Alan Simpson and Grover Norquist Go to the Zoo

Grover Norquist, Alan Simpson and I spent a summer afternoon at the National Zoo. This is what I saw.

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Chris Buck for TIME

Alan Simpson and Grover Norquist, sans talking points, at the zoo.

We met by the Przewalski’s horse pen. The idea was simple. Bring together two bitter antagonists, in this case former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and conservative tax activist Grover Norquist, and make them do something fun together that has nothing to do with their mutual animosities. My proposal: We spend a summer afternoon at the National Zoo, and see if everyone could behave while talking about tax policy.

Norquist was immedietly enthusiastic, and Simpson soon came around. “Perhaps Grover could pose inside the tiger and I could be outside,” Simpson wrote me in an email. “No really, I’m ready to do anything that might be instructive in showing how two guys can go ‘at each other’ and still remain outside the tiger cage.” The result of our trip to the zoo on June 19, including encounters with the orangutans and gawking at the Komodo Dragon, can be found in this week’s issue of TIME magazine, which is available here by subscribing to a month of TIME magazine for $2.99.

But not all of their banter made it into that article, so I have reproduced some additional excerpts from the first chunk of the 83-minute transcript below.

First some background. Simpson is a fast-talking former Wyoming Senator who comprises one half of the “Bowles-Simpson” plan for deficit reduction, a bipartisan proposal that would lead to about $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. His favorite animal is the elk—” beautiful animals and they’re big and they’re powerful.” Norquist is the author and enforcer of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which has been signed by most Congressional Republicans, binding them against ever voting to raise taxes. His favorite animal is the ostrich—”and I just think they’re fun to watch.” They have been locked in battle over whether Republicans should agree to modest tax increases as part of a big deficit reduction deal.

On cable television, and in the press, they regularly savage each other. Simpson calls Norquist a “zealot.” Norquist will make comments about Simpson’s age and drinking habits. Simpson will jest about Norquist slipping in the bath tub. It goes on. Also, both men love telling jokes.

So we began by Przewalski’s horses, short furry creatures known to roam the Asian highlands of Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

GROVER NORQUIST:  Good to see you, Senator.

SENATOR ALAN SIMPSON:  Grover, good to see you.

MR. NORQUIST:  Absolutely.

SENATOR SIMPSON:  We have to be crazy to do this, but I thought it was good to do it.  We’re about half goofy.

MR. NORQUIST:  Sounds like fun.


MR. SCHERER:  So my idea is as much as you guys just want to talk.  I can prompt you with stuff, but I’d like to just watch you guys talk as much as possible, so feel free to go off and we’ll just walk down the hill, see some of the animals.  I’ve got a little path planned out.

MR. NORQUIST:  Okay, okay.

SENATOR SIMPSON:  I would say this is quite a guy and he and I have been at it for years.

MR. NORQUIST:  Decades.

SENATOR SIMPSON:  But he and I have the same idea.  We’re both Americans.  And we both want less government.  We just have different ideas of how the hell to get there.  Does that seem fair?

MR. NORQUIST:  Yes, I guess I would argue that the last three years suggest that what I posited, which is you can reduce spending without paying the other side higher taxes.  There was a sense, and a number of people shared it, that we couldn’t get budget restraint unless there was a tax increase.  This is what the Democrats offered Reagan in ’82, $3 of spending cuts for $1 of tax increase.  In ’82, the tax increases of real spending cuts didn’t happen and the tax increases are permanent and still there.  We never got spending cuts.  In ’90, Bush was offered $2 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increase which I always thought was just insulting.  Reagan, they offered $3 of imaginary spending cuts and Bush, they said you’re a cheaper date.  You can have $2 of imaginary spending cuts.  And that didn’t happen either.

So what I was arguing this last time and this is why the taxpayer protection pledge was helpful because you’ve got a majority of almost all the Republican House and Senate say we’re not raising taxes.  If you say you’re not raising taxes, you can begin to have a conversation about reform in government.  But if tax increases are on the table, the Ds never let you get to a conversation about reform in government to cost less because they always offer another tax increase rather than spending restraint.

What came out of this last fight, 2011, the sort of showdown, and then I guess it was recreated in the fall of 2012, no, the fall of 2011, where they did the Super Committee.  And each time the Rs held and said we’re not raising taxes.  We have to cut spending.

. . .

SENATOR SIMPSON:  When I asked you over when we testified that Ronald Reagan did raise taxes eight times in his administration and it was a high success.  I did say that and you said, ‘I didn’t like that.’

MR. NORQUIST:  No, no.  What I would argue is that in ’82, which was the significant big tax increase, you had a pre-Reagan Senate and a Democratic House.  Both bodies wanted to raise taxes.  Reagan was in the middle of the conflict with the Soviet Union.  And he was forced, he felt, into that agreement.  I think it was a mistake.  Certainly, he said afterwards that it was the biggest mistake of his presidency.

SENATOR SIMPSON:  Eight times?

MR. NORQUIST:  ’82 is the biggest mistake of his presidency.  And I would argue, yeah, each of the tax increases we would have been better off had he not done that, but the good news is just as the country moves forward and the Republican party learns from history and from what works and what doesn’t work, we now have a Republican party which is a Reagan Republican party.  Reagan didn’t have a Reagan Republican House or Senate when he was President.  He was one of the few Reaganites in D.C.

You now have a majority of the Republicans in the House and Senate that are Reagan Republicans who want to limit size of government and they’ve made a commitment to their voters that they’re not going to raise taxes.  They will reduce spending.

Yes, Reagan did that.  I mean Lincoln tolerated slavery, but that was a while ago.  We don’t do that anymore.  And so —

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