You can now read 10 articles in a month for free on BostonGlobe.com. Read as much as you want anywhere and anytime for just 99¢.

Grover Norquist: Emperor of no

How anti-tax crusader Norquist rose from Weston to Washington.

Grover Norquist.

Mark Finkensta

Grover Norquist

THE TRAINING BEGAN when the boy was just 9. His father, a Polaroid executive who prized precision, would tell the boy: Go to the encyclopedia, choose a topic, and then give me a one-minute speech about it. The boy would do as he was told. When he was ready, he would stand in the living room, planting himself between the fireplace and his father’s wing chair, and deliver his speech for an audience of one. When the boy was finished, his father’s response would always be the same. Do it again.

A collection of Grover Norquist’s family pictures.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

A collection of Grover Norquist’s family pictures.

So young Grover Norquist would do as he was told. Again. Again. Again.

Continue reading below

Fifteen times the boy would repeat this exercise, honing his message a bit more and referring to his index card of notes a bit less with each run-through. Only after the 15th attempt would the father begin to offer his firstborn son detailed critiques.

As the night wore on, the boy’s mother would charge into the living room, complaining: “Enough! This is child abuse! It’s time for him to go to bed.”

Her husband would wave her off, and she wouldn’t protest too much. Although she wanted Grover to get his sleep, like her husband she tended to view her children as budding adults who should be challenged, not delicate creatures who should be coddled.

 With that, the training regimen would resume. Again. And this time make eye contact. And use your hands to emphasize the point.

In time, the boy could claim a supreme confidence in public speaking that matched the confidence he felt in his own intellect and his emerging view of the world. Compared with his grade school classmates, who sweated and stammered and fumbled through their class presentations, young Grover was an outlier of Gladwellian proportions. After he delivered one flawless talk, his teacher approached him to inspect the index card he was clutching, perhaps expecting to find the full text of the speech somehow crammed onto the card. She was stunned to find it was blank. He had held it just for show. After all that practice in front of his father, notes were no longer necessary.

Still, elementary school offers only so many opportunities for public speaking. So Grover remained on the hunt for others.

Samah and Grover Norquist with daughters Grace and Giselle

Mark Finkensta

Samah and Grover Norquist with daughters Grace and Giselle.

He loved nothing better than to leave his home in the affluent west-of-Boston community of Weston and start walking, along the hilly block of handsome houses, through the woods dense with vines and thick with pines, and finally up a rocky ledge. There, the precocious boy who had so much to say would find a receptive audience, and one that couldn’t fit into a single wing chair. The ledge led to a cliff overlooking a pig farm, which sat just over the town line in Waltham. Grover learned that simply by standing on the cliff and speaking clearly and confidently, he would attract the notice of the pigs that were fenced in on a muddy, rooted-up plateau 30 feet below him. So he would give speeches of all types. As the words left his lips, 40 or so of the swine would give him their rapt attention. “They’d come listen to you,” he recalls. “I liked that.”

This desire to be listened to would remain undiminished as that boy grew into a Harvard student and then into a sharp-elbowed Washington activist and lobbyist. Over the years, he has refined his speeches and toughened his attacks, but the substance of his message has not changed across more than three decades. It’s the same message that first gestated in his mind when his parents would take him and his younger siblings for ice cream after church on Sundays and his dad would confiscate large bites out of each of their cones, explaining, “This is income tax” or “This is property tax.” And it’s the same message that came into clearer focus when Grover was at Weston High School in the early 1970s and read with admiration about a colorful New Hampshire politician named Meldrim Thomson, who rode an “Ax the Tax” campaign of bumper sticker simplicity straight into the governor’s office.

Through the decades, as president of the advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), Grover Norquist made his case against taxes to anybody who would listen. With his willingness to spend liberally to support politicians who backed his views, and even more liberally to punish those who didn’t, he became a player in Washington, admired by some and loathed by others. Yet outside the Beltway, he remained largely unknown. Until last year.

As bipartisan attempts to confront the government’s yawning deficit broke down, one after the other, from the Bowles-Simpson debt reduction commission’s recommendations to the “grand bargain” negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, to the debt-ceiling brinksmanship, to the congressional supercommittee charged with making the excruciating decisions the full Congress had dodged, 55-year-old Grover Norquist somehow became the face of the crisis. That’s because whenever someone floated a compromise involving any tax increases, even in exchange for far deeper spending cuts, Norquist was there to remind Republican lawmakers that their answer had to be no.

The Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid, complained publicly that Republicans were being “led like puppets by Grover Norquist.” Senator John Kerry blasted his Republican counterparts on the supercommittee for allowing the unelected, unappointed Norquist to function like their leader, and he told me that he repeatedly heard Republicans on the panel talking about how they needed to “check with Grover” for his Solomonic ruling on whether he would sanction or reject various proposed tax code changes. But criticism came from Republicans as well. Boehner, trying to beat back the suggestion that Norquist’s power had eclipsed his own, referred to him as “some random person in America,” a curious phrase that seemed only to suggest the House speaker viewed him as anything but that. And Alan Simpson, a Republican former senator who cochaired the bipartisan debt commission that bore his name, called Norquist a “zealot” who had somehow become “the most powerful man in America.”

 

***

NORQUIST’S MEANS OF ASCENT was something he calls the Taxpayer Protection Pledge but which everyone else in Washington calls simply “the pledge.” By signing it, politicians commit to: “ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and, TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

Norquist devised the pledge in the summer of 1986, the year after aides to President Reagan tapped him to start Americans for Tax Reform. The nonprofit advocacy group was formed to seed support for Reagan’s massive overhaul of the federal tax code, which closed loopholes and lowered the top individual tax rate from 50 percent to 28 percent. Once the overhaul passed, Norquist saw the pledge as a way to prevent congressional backsliding on taxes. Signing it would be particularly valuable to little-known candidates looking to advertise their fiscal conservatism. And if they won, their signed pledges would be extremely useful for Norquist in reminding them of their commitments, should they ever entertain second thoughts.

Norquist chats with Ronald and Nancy Reagan at a Massachusetts fund-raiser during the 1980 campaign.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Norquist chats with Ronald and Nancy Reagan at a Massachusetts fund-raiser during the 1980 campaign.

Norquist was just 29 at the time, though he had already run a similar group called the National Taxpayers Union before returning to Harvard for business school and working in the trenches for Reagan’s election. Like many prominent Republicans these days, Norquist plays up his personal connections to Reagan and downplays those areas where Reagan departed from the contemporary GOP’s Rushmore-ready biography of him. Norquist keeps a large bust of the Gipper in his office, and ATR literature stresses how he started the organization at the personal request of Reagan. But when pressed, Norquist concedes his dealings with Reagan were limited, and he doesn’t talk much about the 11 tax hikes the Gipper signed into law during his occupancy of the Oval Office.

 In 1986, after the dust had settled on that first midterm election of the pledge’s existence, Norquist could count 100 congressmen and 20 senators who had signed. The pledge faced its biggest test six years later when President George H.W. Bush, who had signed it during the 1988 presidential campaign, ran for reelection after having broken his ATR pledge and, more memorably, his “read my lips” vow. Norquist, the definition of a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, was pleased when Bill Clinton ousted the elder Bush. It proved there were consequences for breaking the pledge.

But as long as politicians fall into line and sign the pledge, Norquist holds no grudges. After Bush’s son signed it in the 2000 campaign, Norquist threw his support behind George W. Following Bush’s win, Norquist enjoyed the most robust access to power of his life, conferring regularly with the president’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, and becoming a frequent behind-the-scenes visitor to the White House and a public defender for administration policies. From the younger Bush, Norquist got what he was looking for: huge, sweeping tax cuts, including an end to the estate tax.

Yet for someone who had always presented the tax pledge as one part of a two-pronged formula for reducing the size of government, Norquist found some complications from his close association with Bush. The size of the federal government and debt both grew dramatically during his presidency. The administration pushed through the costly new Medicare prescription drug benefit, which went so far as to forbid the government from negotiating better prices with pharmaceutical companies. That law prompted some longtime conservatives to break with Bush, notably supply-side economist Bruce Bartlett, a former official in the Reagan and elder Bush administrations. Norquist, however, remained firmly in the George W. Bush camp.

During a recent interview in his Washington office, when I ask Norquist to explain how the president he had so enthusiastically supported had turned out to be a big-government guy, he points the blame elsewhere. Responsibility, Norquist contends, lies with Congress during the early and late parts of the Bush presidency, when Democrats controlled one or both houses, as opposed to the middle period, when Republicans controlled everything. “You had bad, good, bad — driven by Congress, same idiot president — spending too much.”

The idea that Norquist, an ardent backer of George W. Bush, might now casually dismiss the man seems so shocking that I worry I might have misheard him. So I ask, “Did you just say ‘same idiot president’?”

Norquist flashes one of the knowing grins he regularly deploys during his cable TV appearances. “I overspeak,” he says. “He isn’t what changed. Who runs Congress — that changed.”

 Norquist grew his hair out for a play in high school and kept it long for years.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Norquist grew his hair out for a play in high school and kept it long for years.

“But weren’t you over at the White House all the time, advising them?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah,” Norquist agrees. “That doesn’t mean they took my advice on spending. They clearly didn’t.”

At the time of its passage, ATR took no official position on the prescription drug bill, although just days before the House approved it, Norquist told the National Journal he was inclined to support the measure “if it’s structured as it’s explained to me.”

For the record, Bush’s prescription drug benefit — estimated at the time to cost up to $2 trillion over 20 years — passed in 2003, during the first year of the period Norquist calls the “good” Congress, when Republicans controlled everything.

Following our lengthy discussion about runaway spending under Bush, Norquist stresses that ATR’s “ultimate goal is to reduce the size and scope and cost of government as a percentage of the economy, so we want to spend less and not raise taxes.”

“So,” I ask, “that has been a complete failure, right?”

“No,” Norquist replies and begins to speak extra slowly. “The line in the sand on taxes has been very successful.”

At my urging, Norquist checked with his accountant to determine what his tax rate was, based on his $200,000 salary and other income, minus deductions. For his 2010 return, his marginal tax rate was 25 percent and his effective tax rate — the amount he paid in taxes as a percentage of his taxable income — was just above 15 percent.

Through the years, Norquist has spoken often about the need to starve the Washington beast. His comment about shrinking government to the point “where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub” has become a fixture on the Grover highlight reel. Yet he has traditionally focused his fight much more on keeping taxes down. In that way, he heeded the “Two Santa Claus Theory” advanced in 1976 by the conservative writer and thinker Jude Wanniski. The Democratic Party was best suited to be the “Spending Santa Claus,” Wanniski argued, and the Republican Party would fare much better at the polls if it avoided being viewed as a Scrooge obsessed with cutting spending in order to balance the budget. Instead of being painted as a taker, Wanniski stressed, the GOP should re-brand itself as a different kind of giver, as the “Santa Claus of Tax Reduction.” (Norquist says he had a similar branding idea years earlier, when he was in the seventh grade.)

Wanniski’s advice took hold with Republicans, helping fuel their rise to national dominance. But things changed with the 2008 financial crisis and the enormously unpopular government bailouts that came in its wake. With the emergence of the Tea Party, there was suddenly a political potency in being seen as a government slasher — in deed rather than just in name.

What is remarkable about Norquist is his ability to adapt to changing conditions without altering his central message. While many of the bright lights on the right from the 1970s and ’80s have long since passed or faded to black, Norquist, simply by shifting his emphasis, was able to position himself perfectly to tap into the Tea Party foment. He emerged more relevant and powerful than ever.

Norquist’s group spent nearly $8 million to help influence the 2010 midterm election. It was money well spent. The election broomed out moderates and swelled the ranks of Norquist allies in Congress to 238 pledge-signers in the House and 41 in the Senate. That means a stunning 97.5 percent of the current Republican members of Congress (including the House speaker) and 85 percent of Republican senators (including the minority leader) have signed on to Norquist’s no-tax-increase pledge. Add to that tally 13 Republican governors, nearly 1,300 state legislators, and all four remaining GOP presidential candidates. Regardless of what you think of Norquist’s politics or his priorities, from a purely tactical perspective, his performance has been brilliant.

What’s more, the 2010 election infused the pledge with new power that went beyond the increased congressional head count. “For many years, the pledge was just something you signed and you didn’t really give a crap about it,” says Bartlett, author of a new book on tax reform titled The Benefit and the Burden. “Now, all of a sudden, Grover was this guy in Washington with an army of people who were looking to him for leadership.”

When the Tea Party revolutionaries arrived seeking Norquist’s direction, Republican incumbents began paying him a lot more attention for fear that if they didn’t, they would find a Tea Party challenger waiting for them in the next primary. That, Bartlett says, explains how Norquist, with his virtual veto power over whatever tax code proposals get circulated in Washington, has become for the Republican caucus the equivalent of “an old Roman emperor, turning thumbs up or thumbs down.”

As with any emperor of note, the chatter about him has now turned to how long his reign might last.

 

***

EMPEROR GROVER rules not with sword but with Sharpie.

On nearly every Wednesday morning since 1993, Norquist has presided over a confab of conservatives who gather in his downtown Washington office to trade notes and coordinate strategy. Anyone who’s seen Norquist dominate the discussion during his cable TV appearances might expect him to turn this weekly forum into a one-man act. Yet he keeps the spotlight on the other speakers, taking seriously his job as moderator and time cop. He insists on a brisk pace, keeping speakers to three minutes and reining in those who might be tempted to bloviate. He twirls his marker like a TV stage manager motioning a wrap-up and, if necessary, will bark, “You’ve got 30 seconds!” He injects one-liners into the discussion with a comedic timing he has sharpened in his extracurricular work as a stand-up comic.

He calls his movement the “center-right coalition,” though representatives of the center seem to be decidedly less visible and vocal than those from the right. Nonetheless, Norquist has been remarkably successful in attracting people with diametrically opposed positions on one issue or another and getting them to work together by focusing on the one thing on which they can agree, namely that life would be better if taxes were lower and the government were less intrusive. So his meetings attract Republicans who are prochoice and antiabortion, gay and straight, Jew and Muslim. Extending his big-tent approach, Norquist has served on the board of the National Rifle Association and the advisory council of the gay Republican group GOProud. Still, he has his limits. Although he can count a few Democrats among his pledge-signers, he leaves no doubt that he is playing for the GOP team, referring to “R’s” and “D’s” in the context of “us vs. them.”

During a Wednesday Meeting in late January, I watch as Norquist takes his post at the head of a conference table while more than 100 people fill the seats around him or stand at the edges of the large room, holding their overcoats folded over their arms. There is one silver-haired guy wearing a 10-gallon cowboy hat and a few older women dressed up in their Talbots best, but otherwise middle-age white guys in navy suits dominate the crowd. Norquist has taken off his own navy suit coat and conducts the meeting in his powder-blue shirt sleeves. As he speaks, a fleet of interns distributes a seemingly endless stream of handouts promoting a pet cause of one attendee or another.

In appearance, Norquist could easily pass for one of those emperors you see playing the supporting role in a swords-and-sandals flick. He is not tall — 5 foot 7 — and he appears well fed without being overweight. He looks younger than his 55 years, though his reddish-brown hair is thinning and his closely cropped beard is threaded with gray. Despite his polished public speaking skills, his voice is light and a bit thin, friendly, not intimidating.

Channeling his father, he has carefully studied the dynamics of the meeting, tweaking it to maximize efficiency. He has the interns float around the room with microphones, and the sound system is piped outside the room, so that all audience questions can be heard without requiring Norquist to police the many side conversations taking place. He sees those side conservations as evidence that genuine networking is taking place, which, after all, is the whole point of the gathering. (The meeting is considered off the record except for those speakers, like those quoted here, who consent to having their comments used.)

The Wednesday Meeting often attracts eager new Republican candidates passing through Washington, and on this day there are two congressional hopefuls in the crowd. New Mexico’s Gary Smith stands up and announces: “I did sign the pledge this morning. I wish I could have signed it three times.”

“Once is enough,” Norquist cracks.

After a lively debate about the Internet anti-piracy legislation known as SOPA, the meeting concludes with a presentation by pollster Scott Rasmussen, who hammers home the point about voters’ worries over government spending and still-simmering anger over the bailouts. The big expenses that have to be tackled, he argues, are national security and the entitlements. “When was the last time spending went down in America? 1954,” he says. “The last time it grew slower than the rate of inflation? 1965.”

Throughout the 90-minute meeting, Norquist peppers his comments with non-threatening throat-clearers like “thank you” and “okaaaay.” One of his favorite words is “cheerfully.” After someone mentions that Pennsylvanian Todd Platts, one of six House Republicans who refused to sign the pledge, will not be seeking re-election, Norquist smiles. “We will cheerfully replace him with someone more cooperative,” he says. Lest anyone doubt his seriousness, Norquist’s office hallway features a gallery of framed “LEAST WANTED” campaign posters, ads he ran against politicians who broke their commitment not to vote for tax increases. He says he plans to raise and spend $10 million this year to help get more of his team elected.

When I reach Platts later, the six-term congressman stresses he is an upstanding Republican who voted against the stimulus package and in favor of the entitlement-cutting budget crafted by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan. “I’m not champing at the bit to raise taxes,” Platts says. “We’re spending too much.” Still, he’s always felt signing Norquist’s pledge would be irresponsible. “I’m not going to lock myself into a position that is randomly made as opposed to what the facts are going to be a year from now.”

Then Platts tells me he decided on his own not to seek reelection and acknowledges the chances are good that he will be replaced by a pledge-signer.

*** 

IF NORQUIST HAS NO TROUBLE playing hardball with politicians who defy him and keeping his thumb turned down at any hint of a tax hike, there is at least one area where his steely spine goes a little soft. As a dad.

“He can’t say no,” says his wife, Samah Norquist. “I’m always the bad cop.”

She stresses that Grover is a wonderfully engaged father to their two daughters, Grace, who just turned 4, and Giselle, who will turn 3 next month. “But he can’t discipline.” (The girls’ closeness in age wasn’t exactly planned. Not long after the couple adopted Grace as a baby from Bethlehem, they learned Samah was pregnant with Giselle.)

She recalls how they were shopping once in CVS when Grace found a toy she liked and asked whether she could get it. Samah said no — their daughter needed to understand limits — but Grover decided it would soften the blow to let her carry it just while they shopped. Samah predicted that approach wouldn’t end well. Sure enough, at the checkout, she looked over and saw Grover struggling to persuade Grace to relinquish the toy and Grace steadfastly refusing. Watching her husband try to reason with a strong-willed 2-year-old, Samah couldn’t help but roll her eyes. Then, when she looked at his, she ached for him. “I see,” she recalls, “that he has tears coming down his face.” 

Norquist, it turns out, is a very sensitive guy. Samah says it doesn’t take much for him to tear up, and I see that for myself. At one point as I am interviewing them together, she is describing a time when Grover warmly allowed Grace to sit on his lap during one of the Wednesday Meetings. It’s a cute though not particularly emotional anecdote. But as I turn to Grover, I see his face reddening, his eyes closing behind his small rectangular glasses, and then tears begin to streak down his cheek.

Later, after he’s left the room, Samah mentions that Grover was equally emotional when he proposed to her. It was June 2004, and they’d been dating for about a year. They made for a surprising pair, because Samah is his junior by 16 years and exudes a certain international style and elegance, calling to mind a more youthful Arianna Huffington. After dinner, she was driving him to his home on Capitol Hill. As they approached the Taft Memorial, a handsome 100-foot marble tower behind a bronze statue of the late senator Robert Taft, Norquist suddenly asked her to pull over. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said.

“Now, Grover?”

When they made it to a bench near the memorial, she could see him beginning to choke up. As he began talking about how much she meant to him, she saw his eyes welling up.

“Grover,” she said finally, “are you asking me to marry you?”

“Yes!” he said.

So she said yes, too.

I ask her why he chose to propose at the Taft Memorial.

“He’s a Taft admirer,” she says, referring to the New Deal-fighting senator who lost the battle to the centrist Dwight Eisenhower for control of the GOP.

“Are you?” I ask.

“No, it wasn’t a special place to me.”

The choice, she says, reveals her husband’s inner wonk, which she traces back to those speeches he made as a kid to the pigs. “He’s a nerd,” she says.

Actually, it might even be traced all the way back to his birth. His mother explains that she named her firstborn after her father, Grover Floyd Lutz, a man who changed his own middle name to Cleveland, as in the president. If you think back to seventh-grade history, you’ll probably remember that Grover Cleveland was the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. You might even remember that he was a Democrat. That, of course, begs the question: Could Grover Norquist really be named after a Democrat

But if you’re a true student of history, like Norquist, you’ll remember much more about Cleveland, including his views on monetary policy. “He was a gold standard Democrat,” Norquist says. “He was a good Democrat.”

After Samah had agreed to marry Norquist, she wanted to make sure he knew what he was getting into. This, after all, was 2004, less than three years after the 9/11 attacks, and people of her heritage were contending with heavy political baggage.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked. “This could be a problem for you, since I’m a Muslim Arab.”

“Yes,” he told her. “I love you.”

Norquist had been working to attract Muslim Americans to the GOP for years before he met Samah. In fact, they connected when she began attending the Wednesday Meeting while working for a conservative Muslim organization. Still, she knew some on the right were far less welcoming than Norquist of Arab Muslims into the GOP and would probably hold it against such a prominent conservative leader for marrying one.

In the early years after their wedding — which was attended by Newt Gingrich, among others — Samah would occasionally see puzzled looks cross people’s faces when they met her for the first time. “Oh, you’re Grover’s wife?” they would ask.

“What did you expect,” Samah would wonder, “that you were going to see me in a burqa?”

Samah is a Palestinian-American who comes to her political conservatism by way of her life experience. She spent her early years in Kuwait, where she learned to distrust governments that try to “shove things down your throats.” Her family fled around the time of the invasion by Iraq, when Samah was 17. They ended up, coincidentally, in Weston, although they never crossed paths with the Norquists. Not long after that, her father, a physician, died suddenly. He had worked hard to provide for his wife and Samah and her two younger sisters. But because he had died without a will, what followed was a stressful, costly probate period during which Samah’s mother struggled to gain access to the family funds. Norquist often talks about how a central bond of his coalition is its belief that the government should “leave us alone,” and the unsettling probate experience was enough to make Samah a charter member. (Leave Us Alone is the title of Norquist’s 2008 book; his new one, a critique of Obama policies, is called Debacle.)

Norquist’s process for choosing a wife was considerably different from the one his father, Warren, employed. During his junior year at the University of Michigan, Warren set about to find a mate from a yearbook photo of the school’s top 40 female academic performers. When first-on-the-list Carol Lutz came to the sorority house phone, he began asking her his prepared questions. He had a mental list of 36 qualities he wanted in a wife, including that she be blond, blue-eyed, and Republican. After just this first conversation, he was able to make 15 check marks on his list. They were married the day after they graduated.

After Grover, they had a daughter and two more sons. The youngest, David, says Grover is a perfect blend of their parents, who are both charmingly quirky. He has his father’s facility with systems and gift for innovation. (As vice president of purchasing for Polaroid, Warren pioneered an influential approach called zero-base pricing.) And he has his mother’s curiosity and eagerness for engaging all kinds of people. (Although she and Warren were always Cold War hardliners, she exposed young Grover to both Mao’s Little Red Book and Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.)

Grover shares another trait with his father. Sitting in the cream-colored living room of their Weston home, as we discuss all the public speaking drills he put Grover through, 80-year-old Warren mentions that he just did the same with one of his older granddaughters with similar success. Before he can finish the story, I notice that familiar pattern of face reddening and tears forming. I turn to 79-year-old Carol, who keeps her silver hair pulled back with a ribbon, and mention that I had seen a similar display from their oldest son. “Grover gets that from his father,” she says. “I don’t cry.”

 ***

ON THE SECONDFRIDAY morning of February, they file into the auditorium of a gray office building off Interstate 95 in Lexington. There are about 60 men and women, almost all of them either middle-age or in their sunset years. This is Grover’s gang in Massachusetts.

Norquist says half his focus is working to prevent tax hikes in legislatures across the nation. As he has worked to replicate versions of his Wednesday Meeting in every state of the country, Norquist has often cited this monthly Friday Morning Group in Massachusetts as both carrot and stick. When a conservative organizer in some red state complains about the difficulty of attracting a good turnout of anti-tax foot soldiers, Norquist will smile and say, “They’re getting 50, 60 people to the meeting in Massachusetts!”

The Grover equivalent as moderator and time cop for this conservative confab is Chip Faulkner, an easygoing 66-year-old whose roots in the anti-tax movement run as deep as Norquist’s. In 1979, shortly after Norquist had catapulted himself into running the National Taxpayer Union when the ink on his Harvard diploma was barely dry, Faulker applied for a staff position with the new Massachusetts group Citizens for Limited Taxation. Two people interviewed him for the job. One of them was the head of CLT. The other was Norquist, who had used a half-million-dollar donation from one of the industrialist Koch brothers to support anti-tax advocacy groups in states across the country. Faulkner got the job, with Norquist directing some of David Koch’s donation to help CLT cover the $175 weekly salary.

Ten years ago, Norquist urged Faulkner to begin holding a monthly meeting in Massachusetts, part of his plan to strengthen his state-level reach. Faulkner resisted, unsure of who would come. But ultimately Norquist wore him down. “He’s very persistent,” Faulkner says. The first meeting was held in the conference room of a Ford dealership in Needham. Nine people showed up. Last year, Faulker’s meetings attracted an average of 53 people.

The monthly gathering in Lexington unfolds much like the Wednesday Meeting in Washington, except it’s a far more casual affair. Instead of bagels, Honey Dew doughnuts are served. While the heavyset Faulkner wears a tie and a blazer with khakis, there are lots of jeans and sweaters in the crowd. One exception is Norquist’s representative from Washington, a stiff young man with trendy eyeglasses, an extra-slim wool suit, and a pocket square.

An older Westborough activist named Len Mead sits in front. He wears a tricorn hat that bears a sign reading: T.E.A. (Taxed Enough Already). When I ask him why he attends these meetings, he smiles and says, “For therapy.”

“If you’re a conservative in Massachusetts, you’ve been beaten down,” he says. “Grover comes up here and can’t believe how many we have. I think it’s because we’ve been so pounded here.” According to an ATR map showing attendance figures for recent meetings in 48 states — Norquist’s group has been unable to gin up meetings in either South Carolina or South Dakota — Massachusetts’s numbers dwarf those from places like live-free-or-die New Hampshire (which attracted 11 people) or North Dakota (just eight).

In the back row sits Barbara Anderson, Norquist’s white-haired Bay State counterpart as the face of the anti-tax movement. “As bad as things are, without Grover things would be worse,” she says, crediting him with keeping “taxpayer activists from feeling alone and helpless.”

Jon Golnik, a Republican pledge-signer who was unsuccessful in his 2010 bid to unseat Democratic congresswoman Niki Tsongas, tells the crowd he’s running again and rails at the out-of-control spending of the Obama administration. He rattles off a host of statistics about the implications of the national debt that are so sobering they might give even a Keynesian pause.

When Golnik begins taking questions from the audience, the first comes from a North Shore man named Edward Purtz, who asks with furrowed brow: “We’ve seen the Navy cut to levels it hasn’t been since the 1800s. How do you stand on these defense cuts?”

Without missing a beat, Golnik replies, “I oppose them.”

*** 

IT HAS BEEN THE GENIUS of the small-government Santa Claus of Tax Reduction crowd to fix in our minds, when we think about government and taxes, our memories of witnessing cases of gross inefficiency. After all, we’ve all felt the frustration of standing in a long line at the post office and seeing the clerk take a leisurely stroll into the back room for an indeterminate task of indeterminate duration. And those maddening memories come to mind more easily than the time when the government paid for our grandmother’s cataract surgery, or even that time when the letter carrier trudged through a snowstorm to deliver a birthday card to our door, all because a cousin in California paid 45 cents and dropped it in a box.

The fact is, there is considerable inefficiency in the government, and it’s really hard to root it out. Norquist’s brother David, a former chief financial officer of the Department of Homeland Security, says his Washington experience taught him that, unlike in the private sector, “there is no incentive in government to do more with less, except to see your budget cut.”  Yet, as a numbers guy, he acknowledges how difficult it is to argue Golnik’s point that we need to tackle our debt before it consumes us, and then, in the next breath, reflexively oppose cuts in defense. He says he agrees with his brother’s argument that you have to hold the line against tax increases as a starting point, to force lawmakers to summon the political will for cutting spending. If you don’t, Grover Norquist has long contended, lawmakers will always go the tax hike route because it is the easier path.

But the question now is whether Norquist, thanks to the pledge and all his pressure, has helped fundamentally change that equation. How else to explain the way congressional Republicans can devote time and fury during hearings to a modest Obama administration tax on tanning salons, as though that’s something that will negatively affect the lives of most Americans. When a tanning-bed tax becomes the new line in the sand, you have to wonder whether any kind of tax increase has by now become more politically radioactive than cuts in government services.

With the noose beginning to tighten thanks to our national debt — which has ballooned by nearly $5 trillion during Obama’s presidency — there have been signs of some restlessness in Norquist’s ranks. Late last year, six Republicans and one Democrat in the House who had all signed the pledge told the congressional newspaper The Hill that they no longer felt bound by it. They argued that times have changed and that they could no longer afford to keep any kind of revenue increase off the table. Norquist, who insists that those lawmakers made their commitment to the taxpayers and not to him, refuses to release them from their pledge. “It lasts as long as you’re in office,” he says.

Here’s the math: A few Republicans break the pledge at their own peril. If 40 or 50 of them break with Norquist, however, that may well come at his peril.

There’s also the question of whether the corporate interests who help pay Norquist’s salary were as pleased as he was with the brinksmanship over the debt ceiling controversy last summer and might pressure him to avoid an encore. (He refuses to release the names of his contributors, though he acknowledges that ATR has received support from the tobacco, liquor, and casino industries, which have no doubt appreciated Norquist’s work fighting taxes on cigarettes, alcohol, and gaming.) As much as corporations dislike taxes, they tend to dislike rampant uncertainty even more.

As with so much in Washington, a lot will probably be determined in November. “If the Republicans win, Grover will enjoy more influence,” says economist and ex Norquist ally Bruce Bartlett, “especially if it’s someone like Romney, who will need to shore up his right flank.” But if the Republicans lose, even in the face of such a bad economy, he predicts, there will probably be recriminations against the Tea Party and Norquist for their hard-line stances.

After spending so much time drowning in the data about the country’s dire finances, Alan Simpson says if America doesn’t change course, and fast, we’ll reach the point of no return. “You’re going to see the rating agencies hammer us, you’re going to see interest rates and inflation go up, hitting the little guy.” Then, he says, people will stop and ask: “Who screwed us into this hole? And they’re going to zero back on the wizard himself, Grover Norquist.”

Norquist dismisses such predictions as the fanciful wishes of irrelevant Republicans who’ve lost their way.

As a boy, when he finished delivering his cliff-top speeches and tired of the pigs and all their dutiful listening, Norquist would dramatically raise his voice. That would startle and scatter the pigs. Yet in the past year, when he found himself with the nation’s rapt attention, he realized he had no similar ability to control it, even when his elevated profile produced some troubling anonymous death threats. Then again, such unpleasantness aside, now that all eyes are on Norquist, there is absolutely no evidence that he wants anyone to look away.

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com or follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.
Loading comments...

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week