Presidential debates often configure their rules in subtle ways to include certain candidates rather than others, though it's usually not spelled out explicitly. But when Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform delayed a Nevada debate they were to host in July, they left no doubt that the move was made to accommodate their favored candidate. "We're waiting for Perry," Norquist told The Washington Post at the time. It's not the only instance where Norquist has operated to bolster Rick Perry's nascent presidential campaign. When Politico published a story last week questioning Perry's intelligence, Norquist rose to the Texas governor's defense, firing off a missive to the article's author touting Perry's willingness to put government spending online. "That idea has now been adopted by 26-plus states. We took Perry's idea to other state legislators and governors," Norquist said.
He hasn't made any kind of public endorsement, but all signals point to Perry as Norquist's ideal candidate in the GOP field. "I think that he is the full package as far as Grover Norquist would be concerned," says Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. "Rick Perry would be a very staunch Grover Norquist advocate of no tax increases and very limited new revenues to government."
Norquist's political blessing -- or curse -- can carry serious weight with Republican establishment and Tea Party types alike. While he's an unknown figure to most Americans, Grover Norquist is perhaps the most powerful Republican in the country. He's never held elected office, but Norquist has managed to convince 95 percent of congressional Republicans and more than 1,200 state legislators to sign a pledge foreswearing all tax increases. He was the leading figure to push the Bush tax cuts. His economic philosophy has become required doctrine for anyone who wants to run as a Republican.
Norquist first rose to the public spotlight in the mid-1990s when he helped design the Contract with America, which helped the GOP retake the House of Representatives in 1994. Since that time, he has become the anti-tax standard bearer of the GOP, representing the interests of business America with a "starve the beast" view on government. "My goal is to cut government in half in 25 years," he's said, "to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Expressly favoring the interests of corporate America, the Norquist ideology pushes against any form of raising revenue; it also pushes tort reform and reductions to public education. It's a philosophy that seeks to dismember government's role in providing social services.
Norquist and Newt Gingrich might have a longer history thanks to their collaboration on the Contract with America, but Gingrich's campaign has been a complete nonstarter. And Norquist has showered attention on Perry for years. In 2004, the anti-tax maven traveled to the Bahamas to join an otherwise all-Texan school-voucher summit that consisted of Perry, the governor's advisers, and a select group of elite Republican donors. "The governor is a very serious scuba diver," Norquist told the Austin American-Statesman in 2006. "I managed not to drown." (The Texas Ethics Commission opened an investigation as to whether Perry misused campaign funds to pay for his tropical jaunt, but no official charges ever materialized.) During a Prospect breakfast five years ago, Norquist listed Perry among the handful of politicians he hoped would seek the presidency in 2008. "Watch Rick Perry, Texas ... second-best governor in the country," Norquist said (after citing Jeb Bush as the best). "He cut spending $10 billion after Bush left because somebody had been spending too much money in Texas before Perry had taken over."
When Texas faced a $27 billion budget shortfall earlier this year, Norquist increased his Texas presence significantly. He traveled to Perry's turf, injecting himself into the fight over how the budget gap should be solved. "Texas has for the last ten years served as a good example for the other states," he said, while pushing Perry and GOP legislators to go further on cutting taxes and tort reform. Perry clung staunchly to the Norquist model: He not only rejected new taxes but fought against any form of increased revenue. Funds for social services were slashed across the board as a result. Education and health-service funding both took $4 billion hits.
It makes perfect sense for Norquist to have zeroed in on Perry among the possible Republican nominees. (A Perry representative refused to comment for this story; Norquist has yet to respond to an interview request or e-mailed questions.) Though the others all talk the right talk to match Norquist's ideals, none share Perry's record for slashing government services. Despite some minor indiscretions early in his career, Perry has held to anti-tax zealotry over the course of his decade as Texas governor. "One of the things that Perry is most consistent about is supporting business," says James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
While Perry has championed the Norquist anti-tax stance since he became governor in 2000, his tone took a distinct turn during this year's legislative session. "There really was, on top of the no-new-taxes mantra, a real emphasis on no new revenue," Henson says.
Norquist's pet project of tort reform -- intended to tilt the courts in the favor of businesses over plaintiffs -- has been executed to the fullest in Rick Perry's Texas. This process began in the 1990s, but ramped up with Perry in office. He's helped shepherd two major reforms to Texas's judicial structure: a 2003 law caps damages on pain and suffering in medical malpractice cases at one of the lowest rates in the nation, and a 2011 "loser pays" measure stipulates that the winning party's court fees must be covered by their opposition if a judge rules the complaint was groundless. "Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas state legislature want the rest of the country to hear this message loud and clear: The Lone Star State is open for business," National Review wrote after Texas passed loser pays.
Over the past few weeks, the national media has turned their attention to a myriad of instances in which Perry has granted political favors to his major donors. That's clearly happened more times than you can easily count, but it misses the larger point: Rick Perry's Texas is one that works to favor all corporations' interests over those of the consumers and voters. "There's kind of a forest-trees issue going on there. One of the things that Perry is most consistent about is supporting business," Henson says. "He is not only for a low-regulation economy, he is for aggressively using the regulatory structure on the side of business."
You can't solely credit Perry with Texas's pro-business climate, of course. The state has had one of the lowest tax burdens among the states since it relinquished its status as an independent republic, and as Jillson notes, its current revenues are about 15 percent below the average Southern state and 25 percent to 30 percent below the national average. "Rick Perry didn't invent anything," Jillson says. "He became governor of a state that had a very steady sense of how politics should relate to the economy."
It's unlikely Norquist will publicly endorse any candidate in the GOP primary next year. He has convinced each of the contenders (save going-nowhere Jon Huntsman) to sign his Taxpayer Protection Pledge. He'd lose sway over the eventual nominee if he chose to campaign on behalf of a primary opponent. But he's played a major behind-the-scenes role in past Republican nomination processes. During the 2000 campaign, Norquist maintained his independence from George W. Bush's campaign even as Americans for Tax Reform ran ads attacking John McCain during the primaries.
But as Robert Dreyfuss reported for the The Nation in 2001, Norquist was the key in convincing the Washington establishment to get behind Bush. "At the time, for most conservatives Bush was an unknown quantity, and his closeness to his father (whom Norquist excoriated in his book for faithlessness and errors of political judgment) made the right queasy," Dreyffus wrote. "Others in the race, like Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, all had appeal to the far right -- but Norquist ... started spreading the word that the right ought to line up behind Bush."
In 2012, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum may be the more familiar faces to national conservatives, yet it is Rick Perry who seems to have galvanized the far right. And if his public posturing is any indication, Norquist may be laying the groundwork for yet another Texas governor's path to the Republican nomination.