It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism
By Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
(Basic Books, 226 pages, $26)
WHO BROKE WASHINGTON? According to these authors, the Republicans did—by organizing themselves into an ideological party that rejects compromise and moderation and refuses to work with Democrats to address the nation’s mounting problems of debt and entitlement spending. The authors indict Republicans for waging an all-out political war against President Obama, refusing to confirm his nominees for executive branch posts, blocking his legislative proposals with Senate filibusters, and generally opposing any piece of legislation that he supports, or that, if passed, might redound to his benefit.
The authors are two Washington insiders masquerading as “scholars” and, judging by their book, partisan Democrats pretending to be “independents” or “centrists.” Both Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein have worked in D. C. for more than three decades, and, for the past quarter century, have maintained positions as senior fellows and congressional experts at the Brookings Institution (Mann) and the American Enterprise Institute (Ornstein). Like many in Washington who call themselves centrists or independents, Mann and Ornstein faithfully follow the Democratic Party line, favoring higher taxes and more regulation, along with the standard liberal package of campaign finance reforms. As Washington insiders, they naturally favor the party that arrogates more power to the national capital. It is hardly a wonder that they express little sympathy for an opposition party that has grown steadily more unified around conservative ideas since the 1980s.
This is a bad book in every way that a book can be bad. It is misleading, simplistic in its interpretation, and ignorant of widely known facts that contradict its partisan thesis. Most important, it is just plain wrong. Political debate is not “broken”; it is working much as the founders designed it to work. It is “broken” only from the standpoint of liberals who want to ram their agenda through Congress but cannot do so. If there is gridlock in Washington-well, then, that might be a good thing.
THE AUTHORS’ MAIN POINT is that the Republican Party has evolved into an ideological “outlier” in a constitutional system that works only through moderation and compromise. “The Republican Party,” they write, “has become an insurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise; unpersuaded [sic] by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” The Republicans in Congress, they say, resemble nothing so much as a parliamentary party unified in opposition to Democrats and committed to their destruction, while the Democrats look more like a traditional American party, with many factions representing a spectrum of opinion. In a constitutional system such as ours, a willful and wellorganized minority can use the levers of power to frustrate the majority and bring the affairs of government to a stop.
This is what they suggest Republicans have done on and off since the 1990s, but increasingly so since Barack Obama was elected to the presidency in 2008. They recite chapter and verse the various steps Republican leaders have taken to oppose and even to embarrass President Obama and their Democratic opponents in Congress, from frequently using filibusters to block legislation, to placing “holds” on presidential appointments, to exploiting the debt ceiling to extort concessions. Mann and Ornstein insist that President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress are moderates, despite all evidence to the contrary. They say that President Obama won a mandate to govern in 2008 but do not acknowledge that GOP victories in the 2010 elections might have given Republicans a mandate to block or reverse the administration’s policies. Nor do they acknowledge that Democrats narrowly passed the bulk of their agenda in 2009 and 2010—the stimulus, the budget, health care, and the Dodd-Frank banking bill—on extremely partisan votes.
The authors trace the origin of Republican “extremism” to Newt Gingrich and his discovery in the 1980s that the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate could be toppled if Republicans could discredit Congress as a corrupt operation out of touch with the people. Instead of working with Democrats, Gingrich decided it would be better to pick fights with them as a means of increasing public dissatisfaction with the institution. He exploited C-SPAN cameras to pick fights with Speaker “Tip” O’Neill, lodged ethics charges against Speaker Jim Wright, and, with his colleagues, focused attention on corruption in the House banking operation. At length, they succeeded in winning a majority in the House in the 1994 elections. But their victory came at a price: By discrediting Congress in the eyes of the public, they further poisoned the political atmosphere in Washington, thereby making it more difficult for either party to govern.
Mann and Ornstein reject various “bromides” (as they call them) that have been proposed to deal with the gridlock, such as the formation of a new party of independents or the adoption of a balanced budget amendment. They favor campaign reforms to outlaw political action committees and to ban campaign contributions by lobbyists and federal contractors. They judge the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to have been an epic mistake. They think a system of open primaries will give centrists greater influence over nominations, especially within the Republican Party.
More to the point, they propose a series of reforms they think will make it easier for Democrats to overwhelm Republicans in the electoral arena, such as easing voter registration requirements, making voting mandatory, and moving election day to the weekend—or, better yet, allowing a three-day window for voting. They oppose measures passed in several states that require prospective voters to present valid photo Ids. The authors are convinced that these measures will maximize voter turnout to the benefit of Democrats. They may or may not be right about this. In any case, there is no evidence to show that mobilizing more and more voters to the polls will produce more moderate parties. In fact, it will likely lead to further polarization.
THIS IS, OF COURSE, a one-sided narrative that the authors can maintain only by ignoring a mountain of contradictory facts. They find it convenient to blame Newt Gingrich and his Republican allies for the hyper-partisanship that now prevails in Washington. Yet President Bush (41) negotiated with Democrats in Congress to pass several key pieces of legislation, and even went so far as to abandon his “no new taxes” pledge in exchange for caps on spending, only to see Democrats keep the taxes, abandon the caps, and campaign against him for breaking his pledge. Gingrich and his fellow Republicans worked with Bill Clinton to pass welfare reform and to balance the federal budget. Barack Obama, on the other hand, spurned every offer of compromise from Republicans, and tried to ram his agenda through on partisan votes.
One would have to be living in a parallel universe to maintain, as the authors do, that the Democratic Party is a moderate and responsible political institution. This is the party, after all, that deploys taxpayers’ dollars to divide the nation by race, gender, and ethnicity, and that has had no qualms at all about organizing college campuses as bases of partisan activity. As for moderation, everyone recalls how Democrats stormed the capitol in Wisconsin and tried to disrupt the legislative process in protest of Governor Walker’s attempts to rein in public employee unions. This is standard practice for Democrats, and we will see more of it in the years to come, not only in places like Madison but in Washington, D.C. as well.
In addition, the casual observer might take a look at some of the jurisdictions around the country over which Democrats exercise complete control. There is Detroit, for example, a once thriving but now completely corrupt and bankrupt city that has not had a Republican mayor since the 1950s. Many other cities ruled by Democrats are on a fast track to the same destination. During the 1970s, Democrats spent New York City into bankruptcy, with the result that, for the past two decades, voters in this Democratic city have elected Republican mayors to oversee their affairs. Then there are Democratic states like California and Illinois that are in debt and effectively bankrupt, even as they chase businesses to other jurisdictions with their misguided tax and regulatory policies. If not for Republicans in Washington, Democrats would long ago have spent the United States into oblivion. They may yet succeed in doing so.
The great problem in Washington is not (as the authors say) the formation of a parliamentary party within a constitutional system designed for moderation and compromise. It is something entirely different: the creation of a party devoted to “big government” and increasingly organized around public employee unions, federal contractors, and beneficiaries of public programs, within a constitutional system designed to limit the power and reach of the national government. Democrats survive by expanding the size and scope of government. The framers of the Constitution designed it to prevent the formation of such a party and to frustrate its operations should one ever emerge. The distemper in Washington today is entirely caused by the emergence of this “government party” and its determination to expand governmental power at all costs. In opposing that agenda, Republicans are only carrying out their constitutional duty.
This book, though wrong in all of its major claims, is valuable in that it reveals how obtuse our “Inside the Beltway” thinkers are about what is happening in the United States and shows their inability to come to grips with the inevitable unwinding of the New Deal and post-war political system. Many Americans look to Washington pundits and experts for a measure of wisdom and moderation to guide the nation through its time of troubles. But by the evidence of this book, those virtues are in far too short supply to do any of us much good at this point.