Friday, December 24, 2004

The Invisible Man and the Hidden Agenda, Part II

With the re-election of George W. Bush and the strengthening of the Republican Party's hold on Congress, this article takes on increasing relevance-as does the influence and power wielded by the subject of Part I of this series, Grover Norquist.

In a recent book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber titled, Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing Is Turning America Into a One-Party State, the authors comment on the highly effective political organizing strategy of the conservative coalition that brought the Bush administration to power [again]. The authors reflect that the Republican Party's hard right views politics as literally a "war by other means" and point out that figures such as conservative activist David Horowitz, House majority leader Tom DeLay, and Bush advisor Karl Rove have promoted this philosophy. Horowitz coined the above phrase. He also states, "In political warfare you do not fight just to prevail in an argument, but to destroy the enemy's fighting ability…In political wars, the aggressor usually prevails…You cannot cripple an opponent by outwitting him in political debate…You can do it only by following Lenin's injunction: 'In political conflicts, the goal is not to refute your opponent's argument, but to wipe him from the face of the earth.'"

It is ironic that a political party supposedly composed of ultra patriots would fall back on a failed and discredited form of government (Communism) to provide the means by which to conduct a successful political campaign. Yet, it would seem that Lenin's statement does indeed resonate with the strategy that won the recent election for the Republicans. It is, therefore, not too surprising to learn that The Wall Street Journal calls Grover Norquist "the Lenin of the Republican Party." In fact, it has been written that Norquist has a large portrait of Lenin hanging in his living room, and he has called himself a "market Leninist."

It is equally ironic and most puzzling that despite Norquist's close association with, and strong advocacy for, several radical Muslim activists (now in jail or awaiting trial), and his strong support for a number of highly problematic fundamentalist Muslim organizations, his reputation has remained intact. Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan Defense Department official, a long time friend of Norquist and now a well known conservative columnist (whose Center for Security Policy organization was once housed in Norquist's offices), wrote a scathing diatribe a year ago criticizing Norquist's close ties to radical Islamists. Observing the fact that Norquist was emerging from a most sordid situation unscathed, he cited as a prime example that, "At a black tie dinner on November 5th, 2003, nearly 300 conservative activists and politicians gathered at Washington's Mayflower Hotel to recognize a prominent fixture in their community: tax-advocate and conservative coalition-builder Grover Norquist." Gaffney went on to say, "Most in the audience were surely unaware that the effect of their tribute-if not its organizers' intended purpose-was to provide urgently needed political cover for a man who has been active on another, far less laudable, and in fact, deeply problematic front: enabling a political influence operation to advance the causes of radical Islamists, and targeted most particularly at the Bush administration."

It is important to understand and appreciate Norquist's position and the enormous influence and authority he commands as one of the foremost architects of the Republican Party's plans and objectives. Some call him the "field marshal" of the Republican Party. (It is also mystifying that despite his celebrity status within the top levels of the Party, he is still virtually unknown to the general public. Thus the appellation of "Invisible Man.") His primary goal (unfamiliar to and ignored by all but his close associates) can be best summed up in his own words: "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty five years, to get it down to size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Norquist, using his tax free organization Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) as a base of operations, freely admits he wants to abolish not only most agencies of the federal government such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Food and Drug Administration, the Education Department, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He also seeks to emasculate institutions that serve as a safety net against economic misfortune for most Americans, like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

E.J. Devine, a columnist for The Washington Post writes, "What would President Bush do with a second term? Let's take him at his word. Bush is engaged in a bold (and if you disagree with him, a dangerous) project to dismantle the social advances of the New and Fair Deals, the New Frontier, and the Great Society. He wants to throw more risk on the individual, free corporations and employees from regulation that protects employees and consumers, and reduce the government's role in providing retirement security."

To accomplish these goals, Norquist has already begun to implement a strategy first described and named by David Stockman, President Reagan's Director of the Office of Management and Budget. The process is termed "starving the beast"- the beast in this case being the federal government. Mr. Norquist obviously agrees with Milton Friedman, one of the world's most accomplished economists, who has stated that the most effective method to limit the size of government is to reduce revenue, and the best way to accomplish this is to lower taxes. His simplistic example states, "I believe there is one and only one way parents control spendthrift children, cutting their allowance. For government, that means cutting taxes." (What Norquist has ignored is Friedman's adjunct that, "A long term tax cut isn't a long term tax cut at all unless it's accompanied by a long term spending cut. It's essentially a deferred tax increase on the future.") Norquist's zeal for cutting taxes is closely related to his real goal of reducing the size of government. Here is how he rationalizes his position: "Every time you cut programs, you take away a person who has a vested interest in high taxes and you put him on the tax rolls and make him a taxpayer. A farmer on subsidies is part welfare bum, whereas a free-market farmer is a small businessman with a gun." Norquist visualizes the "ideal citizen" as a "self-employed, home schooling, IRA owning guy with a concealed-carry permit [who] doesn't need the goddamn government for anything." On a more academic basis, Norquist explains his theories as follows: "The economic goal is to reduce the tax rate on labor and capital and reduce the disincentives to savings, investment and work."

While there is substance to these beliefs, the larger question is, to what degree is the American public willing to see traditionally accepted, federally sponsored programs, institutions, and activities reduced or eliminated in order to accommodate significantly lower taxes? For that matter, can the public be sold on a complete restructuring of the entire tax system, probably through some sort of a flat tax or a consumption tax? Based on strong inferences from the newly elected administration, these changes are under way.

In order to solidify the doctrine of tax minimization/elimination, and as further evidence of his influence and power, Norquist developed the idea of a "Taxpayer Protection Pledge." The pledge requires signers to oppose all income tax increases and cuts in deductions that are not offset by declines in marginal tax rates. (Note that a concomitant agreement to limit spending by the same amount of money lost to tax revenue declines that result from tax cuts is not included in the pledge.) As further evidence of Norquist's power, not only has President Bush signed this pledge, but by now, it is probable that the majority of the members of both the House and the Senate have also done so. Brookings Institute scholar, William Gale, contends that the pledge "adapts a 'starve the beast' approach to controlling federal finances-attempting to cut off revenue increases as a way of forcing reductions in spending.

Then there is the "lucky ducky" argument. Here is how Paul Krugman, the (admittedly liberal) Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University, described this debate in The New York Times over a year ago in an op-ed piece titled "The Tax Cut Con": "to starve the beast, you must make voters hate the government. There's a danger that working class families might see government as their friend: because their income is low, they don't pay much in taxes, while they benefit from public spending. So, in starving the beast, you must take care not to cut taxes on these 'lucky duckies.' (Yes, that's what The Wall Street Journal called them in a famous editorial). In fact, if possible, you must raise taxes on working class Americans in order, as The Journal said, to get their blood boiling with rage." (Do you sense echoes of Lenin here?)

Consider this evidence: Every piece of tax reduction legislation so far enacted by this administration, plus others that are projected, acts as a revenue inhibitor; the administration's disregard for the enormous current budget deficits and the apparent willingness to accept what many consider to be catastrophic future deficits; the eagerness to adopt every piece of spending legislation without a single presidential veto even being threatened; and Vice President Cheney's statement than "deficits don't matter"-every one of these factors could be considered a tactical move to achieve the strategic goal of a "starve the beast" doctrine.

Mr. Norquist is a man of great conviction, at least when it comes to tax policy. (You can form your own opinion regarding the level of his principles based on his efforts on behalf of radical Muslims.) He certainly is entitled to his opinions and he must be admired for his forthrightness in stating his case. Assuming the above conclusions are correct, less admirable, however, is the failure of the Bush administration to acknowledge the existence of, and the efforts to, implement the "starve the beast" doctrine. The closest it has come to publicly recognizing its policy implications was in August 2001. At that time, President Bush referred to the huge budget surplus that was clearly vanishing as "incredibly positive news" because it would put Congress in a "fiscal straight jacket."

Many believe in the principle of a "small government" that infringes to a minimum degree on the individual and his/her affairs. As do all Americans, this element of society has a perfect right to promote and advocate their cause. However, the question must be asked whether a sitting administration has the justification to embrace what many (perhaps most) would consider to be a radical doctrine, promote and enact legislation to advance that doctrine, but then conceal the ultimate goal from the American public. Is this what the Bush administration has been doing? Has it adopted the "starve the beast" doctrine as a hidden agenda and kept it a secret for the past four years? If so, shouldn't a radical strategy of this nature be the subject of debate?

Grover Norquist who, if not the creator of the concept, appears to be (within the top echelon of the Republican Party) the facilitating architect of the starve the beast doctrine, and therein lies the convergence of the invisible man and the hidden agenda.


At 4:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting, I don't doubt it for a minuet.
On a different subject sure to be mentioned tonight in the State of the Union address how about having Social Security managed like major pension funds are managed?
Professional management, low costs, actuaries to calculate required funding levels,and individuals get annual statements as to performance and the value of their account.This should outperform the current system
and keep politics out of it.


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