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America's Tax Policy

Editor's Note: Today we present the first part of a debate between Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and TNR Senior Editor Jonathan Chait about Chait's new book, The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics, and America's tax policy. (You can read an excerpt from the book here.) The debate will continue this week.


It's not often an author gets the chance to discuss his book with one of its subjects. So let me thank you for agreeing to this debate.

You figure in the story in several places, but let me start with the most important: as enforcer of Republican anti-tax ideology. You have made it your life's work to ensure that any Republican who deviates from the party line on taxes is excommunicated from the good graces of the faithful. And you've had wild success. Republicans at the national level disagree on foreign policy, on abortion, on immigration, on spending--almost anything but taxes.

But the reason your work is so necessary is precisely because Republicans at the grass roots level don't share your beliefs. As my book notes, there's all kinds of polling to this effect. In 2000, most Republicans preferred using the budget surplus to reduce the national debt over tax cuts. The Pew Survey finds that Republicans still overwhelmingly prefer reducing the deficit to cutting taxes. Majorities prefer repealing all the Bush tax cuts or at least the portion that only favor the wealthy, raising the minimum wage, and providing health insurance to all even if taxes must be raised.

The Big Con explains how Republican elites have managed to overcome the opposition of their own base to make tax-cutting the sine qua non of the party, and convince social conservatives and anti-spending conservatives to accept their subordinate position. One answer is that people like you have used the cult of Ronald Reagan to foist your own preferences onto the party. Republicans know they must never deviate on taxes because this was the essence of Reagan's beliefs. To immodestly quote myself, you have "redefined Republicanism as conservatism, conservatism as Reaganism, and Reaganism as a relentless and uncompromising opposition to taxes, especially those paid by the rich."

But, as The Big Con points out, Reagan himself was hardly orthodox on taxes. Of course, he signed a huge tax cut. But he also signed the largest tax increase in American history in 1982, as well as numerous other small tax hikes. In 1986 he signed a tax reform that ended the preferential treatment for capital gains, raised the proportion of federal taxes paid by the rich and increased corporate taxes--all things that are utterly anathema to the modern GOP.

In The Big Con, I write about you: "Norquist, like a James Bond villain, has an irrepressible penchant for spelling out his master plans in their full, nefarious detail." So, here you are. Please share your nefarious plans with the readers.