TAMPA—On the first night of the Republican National Convention, Grover Norquist attended a casino party at the Hard Rock Café. Afterward, while he was hunting for a cab in front of the club, a passenger in a white limo pulled up. “Take my limo—I’m a big fan of your work!” he cried. Norquist never got his name, but after the man jumped out, he took the limo.
That’s the kind of thing that happens to Grover Norquist these days.
Norquist has been a star of the conservative movement for decades. Revered on the right, reviled on the left, the iconic lobbyist is the dominant force behind the Republican Party’s resolute stonewall against raising taxes. His “Taxpayer Protection Pledge”—which binds the lawmakers who sign it to never raising taxes—has been blamed as a direct cause of the nation’s soaring budget deficit, and of last summer’s debt-ceiling showdown between President Obama and congressional Republicans. In 1985, reportedly with the encouragement of Ronald Reagan, Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform, the think tank that The Wall Street Journal dubbed the “Grand Central Station” of American conservatism. In 1994, Norquist coauthored Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America.
But over the past three years, as the tea party became a driving force in American politics, Norquist surged in prominence and influence, rocketing from being just a well-known Washington lobbyist to a national figure and a central player in the 2012 campaigns. The vitriol on the left has grown accordingly. The day that Paul Ryan became the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, Norquist’s phone began ringing at 6 in the morning, as media outlets—which saw his work as a key influence in Ryan’s controversial budget plan to dramatically cut government spending—begged him to weigh in. If anyone epitomizes the fiscally focused GOP of the now, with its emphasis on slashing taxes and reducing the size of government, it’s Norquist.
So at last month’s convention, he was treated like a rock star, as much as or even more so than Mitt Romney or Ryan. And compared with the famously clean-living Romney, Norquist practically parties like one.
On the second night of the convention, I met Norquist and his entourage in downtown Tampa to observe him in his element, amid the throngs of admirers. He had a packed schedule that night—a slew of receptions and TV interviews, a late-night appearance at HomoCon—a dance party celebrating gay Republicans at a bar called the HoneyPot—and a postmidnight gig in a “Funniest Celebrity” stand-up comedy event.
Wrangling Norquist and keeping him on schedule that evening were his staffer, John Kartch, and his wife, Samah. A Palestinian Muslim who grew up in Kuwait, Samah Norquist doesn’t fit the mold of a Republican power wife. At an event full of big hair, big heels, and lots of red dresses, Samah, who is tiny, wore just a little makeup and an all-black outfit—a simple top, long, flowing skirt, aqua scarf, beaded belt, and silver flats. Grover, meanwhile, looked more like a liberal-arts professor than a lobbyist: Although he wore a suit, it was accessorized by his salt-and-pepper beard and ever-present tote bag, in which he carries papers he’s writing and galoshes in case of rain.
“When we got married, he was famous in conservative circles, but it wasn’t like this.”—Samah Norquist
Despite the modest demeanor, Norquist couldn’t walk down the street without being swarmed by fans. “Grover!” called a middle-aged man in shorts, running after him. He wanted to show Norquist his collection of conservative trading cards, featuring stars like Sarah Palin—and, of course, the man himself.
“When we got married, he was famous in conservative circles, but it wasn’t like this,” Samah told me.
She added, “With the fame comes some downsides—bomb threats, phone calls at 4 a.m. But it’s not about fame; it’s about putting the issue of taxes center stage. He wants to make sure the GOP will be branded as the party of, ‘You can talk to me about anything, but don’t talk to me about raising taxes.’ ”
Samah thought about how to describe what drives her husband. “The way my 3-year-old and 4-year-old daughters feel about Disney princesses, that’s how Grover feels about cutting taxes.”
ON THE CIRCUIT
We jumped into a cab, bound for our first party. Norquist warned his entourage: At some point, he would need to take a break to work on his stand-up routine. He was worried he hadn’t had time to practice his latest jokes. “I have the material, but I have to weave it all together.”
Norquist, a veteran of Washington celebrity comedy contests, talked about his competitors on the circuit. “Austan Goolsbee is really good,” he said of President Obama’s former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. What about Goolsbee’s economic policies? “I don’t think particularly highly of them. But he’s very funny. Maybe on economic policy, he’s being ironic.”
This article appears in the September 15, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.