Reading this book is a little like quaffing a double espresso on an empty stomach — it’s a jolt. For this reader it was a welcome jolt. Others will find it less palatable.
Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein have been Washington fixtures for three decades. They are two of the brightest, best informed and most scholarly students of our politics. They started out together as graduate students of political science at the University of Michigan, and decades ago took up residence at the Brookings Institution (Mann) and the American Enterprise Institute (Ornstein). Both have cultivated Democratic and Republican senators and House members to help them figure out the workings of the legislative branch. They acknowledge holding liberal views themselves, but throughout their careers they have tried to uphold a scholarly, non-partisan standard. Republicans once took them as seriously as Democrats did.
Six years ago they published a fine book on the problems of Congress, “The Broken Branch.” Among its many admirers was Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who gave it an enthusiastic “blurb” for the book’s back cover: “The Broken Branch is a serious step toward strengthening the Congress.”
That book was sharply critical of then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for running the House with minimal regard for “regular order”— the traditional, bi-partisan way of doing business by the rule book that Mann and Ornstein revere — and instead putting political advantage ahead of careful legislating. Gingrich praised their book despite its critical assessment of his fellow Republicans.
Now Mann and Ornstein have decided that the time has come to abandon the evenhandedness still fashionable among political journalists (as opposed to the partisan talking heads and bloggers now so popular). The blunt result will be invigorating for some readers, and infuriating for others.
“It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism” by Thomas E. Mann & Norman J. Ornstein (Basic Books)
Their principal conclusion is unequivocal: Today’s Republicans in Congress behave like a parliamentary party in a British-style parliament, a winner-take-all system. But a parliamentary party — “ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional” — doesn’t work in a “separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will.”
These Republicans “have become more loyal to party than to country,” the authors write, so “the political system has become grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats. . . . The country is squandering its economic future and putting itself at risk because of an inability to govern effectively.”
Today’s Republican Party has little in common even with Ronald Reagan’s GOP, or with earlier versions that believed in government. Instead it has become “an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition . . . all but declaring war on the government.”
Mann and Ornstein consider “the debt ceiling fiasco” of last summer proof of these accusations. The idea of deliberately jeopardizing the credit rating of the United States by toying with a purposeful default on the country’s debt was a carefully planned strategy, they note — the brainchild of Eric Cantor of Virginia, today’s majority leader of the House.
After Republicans elected 87 new members in 2010 and took control of the House, their nominal leader, John Boehner, clearly recognized that the debt ceiling would have to be raised to keep the government operating. Unlike Cantor and those new members, Boehner remembered the political damage done in 1995 when Gingrich forced a shutdown of the federal government in a spending dispute with Bill Clinton, probably assuring Clinton’s 1996 reelection.
Mann and Ornstein quote Boehner from late 2010: “We’re going to have to deal with [the debt ceiling] as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part.” Cantor disagreed. When the new Republican House majority convened at a Baltimore retreat in January, 2011, “Cantor implored them to use the coming debt limit vote as their golden opportunity.” They quote Cantor in a story in The Post that revealed this episode: “I’m urging you [Republican House members] to look at a potential increase in the debt limit as a leverage moment when . . . President Obama will have to deal with us” and accept deep spending cuts.
The showdown soon arrived. After weeks of anxious uncertainty, Senate Republicans blinked. Their leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, acknowledged that deliberately putting the GOP in the position of being blamed for a national default was a bad idea — not because of the economic consequences, but the political ones. Allowing Obama to blame the Republicans for forcing the country into default, McConnell acknowledged, “is very bad positioning going into elections.”
Precariously, a deal was struck. President Obama agreed to make $38 billion in cuts to the current federal budget. In return Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling enough to put off another fight on the issue until after the 2012 elections. Well, some Republicans agreed. Sixty-six Republicans in the House voted no; only Democratic support saved the deal and prevented default.
Those of us who follow the Washington circus may have forgotten (I had) that McConnell has already promised to repeat this drama early next year, when the debt ceiling will have to be raised again. Mann and Ornstein remind us that McConnell told Fox News, “We’ll be doing it all over” in 2013.
It is this willingness to put perceived political advantage ahead of good government that persuades the authors that we are living in a novel time that is “even worse than it looks.” They acknowledge that many of its features are not new, but all of them — from partisan warfare to the impact of money on our politics — seem worse than at any time in a century or more. Well-established, negative trends in our politics have “passed a critical point, leading to something far more troubling than we have ever seen.”
In recounting the history of how we got here, Mann and Ornstein reserve a special place of dishonor for their one-time admirer, Gingrich. His eagerness “to paint . . . his own institution [when Democrats controlled it] as elitist, corrupt and arrogant . . . undermined basic public trust in Congress and government. . . . His attacks on partisan adversaries in the White House and Congress created a norm in which colleagues with different views became mortal enemies. . . . He helped invent the modern permanent campaign, allowing electoral goals to dominate policy ones. . . . One has to look back to Gingrich as the singular political figure who set the tone that followed.” So no Gingrich blurb this time.
Mann and Ornstein rightly blame the news media for doing a mediocre job covering the most important political story of the last three decades: the transformation of the Republican Party. They are critical of the conventions of mainstream journalism that lead to the evenhandedness they have now abandoned themselves. They see a “reflexive tendency of many in the mainstream press to use false equivalence to explain outcomes,” when Republican obstructionism and Republican rejection of science and basic facts have no Democratic equivalents. It’s much easier to write stories “that convey an impression that the two sides are equally implicated.”
The authors emphasize the deterioration of the American political culture, corrupted by money and embittered by partisanship, affecting not just Congress but also, they argue persuasively, the Supreme Court. This spoiled culture has encouraged the cynicism of voters, now a serious impediment to political reforms. Mann and Ornstein write at length about both bad and good ideas for improving the situation in four long chapters that are less passionate and a lot wonkier than their more than 100-page indictment of the Republicans, which they know is going to create a marketing problem for this book.
“Some readers may be struck by a lack of balance in our treatment of the two major political parties,” they admit, but insist that they hope not for Democratic hegemony, but for “two vibrant and constructive political parties.” They mean, of course, two parties that actually believe in the efficacy of government to help society, a notion the tea party Republicans appear to reject.
Mann and Ornstein chose not to explore the history of today’s voters’ cynicism, a powerful ingredient in the poisonous brew they describe. Doing so would have given them a chance to add some even-handedness to their story. In 1964, on the eve of the disastrous Vietnam War, 77 percent of Americans expected their government do “do the right thing” always or most of the time, according to opinion polls. Ten years later, after Vietnam and Watergate, 77 percent had become 36. Today it is less than 20 percent who have that confidence in the government. The Vietnam War, largely the work of Democrats, and Richard Nixon together destroyed Americans’ confidence in their governing institutions. It has never been restored. Several generations have grown up since reflexively distrusting their government.
And now, as Mann and Ornstein document so vividly, at a time when only good government could help us rediscover our footing as a nation, our Grand Old Party defines itself as the party of anti-government. This is why the title of this book is so good: Our situation really is even worse than it looks.