Thursday, January 01, 2004

Defending Norquist Grover Norquist, president of the right-wing Americans for Tax Reform, has taken a lot of flack for an on-air exchange he had in October with Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air."

On the left, his remarks were greeted with that special strain of glee that seizes liberals when they think they've caught a member of the opposition stepping over the line of propriety: Think Newt Gingrich whining about his seat on Air Force One. Think Trent Lott fretting about Strom Thurmond's failure to win the White House.

As Norquist was repeatedly mocked, though, I found myself more or less agreeing with his core argument (even if I think he could have used a less incendiary example to make his case).

More important, in the period since the Norquist-bashing has subsided, I've grown convinced that, when read carefully, his statements offer a singular lesson to Democrats on navigating the politics of taxation. And his words speak volumes about why progressives lost the estate tax debate.

Here's the relevant section of the now-infamous transcript (I've chopped it down a bit):

GROSS: We're talking about, for instance, the elimination of the estate tax. The estate tax is only paid by somebody who gets over $2 million in inheritance. That's a line people don't cross a lot...

NORQUIST: ...I think it speaks very much to the health of the nation that 70-plus percent of Americans want to abolish the death tax, because they see it as fundamentally unjust. The argument that some who played at the politics of hate and envy and class division will say, 'Yes, well, that's only 2 percent,' or as people get richer 5 percent in the near future of Americans likely to have to pay that tax. I mean, that's the morality of the Holocaust. 'Well, it's only a small percentage,' you know. 'I mean, it's not you, it's somebody else.' And this country, people who may not make earning a lot of money the centerpiece of their lives, they may have other things to focus on, they just say it's not just.

GROSS: Excuse me. Excuse me one second. Did you just--


GROSS: --compare the estate tax with the Holocaust?

NORQUIST: No, the morality that says it's OK to do something to do a group because they're a small percentage of the population is the morality that says that the Holocaust is OK because they didn't target everybody, just a small percentage. What are you worried about? It's not you. It's not you. It's them. And arguing that it's OK to loot some group because it's them, or kill some group because it's them and because it's a small number, that has no place in a democratic society...The government's going to do something to or for us, it should treat us all equally...

GROSS: So you see taxes as being the way they are now terrible discrimination against the wealthy comparable to the kind of discrimination of, say, the Holocaust?

NORQUIST: Well, what you pick--you can use different rhetoric or different points for different purposes, and I would argue that those who say, 'Don't let this bother you; I'm only doing it'--I, the government. The government is only doing it to a small percentage of the population. That is very wrong. And it's immoral.


Is his example a bit icky? Is it in bad taste--or worse--to compare a tax regime, whatever it is, to the slaughter of millions?


And yet, if you distill Norquist's argument from his overblown rhetoric, what he's saying is this: There's something deeply distasteful, in a country where "equal protection under the law" is a grounding principle, about government policies whose best defense is that they affect only a tiny minority of citizens.

And I can't disagree with that.

What's more, while I tend to respond by yelling at the TV when I hear Republicans trot out the phrase class warfare, I'm also uncomfortable (as, I suspect, are many moderates) with the kind of naked appeal to economic interests that the "Don't worry--only the super-rich have to pay it," argument represents.

So there. I've come clean.

Still, that said, there is, of course, much more to the case for the estate tax--and higher taxes for the rich, in general--than divide-and-conquer politics. In fact, my guess is that if you asked Al Gore, for example, why he spent so much time stressing the limited impact of the estate tax during the 2000 campaign, he would say something like this:

I never tried to justify the estate tax in terms of the fact that it was shouldered by a tiny percentage of the population. That's nonsense. But I did go out of my way to correct misinformation spread by loud, committed, well-funded people like Norquist. Remember, the Republican party spent a tremendous amout of time and money working to convince middle class Americans that the estate tax was massively burdensome, destined to cripple the economy, and designed to ruin the American way of life as we know it.

And, what's worse, the media basically bought it. Instead of reporting on the size, distribution and economic impact of Bush's tax cuts as proposed, they focused on whether or not a girl had to stand at the back of a Florida classroom.

So I was facing an uphill fight. It was crucial to get the truth about the estate tax out there, and that's what I did.

That argument is utterly defensible and eminently reasonable--at least as far as it goes.

The problem, I'd submit, was that neither Gore nor any other prominent Democrat ever supplemented this argument with a moral defense of the estate tax--in terms (for example) of basic fairness or intergenerational justice.

Then again, it's not hard to see why those kinds of arguments weren't made.

The truth is, it's much easier to tell middle class Americans, "Don't worry--you're in the clear," than to get into a sticky discussion about the risks to equality of opportunity posed by the concentration of massive wealth in just a few hands.

But with Democrats failing to find a moral vocabulary within which to counter the arguments made by Norquist and friends, the battle came to look like one of principle versus pure expediency. Norquist's notion of fairness--built around the idea that Ally Hilfiger has an unalienable right to inherit billions tax-free--may be nutty, but it was the only conception of fairness on the table.

In a society with deep egalitarian roots, it's no wonder that the side speaking in terms of justice and equality won the day.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.