Grover Norquist Says the GOP Learned Its Lesson From the Shutdown

The anti-tax crusader predicts a smarter Republican strategy when the next round of fiscal deadlines comes in the spring. Also, he has a killer Dick Cheney joke.

Republicans learned their lesson from the disastrous government shutdown and will approach the next round of fiscal deadlines differently, according to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist.

The push to defund Obamacare spearheaded by Senator Ted Cruz was "a very expensive mistake," Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, told The Atlantic's Steve Clemons at Wednesday's Washington Ideas Forum. "But here's the good news: You have a united Republican caucus in the House and Senate for the next step of the budget fight." These lawmakers will demand maintaining sequestration spending levels, no tax increases, and perhaps a partial delay of the Affordable Care Act—"whatever the Democrats are willing to concede"—in exchange for raising the debt limit and funding the government again in the spring.

Norquist was a harsh critic of Cruz and the defund strategy, saying at the time that the Texas senator had "pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away." On Wednesday, he stood by that criticism, likening the possibility of the president agreeing to gut his signature domestic achievement to the idea that "we're going to invade Iraq and then it will turn into Kansas."

However, as Clemons cleverly noted, Norquist was once the bad boy of the right, the bogeyman liberals blamed for dragging Republicans away from reasonableness; he's now lost that title to Cruz. 

Norquist took the slight in stride. "This is what winning looks like," he said: Antitax absolutism is such a given in today's GOP that Norquist's position no longer seems extreme or iconoclastic. Today, Norquist's idea of a "grand bargain" would be Republicans agreeing to roll back parts of sequestration in exchange for "trillions" in entitlement cuts, with no increases in revenue.

Norquist is a reliably droll interview and has won the "Funniest Celebrity in Washington" contest. At Clemons' urging, he opened with a few jokes including, "I never drink water. Dick Cheney tortures people with it, which gives it an awkward taste."

Norquist also handicapped the 2016 field, saying he prefers governors to senators: In order, he mentioned Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Rick Perry of Texas, and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. (Mike Pence of Indiana and Sam Brownback of Kansas were name-checked as long-shot possibilities.) In the Senate, he said, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida would be serious candidates—along with Cruz, though Norquist said the Texan "needs to be famous for something other than the belly-flop of defund or nothing."

Who does Norquist like best? "As long as they're all willing to run as non-tax-increase candidates, I'm cheerfully agnostic," he said.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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