The Magazine

Elephantiasis

Everything, apparently, can be blamed on Republicans.

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By JAY COST
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Indeed, emphasizing only Republi-
can infractions on this issue seems especially partial, as there has long been a one-upsmanship about delaying tactics in the Senate, with each side learning from the other how far the needle can be pushed and using opportunities to extract vengeance for previous slights. Not coincidentally, the Democratic blocking of Haynsworth and Carswell followed close on the heels of the GOP stopping Abe Fortas from becoming chief justice.

But the problem is that none of this comports with Mann/Ornstein’s core thesis of Republican radicalism. So it is either glossed over, forgiven—or ignored altogether. There is a case to be made that changes in the Republican coalition over the years have brought about a shift in the way business works in Washington, but it is not to be found in the pages of this book. It’s Even Worse Than It Looks is overwrought with hyperbole and too filled with Democratic talking points to offer much guidance.

Nevertheless, the work is interesting from a sociological perspective. Mann and Ornstein, after all, are the deans of the Beltway Establishment, at least its intellectual wing. For them to argue so tendentiously that the GOP is to blame for the ills of Washington offers compelling proof of how insiders view the Tea Party and modern conservatism, as well as the tactics they employ to get across these opinions. Put simply, it’s all in the definitions, and conservatives need to take note of just how politicized the use of innocuous words like “moderate,” “mainstream,” and “sensible” have become. Increasingly, liberals are defining these words in such a way as to exclude all views but their own (or the views of former conservatives who have seen the light) while recasting conservative Republicanism (an electoral force that, since 1980, has routinely garnered a majority of the popular vote) as “extreme.” 

This is a relatively new development in the political discourse, and conservative message mavens need to understand the extent to which the language itself has been politicized by the left.

This is also a valuable reminder that the Beltway elite still do not understand what is happening to the country. Consider, for instance, the following thought experiment: You jump off a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Is this an “extreme” act? Well, it depends. Is the boat sailing along just fine with no problems? Then what you did was extreme and insane. But what if the boat is sinking, and you’re bailing? In that case, you probably made the correct decision, or at least a defensible one. In other words, context matters. And it is that greater political-economic context that is missing from It’s Even Worse Than It Looks

Mann/Ornstein are, at their core, most offended by the GOP’s violation of protocol in the debt ceiling battle, but the problem they fail to note is that this protocol has contributed to the mess that is the nation’s public finances. To wit: The country’s vast obligations on entitlement programs are now substantially greater than its ability to pay, and reforms must be made before the bondholders catch wind of the structural problems. This was what animated the GOP’s efforts on the debt ceiling—their rejection of the one-for-one ratio on tax hikes to spending reforms—and why they were prepared to use a previously perfunctory act like the debt ceiling increase to raise awareness.

The media analysis of the debt ceiling battle overlooked this context, as do Mann/Ornstein. Perhaps this is simply standard media bias at work, but it is just as likely the efforts of the Beltway Establishment to defend a political order that is crumbling around them. No longer do the old ways of Washington work; the math simply does not add up. Mann/Ornstein and the rest can blame the Tea Party all they want, but it does not change the reality that the Establishment’s outmoded methods of doing business have created the current crisis that the Tea Party is trying to fix.

Jay Cost, a staff writer at The Weekly Standard, is the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble

Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic.