distinction between ideas and actions, Rand equated Immanuel Kant with Adolf Hitler, insofar as Kant's deontological philosophy facilitated Hitler's holocaust.)

For those of us, however, who live outside the world of ARI and HBL and TIA—in the so-called reality-based community—the distinction between Democrats and Republicans is not one of evil vs. good. As any libertarian can tell you, there's more that unites the two parties than separates them. There are real differences, to be sure, but I think it's fair to say that almost every member of Congress votes in good faith. (Yes, this includes Ron Paul.)

As for Grover, he is the most brilliant strategist and networker I've ever met in politics. He is a genius at elucidating complex ideas, especially via memorable metaphors, and now that William F. Buckley Jr. has passed, he is the putative head of the conservative moment.

Yet the comparison to Buckley is instructive. As Radley Balko put it in an obituary,

Buckley was intellectually honest, engaged his opponents fairly, and was willing to admit when he’d been wrong (see his change of position on the drug prohibition and the war in Iraq, respectively). More importantly, he was no party hack. He was beholden to ideas.

If only we could say the same about Grover Norquist. Instead, I suspect we'll remember Grover more for his hyperpartisan, polarizing Wednesday Meetings than for his thoughtful, reasoned contributions to our political discourse.

Addendum (3/20/08): To use a point Grover himself made, when Republicans raise taxes, it's not a victimless crime, since they degrade the Republican brand that is associated with no new taxes. By the same logic, when Republicans employ gross hyperbole, they hog the spotlight and crowd out those who share their political ideas but repudiate their rhetoric.