When you think of the funniest personalities in Washington, Ralph Nader doesn’t spring to mind. The longtime anti-corporate crusader is one of the most serious people in politics, but when anti-tax activist Grover Norquist told him he would have fun participating in a standup comedy contest, Nader agreed to do it. And even though he’s been on Saturday Night Live five times, he played off his humorless reputation, admitting he didn’t know how to laugh, so had to imitate others: a well-known senator, a revered religious figure, and finally a corporate chieftain’s haughty guffaw. “I came in third and he won,” Nader said of Norquist, a regular on the comedy circuit.
The two men have what could be called a bromance, a description that Norquist embraces. “I like that,” he exclaimed without hesitation. “He’s a fun guy, and I enjoy spending time with someone who takes his politics seriously.” The two activists come at issues from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, but have found areas where they agree. A major one is what Norquist calls “crony capitalism” and Nader calls “corporate welfare”—the assorted subsidies embedded in the tax code and the special treatment that the well-connected get in a thinly veiled exchange for campaign donations.
Turning agreement into implementation is another matter. “Grover is against corporate welfare, but it’s not where his funding comes from,” says Nader, “and when he goes to work every day, it’s not a priority.” Norquist is famous for the no-tax pledge that he has gotten almost every Republican lawmaker to sign, and Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), which he founded, is primarily a vehicle to promote the interests of his funders, who he is not required by law to name. “If you separate him from his funders, he’s a genuine libertarian,” says Nader, adding, “He’s not lacking in self-confidence. Of course I’ve been accused of that, too.”
The two first joined forces before the ’92 election when they held a joint press conference to tout polling data that showed term limits poised to pass in more than a dozen states. “Nobody came,” says Norquist, calling it “the least successful press conference in the history of Western civilization.” After that they would encounter each other in green rooms, but the relationship didn’t take hold until Nader asked for an invitation to one of Norquist’s Wednesday meetings: the right’s brain trust, where assorted conservatives gather around a table, set aside their differences, and marshal their forces. Nader’s attendance prompted billionaire liberal George Soros to also seek an invitation, Norquist says.
Nader’s memory of the event is a little less rosy. “It is congealed greed,” he says. “I told them, ‘You guys would freeze icicles.’” It is worth going, he adds, “You can see the completely monetized mind in action. It’s frightful.”
However frightful Nader found it, the concept intrigued him that “convergence” could be found among disparate groups. His new book, Unstoppable, envisions the power that an alliance of left and right can bring. He cites House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s recent diversion of $18 million in taxpayer funds from the presidential conventions to pediatric cancer research. “I was pushing for it for years, then I talked to Grover and he said, ‘I hate that,’ and he made his views known. He’s always on the phone. It had been almost impossible to get through. Suddenly something clicked and it went through like lightning.”
Nader has a chapter on the think tanks based in Washington that reflect the priorities of their funders. “You go to Heritage, God forbid,” he says of the conservative think tank. “You’re going to be pushing stuff the Koch Brothers are funding. If your views are against corporate welfare, you’re not getting funding for that.” He wants to see funding for groups that promote convergence, a term that he readily admits does not have much box-office appeal. “How about alliance,” he suggests, “The Left-Right Alliance for America.”
A top left-right priority is an audit of the Pentagon. “They say they can’t do it because they move the helicopters around. Hertz moves their cars around, and they can still count them,” says Norquist. “There are real opportunities, and the left-right coalition can’t be a centrist effort. It has to be very conservative and very liberal, it’s the only way you break through the small ‘c’ corruption that everybody in Washington thinks is normal.” Pushing for more transparency in government, civil liberties, reining in the National Security Agency, prison reform, getting rid of mandatory minimums for drug possession, Norquist has a long list, to which Nader adds raising the minimum wage, breaking up the banks too big too fail, and the pushback President Obama got from left and right when he wanted to send missiles into Syria. “Google odd bedfellows, and you’ll see there’s one after another,” he says.
Nader featured Norquist as a main villain in his 2009 satirical novel Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us. Norquist says he didn’t read the book, but had an intern mark the relevant pages; he notes his character, Brovar Dortquist, is correctly depicted as a Julius Caesar buff. The inscription from Nader reads, “Grover, for the imagination.” In Nader’s Unstoppable, Norquist contributes a lengthy blurb that imagines left and right doing battle in “the nexus between statism and cronyism,” a place well barricaded by the lobbyists who dictate much of what goes on in Washington. Chipping away on the comedy circuit could be the start to something big.