Inside The Group Therapy Session For Conservatives Who Hate Grover Norquist

norquist mad bro

David Corn has a story for Mother Jones today exposing “Groundswell,” a group of conservative activists and journalists who meet weekly to coordinate messages and strategy.The group seems to consist of a very specific subset of disgruntled conservatives: Losers who feel burned by Grover Norquist.

Groundswell trains its fire both on the left and on a Republican establishment they see as too accommodating of the left. But while lots of conservatives, some of them quite powerful, hate John Boehner and think the GOP establishment is full of squishes, Groundswell doesn’t reflect this whole group, at least based on the attendees Corn names.

Let’s look at the broad landscape of the Civil War within Republican Washington right now. On one side you have Republican congressional leadership and establishment groups like the American Action Forum and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who want to pursue a somewhat pragmatic agenda on issues like the budget and the debt ceiling. These forces also favour immigration reform.

On the other side, you have Tea Party-aligned groups like the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, Freedomworks, and the Club for Growth who want the party to move farther right.

Corn’s story gives no indication that anybody from the four latter groups is participating in Groundswell. And none of the named activists are primarily engaged on the tax and spending issues that are central to GOP infighting.

The activists named in the article mostly work on niche issues that give them particular reason to have beef with Norquist, a veteran anti-tax activist who leads the group Americans for Tax Reform.

Every Wednesday morning, Norquist hosts an off-the-record coordinating meeting at ATR’s offices, often with over 100 participants, including representatives from Republican congressional leadership and, when the President is a Republican, the White House. As Corn notes in his article, Norquist’s meeting is open to a broad ideological cross-section of the conservative movement.

(Disclosure: In 2003, I was a summer intern at ATR. I also attended the ATR meeting several times in my capacity as a policy researcher, I believe most recently in 2010.)

Groundswell meets at exactly the same time, meaning its meeting has to consist of people who feel no need to attend Norquist’s meeting, or aren’t allowed to. And that’s probably why Corn’s article doesn’t name any conservative activists who come from groups like AFP or Heritage, or who work mostly on economic issues. Whatever their disputes with Norquist or the GOP establishment more broadly, they need to work together on economic policy and need to come to his meeting to talk about it.

So who is in Groundswell? The participants seem to fall into four categories. In three cases, there’s an obvious reason why they’d write Norquist off even when economic arch-conservatives aren’t inclined to.

  • Extreme foreign policy hawks. This list starts with Frank Gaffney, who has been banned from the Norquist meeting for over a decade. Gaffney has repeatedly accused various other conservatives of being Islamist infiltrators, including Norquist, whose wife is a Muslim. Ex-Rep. Allen West and Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton are also in this ultra-hawk camp. These people, and their views, are increasingly marginal in the party (a lot of Tea Party conservatives would like to cut back the military along with the rest of the government) and they’re looking for a home. They can’t be happy that Norquist has been increasingly vocal in recent years about the desirability of reducing both U.S. defence spending and overseas military actions.
  • Anti-immigration activists. Norquist is one of the key pro-immigration reform voices on the right. In May, he testified before Congress in support of the bipartisan Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill that many conservative activists hate. That said, all the people quoted on immigration in Corn’s story are journalists or congressional staffers. Not only is Heritage apparently absent from Groundswell, so are other established anti-immigration groups like the centre for Immigration Studies and FAIR. That’s probably because, unlike the anti-Muslim activists, even people who strongly disagree with Norquist on immigration don’t necessarily think he is an enemy of the state.
  • Social conservatives. These include Ken Blackwell and Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council and Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Norquist isn’t exactly a social liberal, but he has been clear about considering economic issues to be of principal importance. He sits on the board of GOProud, a gay Republican group, and was a key particpant in the fight within the American Conservative Union about whether that group should be allowed to sponsor CPAC. Earlier this month, Ruse was complaining on the radio that his eight-year-old was subjected to seeing a married lesbian couple on the Food Network. It’s no surprise they would distrust Norquist and consider his meeting to be optional.
  • Voter ID activists. This is the one that puzzles me. Catherine Engelbrecht and Anita MonCrief are participating in Groundswell. But establishment Republicans are largely on board with the push for Voter ID so I don’t know why they feel alienated.

Some people have been comparing Groundswell to Journolist, the listserve of mostly left-wing journalists that caused embarrassment for its members, particularly Dave Weigel, when its archives were released in 2010.

But Groundswell isn’t Journolist. Its participants are much less important. The effort to keep John Boehner in line and push Republicans to never compromise is very real, but based on its known membership, Groundswell is not a key part of its apparatus.

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