I wasn’t sure what to expect facing off against conservative uber-strategist Grover Norquist Monday night at the invitation of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF), but I was game to find out. It was essentially a no lose situation for me, a lowly local blogger debating a national figure like Norquist. This was a debate that I would win even by losing, elevating my prominence by association, while inherently lowering his.
Indeed, when I first posted that I would be debating Norquist, at an Outback Steakhouse of all places, several readers just assumed I was joking. I wasn’t. My how the mighty have fallen.
The evening started off in a surreal fashion, exchanging friendly handshakes with Norquist, one of the criminal masterminds of the vast right-wing conspiracy, and Washington State Republican Party chair Luke Esser, a man I once facetiously accused of “fucking pigs.” Pleasantries completed I vigorously washed my hands before proceeding to dinner, where I was seated at the end of a table with Norquist, Seattle Times editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey, and EFF president Bob Williams, an outspoken advocate of settling policy disputes by taking political prisoners. You know… my homies.
Having never been to an Outback Steakhouse before, I of course ordered the salmon, as did Norquist. (Ramsey, the dirty fucking hippie, ordered the vegetarian pasta. What’s up with that?) As the VIP crowd of EFF faithful munched on cheese fries and Outback’s signature “Bloomin’ Onion” (Australian for “onion rings”), Ramsey conducted an informal interview with Norquist, and, well, how could I not listen in?
McCain’s VP choice? Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Norquist says Jindal has more experience than Obama, yet at 38 years old beats him in youth (and I suppose, brownness.) As for McCain himself, Norquist argues that he isn’t in as bad a position as many pundits think, down only a few points to Obama, while by comparison, Dukakis led Bush I by 17 points in August of 1988. (Note to Norquist… this isn’t 1988.)
Norquist also expounded on the electoral advantages of his vaunted conservative coalition versus the relative chaos of the fractured hoards on the left. (Note to Norquist… this isn’t 2004.)
As dinner was served, Norquist stood to say a few words to the pre-debate crowd, and while he may have been eating fish and broccoli himself, he tossed plenty of red meat to the rhetorically ravenous EFFers; in fact, until that moment, I had never realized how incredibly evil I and my fellow travelers are… at least in the paranoid fantasies Norquist peddles to the true believers. Sure, I’ve grown accustomed to the usual assortment of trolls, talk monkeys and (u)SPers attributing our ideological opposition to stupidity or lunacy or both, but according to Norquist, we’re not just wrong, we’re downright bad people… “competing parasites” and “child killers” motivated solely by greed, envy and actual malice. And that’s just the rhetorical poo he flings at public school teachers.
In preparing for the debate I had struggled to settle upon a stylistic approach… wonky? Passionate? Sarcastic? But through his pre-debate remarks Norquist had set a combative tone, and I was only too happy to follow his lead.
Michael and Lee have posted their own review of the proceedings, as has Ramsey, and lost in the moment, I’m incapable of providing a better blow by blow account. I’ve no idea if I won or lost on points, but that was never my focus; my goal was to back Norquist into a rhetorical corner, and on the issue of school vouchers he gave me the opportunity I’d been looking for. Borrowing a technique I’d honed during my encounters with Tim Eyman, I disintermediated the moderator and posed a question directly to Norquist, asking him to explain why spending tax dollars on education, even vouchers, is at all consistent with his philosophy of limited government?
As expected, Norquist refused to answer the question, skillfully changing the subject to his own advantage, but I did not demur, instead rephrasing my question to ask him why it was appropriate for government to force me to pay to educate another family’s child, but not to provide that child health care? And again, he refused to answer my question.
Round and round we went, me relentlessly following up, and Norquist refusing to answer, his responses growing ever longer and repetitive as he all but filibustered the remaining minutes. Afterwards, Ramsey came up to me and said, “He never answered your question,” to which I replied, “That’s because we all know the answer.”
Of course, public education, vouchers or otherwise, is not consistent with Norquist’s philosophy of limited government, and he knows it. Norquist could not possibly reconcile spending tax dollars on school vouchers with his ideologically rigid “small government” framework, yet if he conceded the point it would reveal his advocacy for vouchers to be cynical and manipulative. It would also be extremely unpopular with voters, who overwhelmingly support education spending. Norquist supports vouchers as a calculated step toward initially reducing government education spending, and eventually eliminating it. And that is why I oppose them.
But my ultimate point was that on this, as on so many other issues, Norquist is fundamentally dishonest. Oh, he’s brutally frank when it comes to discussing strategy, but his comments both before and during the debate were peppered with intentionally misleading and factually incorrect statements. For example, when Norquist argues that Obama would raise the capital gains tax, thus raising taxes on tens of millions of middle class Americans who own 401K plans, he neglects to mention that 401Ks are tax exempt, and that the profits are only taxed when the money is withdrawn during retirement, when one’s income is generally lower. And yet it is on bogus assertions like this that he vilifies the opposition. And “vilify” is no overstatement: there is an underlying violence to his metaphors that seems to come from the heart.
The truth is, there was no debate Monday night, and there wouldn’t have been regardless of the tact I’d chosen. (Reading Ramsey’s comments on his Times blog, a debate between me and him would have been more challenging and engaging.) Norquist came to plug his book, and was unwilling or unprepared to reach beyond his familiar talking points, regardless of the question… in the end, it wasn’t much different than taking on Eyman. No doubt with a little effort Norquist would have proven a more formidable foe, but given his reputation as a political genius, I didn’t really find him all that.
I guess I expected a little better.