Faith-based.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Putting Principle First, Except When It Comes to Trump

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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There have not been two more prominent conservative activists over the past quarter century than Grover Norquist, the anti-tax and anti-government advocate, and Ralph Reed, a leading strategist for the religious right.

Both profess to put principles first. Norquist, best known for demanding that Republican office seekers sign an anti-tax pledge, says he wants to slash government "to the size where I can drag it in the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." He also is a self-identified champion of "outreach to the Muslim community."

Reed, who runs the Faith and Freedom Coalition, thinks values and morals should be central to politics and says the U.S. needs to be "guided by an internal moral compass." Today, both are strong supporters of Donald Trump.

Trump has shown little interest in cutting the size of government. He has run an anti-Muslim campaign and is at best a newcomer to faith politics; not too long ago he was pro-choice on abortion and didn't object to late-term abortions.

Reed and Norquist are only the most notable of a breed. Trump ran roughshod over their interests to win the Republican nomination, owes them nothing and commands their support on his terms. Principle takes a back seat to power, connections and money.

Most politicians, conflicted or not, are under strong pressure to go along with their party. Still, more than a few leading conservative policy thinkers are outraged by Trump and continue to oppose him.

But activists who have profited personally and financially from their political ties have a different calculation: how to maintain the status quo, their gravy train.

Norquist says he doesn't think that Trump’s tax plan conflicts with his anti-tax pledge even though the New York billionaire has said he won't shrink entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare and has no proposal to cut the size of government, much less drown it in a bathtub. In particular, Norquist said, he likes the candidate's proposed 15-percent tax rate for businesses and the absence of an alternative minimum tax and estate tax, all of which he said would make for "a very pro-growth tax bill," especially by contrast to Hillary Clinton's proposed taxes on income, sodas and guns. Republicans, he said, "governed well" against President Barack Obama.

He said a ban on Muslim immigration was unconstitutional and would not pass Congress, and  that "Trump’s rhetoric is unnecessarily driving supporters away from himself and the GOP."

In a recent Time magazine interview he suggested that Trump, as president, wouldn't have much clout because House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would set the agenda.

(Just as they did in this year's Republican primaries, I guess.)

Longtime critics, like the former Wyoming senator and deficit hawk Alan Simpson, say this is no surprise. "This guy is a fraud," Simpson says of Norquist, adding that his interest is in being "a power player."

Ralph, another longtime acquaintance, also contorts himself to justify his support for Trump, who prior to the Iowa caucuses displayed little interest in issues important to religious conservatives. He had declared that he never sought God's forgiveness and took awhile to concede that the Bible is a better book than his own "Art of the Deal." He said he couldn't choose a favorite part of the Bible because so many were great.

Reed, who did answer a query, said that people of faith "cannot be neutral in a binary choice" between Trump and Hillary Clinton. The presumptive Republican nominee, he said, is better on opposition to abortion, Obamacare and gay marriage. He acknowledged that Trump has flaws but noted, "While he may be imperfect there has only been one perfect person who lived and that was Jesus."

A less politically motivated Christian conservative leader, Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, sees it differently. Given a choice between two candidates, one with "poor character and another with wicked public stances," Moore argues, "saying the alternative would be worse is no valid excuse."

Reed and Norquist were snared in a scandal more than a decade ago involving the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who raked in big bucks scamming Indian tribes in casino politics. Abramoff and others went to the slammer. Reed and Norquist weren't prosecuted, though their bad behavior was cited by a Senate committee report.

If Trump upsets the odds and wins the presidency, Reed and Norquist will be positioned to benefit from their support. If he loses, they'll have earned reputations for ditching their principles.

(Corrects reference to Norquist's failure to respond to questions after response was overlooked in e-mail, and adds response after seventh paragraph in article published June 17.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net