THE BLOG

Shadow Elite: Grover Norquist -- Many GOP Legislators Privately Favor Afghanistan Withdrawal

02/17/2011 07:21 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Grover Norquist, toast of the left?

Well, not quite, but the longtime anti-tax activist has been winning favorable mention in seemingly unusual quarters recently, for calling on his GOP and conservative brethren to at least consider debate on withdrawing from Afghanistan. With the White House this week putting out its fiscal 2012 budget, Norquist is part of an increasingly vocal GOP contingent: the assorted fiscal conservatives and Tea Party activists committing what once might have been Republican heresy: eying the defense budget for cuts.

Norquist believes the cost is too high to justify staying in Afghanistan and cites a poll showing that 57 percent of conservatives, when informed of the war's cost, think the U.S. can "dramatically" reduce its involvement without putting America at risk.

Janine recently sat down with Norquist to talk about public opinion among conservatives on Afghanistan, and the private feelings of GOP legislators.

According to Norquist, "many" Republican legislators privately favor withdrawal. He says within the party, "support for the status quo is a mile wide and an inch deep." And more broadly, he says the defense budget deserves real scrutiny.

But that idea, backed by Norquist as well as ascendant Tea Party figures, brought out the knives this week from some of the leading voices in the conservative press and the think-tank community, where a robust defense budget is still the great untouchable. On Monday, "Defending Defense", described as a joint project of the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and Foreign Policy Initiative put out a statement:

Defense is simply too important to be left to budgetary shell games... ignoring our military modernization needs in a time of peace is perilous. Doing so during ongoing operations could be catastrophic.

The authors of the statement also penned a piece this week with the same themes in the Weekly Standard. While Defending Defense chastised the Obama Administration for not devoting enough resources to the military, the White House was not alone in being taken to task:

To provide for the common defense is a constitutional duty of the federal government. House Republicans should keep this in mind as they review the President's budget and issue their own budget in the weeks to come.

Clearly they mean the House Republicans voted in last fall on a wave of Tea Party-powered fiscal conservatism. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said that "everything is on the table" in terms of potential cuts, and Norquist agrees. "Calling something defense does not make it beyond scrutiny, and everything should be scrutinized....There are no sacred cows."

And indeed there were signs from the annual Conservative Political Action Committee meeting held last week that this cow is sacred no more. The meeting sponsored a debate on what's next for Afghanistan, and young, energetic libertarians made their voices -- and in some cases, shouts -- heard in support of Ron Paul, for whom no government is too small, and few foreign conflicts worth the taxpayer dollars. 

As the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan describes the "Ron Paul Divide", "Gone are the days when the Cold War held the right together." Now the GOP faces "virulent [internal] disagreements on foreign policy." He suggests that old-school conservatives haven't been saying too much about foreign conflicts like Afghanistan. Why? "[B]ecause a reprise of Bush-Cheney would go down like a Ricky Gervais joke at the Golden Globes."