Despite his primary losses over the weekend, John McCain is still the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee. But as the candidacy of Mike Huckabee lingers, so too does the perception among some conservatives that the senator from Arizona can't be trusted to carry the banner for their issues. Prominent conservative tax activist Grover Norquist has had his share of fights with McCain, mostly visibly over the senator's past reluctance to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. But Norquist has been one of the first high-profile activists to say he would support McCain against any Democrat in the fall. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Seth Colter Walls about why their relationship has improved (despite McCain's failure to take Norquist's "taxpayer protection pledge") and how the senator can mend relationships with the rest of the conservative movement. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: So if you can support John McCain …
Norquist: Wait, I haven't endorsed John McCain. I haven't endorsed anybody. I will endorse the Republican nominee, who I expect to be McCain.
OK, but in a climate of unease on the right, you're making what amounts to positive noises on his behalf. Just a couple years ago the two of you were at odds. When did that start to change?
About a year ago Sen. McCain and I ran into each other, and he talked about wanting to abolish the AMT [Alternative Minimum Tax]. I said, "You're not going to be able to," but I gave him a series of suggestions of how to go about doing that halfway. He asked for a memo on the subject, which I gave him. As a senator he has taken our taxpayer protection pledge.
But not as a presidential candidate.
He did in 2000.
Though not this year.
Right. I mean, the question … one could argue that when you pledge not to raise taxes that's not a "sometimes" project. But he has not taken the pledge a second time as a presidential candidate. We would like him to take it again.
So what gives you confidence that his recent positions on taxes can be depended on over the long term?
Well, in 2005 he endorsed the Bush tax cuts. As I said on [former Massachusetts governor Mitt] Romney's behalf, I want to know if people are moving in my direction. I'm not interested in long discussions about where they were five years ago. The Roman Catholic Church wants converts. They don't say, "Hey, 10 years ago …" you know? … When McCain put out his 25 percent corporate tax rate, his full expensing for business investment—which would be about a trillion dollar tax cut over 10 years—and he called for abolishing the AMT, and making the Bush tax cuts permanent, we put out statements [on his behalf]. So on the tax issue he has moved very hard and far, and I believe convincingly, because he's picked the [tax cuts] most likely to move, even with Democrats running one or both houses [of Congress]. He has twice on TV now said, "I will veto any tax increase." This was his "read my lips" moment.
Of course, "read my lips" didn't work out so well the first time around.
The reason why the taxpayer protection pledge is important is because the whole world saw George H.W. Bush throw away a perfectly good presidency because he broke it. That's why people take it, because it means something. The pledge is sui generis. No one else has created something where if you break it, you lose.
What about his comments about the inadvisability of cutting taxes during wartime? Given that he's so focused on Iraq, doesn't it seem as though he could reassess his current pledge?
No, I think it works the other way. He is very wrapped up in his sense of honor. He doesn't lie. That's why people like him. Plus, if this election is, front and center, "McCain will not raise your taxes. Hillary and Obama will," I think we will win. If this is not about taxes, it's difficult to see how McCain can win. Or any Republican.
How about other conservatives, whose first priority isn't always cutting taxes? How do you see their support for McCain?
I believe conservatives, one, are warming to McCain. You certainly saw a good response at CPAC. But, two, it just takes time. Remember, for a lot of people, they've only been introduced to McCain in the past couple months. He was hibernating for a year. Everyone could tell you that they were hinting for Romney or thinking about Huckabee. The establishment thinking was that McCain was not in it anymore. That's why nobody threw a punch at him for a year. If you have 30 seconds to hit somebody, you hit Romney. Why would you throw a punch at the nice guy in the uniform? Neither the press, McCain, nor the conservative movement should expect everything to be fixed right away.
This question of will conservatives support McCain is a question of the credibility of his change. The prodigal son comes home — do you believe him? A lot of discussion of Romney's move from pro-choice to pro-life fails to understand that his problem wasn't that Romney didn't check off the box. It's that people didn't hear him explain it in a way that made them comfortable. One theory [about McCain] is that he wasn't voting against taxpayers, he was voting against Bush. Some people make that case in his defense. And I can think of conservatives who voted against free trade because they hated Clinton so much. Which is to say McCain went away from a traditional low-tax position, and we criticized him when he did. In a sense, I am a microcosm for when others in the movement have a real beef with him. If McCain credibly comes back on their issues, then they will say nice things, as [we] have. We're not saying that because we like him, we're not saying it because he's going to be the nominee. We're saying it because of his positions. I'm a little more of a thermometer than a power player in D.C. I can't unilaterally decide whether he's good or he's bad. And then when Hillary gets the nomination …
You think that's a lock?
Well, what do they say about knife fights? Never bet against a Sicilian when death is on the line. [Laughs] Well, never bet against the Clintons when the election is on the line. At that point, whatever unhappiness [there is among conservatives] about McCain will drop in half.
What else is McCain good on, besides taxes?
Well, he's my candidate who gets immigration right—on a personal level, speaking not as a head of the taxpayer group. You gotta make that clear. On a personal level, he's the one who recognizes the value of immigration to America. I did a press conference last spring on the subject. This is the issue McCain's always been both good on and brave on.