WASHINGTON—If aliens landed in Washington, D.C. right now, they might assume in their search for a terrestrial leader that a bespectacled man called "Grover Norquist" controlled the planet's most powerful nation. They might also conclude that this person had magical powers.
The misunderstanding wouldn't necessarily be their fault.
Grover Fever has swept the nation's capital this week, shortly after thousands of politicos waddled back into the city after a Thanksgiving break. After years of notoriety in Washington but near obscurity elsewhere, Norquist is becoming a household name around the dinner table.
"The Colbert Report" recently devoted a feature to Norquist, portraying the 56-year-old Harvard graduate as an omniscient creature whose power knows no bounds. Norquist has been all over cable news shows and the subject of lengthy profiles in prestigious newspapers and magazines. Outside Washington's Metro stations this week, hawkers handed out free tabloid dailies bearing the image of his face. Politico devoted an entire hour to him at a newsmakers breakfast on Wednesday morning.
His name is on the lips of top Democrats in Congress who blame him for single-handedly bringing the United States of America to an immediate standstill. Norquist is "one obstacle standing between Congress and compromise," Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid exclaimed from the Senate floor on Tuesday morning.
His crime? Norquist has persuaded more than 1,000 politicians to sign a pledge never to raise taxes through his organization, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). But with Congress now debating how to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff—a series of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to kick in Jan. 1 if a budget deal isn't reached with President Barack Obama—some Republicans appear to be wiggling away from Norquist's grip.
A few GOP lawmakers have voiced a willingness to eliminate deductions within the tax code, which, without offsetting tax cuts elsewhere, would technically violate the pledge. One of the possible pledge violators, Republican Rep. Peter King of New York, called Norquist a "low-life" and said his wife would "knock his head off" after Norquist compared the taxpayer pledge to King's marriage vows.
But Norquist is like a bearded Lernaean Hydra, which grows only more powerful the more you attack it. The evidence? A majority of Republicans have not publicly joined the rogue moderates, reinforcing the narrative that they remain under Norquist's binding spell.
But Norquist isn't necessarily the most powerful conservative activist in town. And many conservatives don't always move in lockstep with him, which is clear in the current debate over the fiscal cliff.
While there is a consensus among Republicans against increasing marginal tax rates for the sake of a deal, the disagreement lies in whether to eliminate deductions and close loopholes in the tax code.
Norquist insists that eliminating the loopholes without offsetting them by tax cuts would violate the pledge, but others say the deductions violate conservative principles by inserting the hand of government into the market.
"We look at things differently than Grover does," Chris Chocola, president of the free-market group the Club for Growth, told Yahoo News. "We have always been advocates of lowering the marginal rate, broadening the base, eliminating what we think are market-distorting tax credits and loopholes."
Chocola said the approach would produce benefits that could please both parties: It would force companies that manipulate the system of loopholes to pay more in taxes and increase revenue by growing the economy.
Matt Kibbe, who heads the tea party organizing network FreedomWorks, agreed that any deal that scrapped the thousands of tax code loopholes would be progress.
"An ideal tax code doesn't choose favorites, and it shouldn't matter that you have a great lobbyist in Washington, D.C.," Kibbe said. "I think all conservatives generally support fundamental tax reform—they don't like the idea that GE gets a special credit for green energy or that some other company gets different treatment from anyone else."
Despite the differences, Norquist remains the man in the spotlight. He seems to be enjoying every minute of it, using the opportunity to promote his organization and raising his own profile.
On Wednesday, Norquist presided over a gathering of conservative activists who piled into a massive conference room at ATR's Washington office. The hump-day confab, known as "The Wednesday Meeting," puts what Hillary Clinton famously called "the vast right-wing conspiracy" in one room for an hour and a half every week.
The meeting is strictly off the record, but reporters can attend if they agree not to disclose details of the discussion.
On each chair in the room, representatives stacked press releases, pamphlets and articles promoting their organizations. From ATR, everyone received a full-page, color picture of former Republican President George H.W. Bush, whose bid for a second term was foiled after he agreed to raise taxes. It was a warning to anyone who might be thinking of breaking the pledge.
This week's meeting was standing-room only, and Norquist, wearing a headset microphone, was in his element, roaring through presentations. Seated at the head of the table, he called on activists, think-tankers and members of Congress to share how they are promoting the conservative movement.
Despite his image as a puppeteer who controls the strings of Republican lawmakers, Norquist is not so much the Secret Master of the GOP as he is the Grand Facilitator of the coalitions that hold it together.
In the meantime, he doesn't seem to mind the confusion.