always say politicians are cowards, and they
really are," Stephen Moore told me recently.
"We say we're going to run someone against
them, and they start wetting their pants."
the president of a group of zealous economic
conservatives known as the Club for Growth,
was talking about Arlen Specter, a giant of
the United States Senate and the only Republican
moderate in the Senate leadership. Specter
is running for a fifth term next year in Pennsylvania,
but he now finds himself facing an unexpected,
potentially serious primary challenge from
the party's right flank. That challenge, from
a brash conservative congressman from industrial
Allentown named Patrick Toomey, is being engineered
by the Club for Growth, whose 10,000 members,
most of them gray-suited bankers and businessmen,
seem to be on a mission to banish taxes from
the earth. Moore has vowed revenge on Republican
incumbents who don't worship at his antitax
altar -- he calls them "Republicans in Name
Only," or "Rinos" -- and unseating Specter,
he says, is his top priority.
Specter is a powerful committee chairman and
can count on the strong support of the White
House, he is clearly anxious; he is already
spending much of his time shaking hands back
in Pennsylvania, and he has called some members
of the club himself to plead his case. A few
months ago, Specter even invited Moore over
to his Capitol office for a chat. A masterly
politician, Specter gave it all the charm
he could muster, graciously showing Moore
his trove of family photos before launching
into a defense of his voting record, which,
he rightly pointed out, is broadly more conservative
than Toomey's, according to National Journal's
ratings. Specter is, after all, the man who
got Clarence Thomas confirmed, and he has
long supported the balanced-budget amendment
and, for that matter, the flat tax.
Specter's astonishment, however, Moore, a
nerdy 43-year-old economist with an affable,
self-mocking laugh, didn't seem to care much
about Specter's record. It was simple, Moore
said: even though Specter eventually voted
for President Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut,
Moore could not forgive him for first voting
to trim the president's original, bigger tax-cut
proposal by $250 billion so that the money
could be spent on education.
his part, Specter came away from his meeting
with Moore feeling somewhat bewildered by
what was happening inside his own party. He
took note when Moore later told a reporter
that he wanted to beat Specter because having
"a major scalp on the wall" would make the
Club for Growth more intimidating to other
Republicans. (Moore said the same thing to
me when I interviewed him in his office, motioning
to a spot near his desk, as if Specter's scalp
might actually hang there someday.) "I have
been in public life since I became an assistant
D.A. in 1959," Specter told me. "And I've
never heard talk like that."
of Washington, only Stephen Moore's relatives
have ever heard of him -- and even some of
them would probably have to think on it a
while. But in this era after campaign-finance
reform, as the fund-raising dominance of the
two parties diminishes, it's the people you've
never heard of who will change the course
of politics, and Moore seems bent on taking
a hammer to George W. Bush's carefully sculptured
majority party. Last spring, Moore attacked
two Republican senators who were resisting
the latest tax cut: George Voinovich of Ohio
and Olympia Snowe of Maine. He ran ads in
each of their states in which he compared
them with the French president, Jacques Chirac.
That was too much for Karl Rove, the president's
political enforcer, who called the ads "stupid"
was unimpressed. "Whether I'm pals with Karl
Rove is not really of interest to me, to be
honest with you," he told me.
kind of open rebellion is unheard of in Bush's
Washington, where party loyalty gets confused
with moral rectitude, and where Republicans
generally speak with a kind of bland, Orwellian
unanimity. The criticism is especially surprising
since it comes from activists on the party's
economic fringe, at what looks for all the
world like their moment of triumph, having
just won the largest tax break since Reagan.
You could understand if religious conservatives
were the ones agitating, given their discontent
over the recent Supreme Court decisions on
affirmative action and gay rights. But what
could the radical supply-siders possibly have
to complain about?
in the early 1980's, a group of about 30 wealthy
money managers in Manhattan, all of them Reagan-loving,
tax-hating conservatives, began holding a
monthly political meeting that they fashioned
on a venture-capital model. The "investors"
would invite a political candidate running
for state or national office in to explain
why he or she would be a strong fiscal conservative,
and if they liked what they heard, they would
write checks on the spot. Bravely casting
aside the obvious hair-transplant jokes, they
called themselves the Political Club for Growth.
years passed, however, the club's members
began to see that candidates would say anything
to get a pile of checks, only to ignore their
promises to the club once they got elected.
The supply-siders needed a new approach.
of the club's regular attendees was Stephen
Moore. He wasn't rich, but as a scholar at
the libertarian Cato Institute and a former
Republican aide on Capitol Hill, he was considered
an expert on the federal budget. Moore was
intrigued by the success of Emily's List,
a pro-choice group that had developed serious
clout among Democrats by helping female candidates
in primaries, where a relatively small amount
of money could have a huge impact. Emily's
List amassed power by '"bundling" individual
donations and passing them on to selected
campaigns. In 1998, Moore persuaded his wealthy
backers -- they included the philanthropist
and financier Richard Gilder and Thomas L.
Rhodes, president of The National Review --
to let him remake the Club for Growth in the
club's agenda hasn't changed much since those
formative days of the Reagan administration.
Like all good supply-siders, Moore and his
members hold that the best way to stimulate
economic expansion is for government to drastically
reduce the amount of money it collects from
its citizens. This practice, as recent history
shows, has a tendency to create budget deficits,
but the supply-siders say that's all right,
because deficits force government to scale
back spending on inefficient programs.
is the answer to all our problems," Moore
told me over lunch at Morton's, a favorite
Republican hangout. "Poverty, income disparity,
disease -- all of these things can be alleviated
through rapid income growth."
a guy who talks like a professor, Moore has
proved himself to be a talented and ruthless
self-promoter, establishing the Club for Growth
as an irrepressible presence in Washington.
Moore has intervened in open primaries to
help elect several current congressmen --
Patrick Toomey among them -- who are now fiercely
loyal to his agenda. His close relationship
with these congressmen and a handful of senators
has, in turn, enhanced his power on the Hill.
He's a regular visitor in the office of Tom
DeLay, the Republican house majority leader,
whose political-action committee has also
contributed heavily to the club.
who disdain the Club for Growth are quick
to point out that for all Moore's chesty threats,
the club has yet to actually beat an incumbent,
and its overall won-lost record is decidedly
mixed. "At the end of the day, these guys
have more dollars than political sense" is
the way Scott Reed, a Republican strategist,
politics, however, there are times when the
facts aren't as relevant as the perception.
The club may not, as yet, have unseated any
Republicans, but the looming certainty that
it could -- and will go to any length to succeed
-- terrifies vulnerable incumbents. A few
years ago, it would have been unthinkable
for moderates in both parties to talk of a
$350 billion tax cut at a time of deficit
spending as a "compromise," and yet that is
precisely what just happened in Washington.
Moore's tactics have helped tilt the terms
of debate in the Capitol.
the 2002 campaign cycle, in addition to spending
several million dollars on polling and ads,
the Club for Growth collected at least $3.2
million in "bundled" checks for its chosen
candidates, according to the Center for Responsive
Politics. One of the lucky recipients was
David Fischer, a Maryland lawyer the club
backed in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Congressman
Wayne Gilchrest. Fischer described to me how
the club sent him about $225,000, roughly
three-quarters of the total cash donated to
felt like one of those congressman back in
Abscam, when they used to get those packages
of money," Fischer told me. "We were taking
in 25 or 30 grand a day."
be the target of the Club for Growth is a
different experience altogether. Just ask
Sherwood Boehlert, an 11-term moderate congressman
from New York who was singled out by the club
last year and barely survived. "What we didn't
see coming was the last 10-day onslaught of
money, manpower and mailings," Boehlert says.
"And those mailings -- if I believed that
about a candidate, I wouldn't have voted for
some other Republicans at whom the club has
taken aim, Boehlert isn't really sure why.
He voted for both Bush tax cuts, along with
rollbacks of the marriage tax and the estate
tax. When I mentioned this to Moore, he was
unmoved. "He's been one of the most liberal
Republicans in the House," Moore said, adding
that conservatives consider Boehlert to be
a big spender.
not only about tax cuts," Moore reminded me,
and it's true: the club claims to judge candidates
not just by their commitment to tax cuts,
but also by their determination to rein in
government waste. (The club is "agnostic"
on social issues, to such an extent that Moore
has banned "the A word" -- abortion -- from
for an organization that claims to be so ideologically
pure, the club doesn't always apply these
principles consistently. As Moore readily
admits, spending has multiplied like a virus
in Washington under Bush and the Republican
Congress, but while the club gleefully goes
after Boehlert and other moderates on taxes,
it has yet to take aim at a single conservative
for going soft on spending. Sometimes, in
fact, the club isn't at all concerned with
a candidate's fiscal ideology -- like, for
instance, when that candidate's name is Arnold
Schwarzenegger. Earlier this summer, Moore
held an event with the Terminator as he considered
entering the California governor's race on
the recall ballot. A few weeks later, at a
staff meeting, Moore and his deputies discussed
the actor's potential candidacy.
is he on policy?" one staff member wanted
he's terrible," Moore said. "Horrible. He
says he's a fiscal conservative, but. . .
. " He trailed off in laughter. If Schwarzenegger
would just agree to back a flat-tax proposal
and to rule out any new taxes, Moore said,
the club would get behind him anyway.
kind of inconsistency -- "hypocrisy" would
be the less charitable word -- has led critics
of the club to conclude, not unreasonably,
that its talk about cutting taxes and slashing
spending obscures a less lofty agenda. Moore
wants that scalp on his wall, and the easiest
way to get it is to single out moderates like
Specter and Boehlert, because moderates are
always vulnerable in Republican primaries.
go after the low-hanging fruit," says Sarah
Chamberlain Resnick, who runs the Republican
Main Street Partnership. Resnick's group,
a coalition of Republican moderates, is vowing
to raise at least $5 million to fight Moore
in critical states next year -- which suggests,
incredibly, that a president poised for coronation
could instead find his party drawn into civil
Bush White House has created such an aura
of discipline that Republicans in Washington
often behave as if their offices are bugged,
faithfully mouthing the message of the day.
And so the most intriguing question about
the Club for Growth, one that divides Republicans
in Washington, is whether Moore is the pest
that the administration just can't seem to
exterminate, or actually a secret ally of
the White House. Put another way, if Karl
Rove is really so angry at Moore's antics,
why does the club still exist?
much of the first two years of the administration,
Moore was part of the right-wing cabal that
administration officials would consult on
a regular basis. But Moore proved himself
disloyal by publicly criticizing Bush and
opposing some of his appointments. "I don't
really like the Bush people very much," Moore
says. "I was never part of a fraternity or
anything like that, and the Bush White House
is like a club."
has good reason to wish the Club for Growth
would go away. It will be hard to achieve
his goal of expanding the G.O.P.'s margin
in the House and Senate if Republicans face
divisive primary fights in critical swing
states. It's not surprising, then, that Rove
and his deputies have called some of Moore's
backers to complain about the club's tactics.
And Rove has made it clear that the White
House intends to provide Specter with the
muscle he needs to fend off Toomey's challenge.
the same time, however, the club serves a
useful purpose for the Bush administration
by driving vulnerable moderates into the warm
embrace of the White House. This makes it
much easier for the administration to make
deals on the Hill. Think about it: if you're
a moderate congressman, you might be inclined
to vote against the latest Bush tax cut. But
then here's Steve Moore, announcing that he
won't rest until you're retired and teaching
civics at a community college. You have a
choice: you can either vote against the tax
cut and take on a club-backed opponent all
by yourself, or you can cut a deal with Rove,
who will send in the president to campaign
for you, as long as you give him your vote
on the tax cut. In this Machiavellian way,
the club is the perfect foil for the White
House, creating leverage where it might otherwise
one thing Rove won't tolerate, apparently,
is Moore's taking credit for the president's
legislative victories. I sent Rove an e-mail
message with several questions regarding the
Club for Growth. He ignored every question
except one -- when I asked if the Club for
Growth had, in fact, helped secure Senator
Voinovich's vote on the tax cut with its vicious
ad campaign, as Moore said it did. "The ads
were completely ineffective," Rove wrote back,
"and what won Voinovich's support was the
constant lobbying and cajoling of his Senate
colleagues, his Ohio constituents and the
president of the United States."
any given day in the Club for Growth's K Street
office, another smartly dressed, little-known
Republican congressional candidate may come
traipsing through to beseech Moore for his
support. These meetings often have the feel
of job interviews, with the eager candidate
sunk into a beaten office chair while Moore,
seated at his paper-strewn desk, flips lazily
through the applicant's resume.
first time I visited the offices of the Club
for Growth, in June, Moore was just wrapping
up a conversation with Virginia Foxx, a matronly
state senator from North Carolina who is now
running for a seat in Congress.
it Foxx with two x's?" Moore asked absently.
The candidate nodded and pointed to her two
earrings -- an x in each ear.
someone called me this past week and said
all this stuff about you voting for all these
tax increases," Moore said.
no," Foxx replied quickly, shaking her head.
"It was just that one I told you about already.
The occupancy tax."
yes," Foxx assured him. She left with a check
for $1,000 but no guarantee of support.
candidates are willing to endure Moore's obvious
contempt for them -- "Aren't politicians loathsome?"
he asked me once with a pained expression,
as if we were discussing head lice -- indicates
that Moore is becoming something of a kingmaker
inside the party. And this, ultimately, is
what the Club for Growth is after: to be the
interest group that controls Republican politics.
only group that has been jealous of us --
I don't know if 'jealous' is the right word,
or maybe 'resentful' -- is the party itself,"
Moore said. "They think we're replacing the
party, and that is our goal. We want to take
over the party's fund-raising. We want it
to be, in 10 years, that no one can win a
Senate or a House seat without the support
of the Club for Growth."
may sound Napoleonic, this business about
taking over the nation's dominant party, but
it might not be as delusional as it sounds.
Moore understands, shrewdly, that the old
order of political power is fast eroding.
Party loyalty has been declining for years,
and voter turnout remains strikingly low,
meaning that elections increasingly revolve
around the kind of single-issue voters that
give interest groups their power. And under
the new McCain-Feingold campaign finance law,
the two parties can no longer spend unlimited
amounts of soft money, which takes away their
chief fund-raising advantage over outside
groups like Moore's.
it's pretty unlikely that the Club for Growth
will be running Republican politics anytime
soon, it's not a stretch to suggest that in
10 years it will be one of several groups,
each with its own extreme agenda, that will
dominate the business of campaigns.
that end, Moore keeps looking for the one
big score. On the day he met with Foxx, Moore
giddily waved a rubber-banded stack of envelopes
at me. It was the week's accumulation of checks
for Toomey, soon to be sent over to his campaign
in a Federal Express envelope. "This will
shatter all our records," Moore said. It's
a long way to next year's election, and despite
the club's best efforts, most political experts
think Arlen Specter will emerge with his Senate
seat. Sooner or later, though, Moore will
most likely have somebody's scalp hanging
on that wall.
Bai is a contributing writer for the magazine.
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