If there is one thing that Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein want you to take away from their new book, it’s that the Republican party is entirely to blame.
Indeed, the authors pummel the reader over the head with this thesis for over 200 pages. In a typical formulation, they argue that the GOP “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.” Worse: “The culture and ideological center of the Republican party itself, at the congressional, presidential, and, in many cases, state and local levels, must change if U. S. democracy is to regain its health.”
To support this charge, they present a relentlessly one-sided and pro-Democratic narrative of recent events, misrepresent or outright misuse quantitative data, systematically forget the bareknuckled partisan brawling of Democrats, and ignore the greater shift in the political and economic realities of 21st-century America. Liberals will love this book because it reinforces every one of their shared nostrums about the GOP. Otherwise, it is totally unpersuasive, yet accidentally illustrative of the myopia that has gripped the liberal Beltway Establishment over the last few years.
Animating Mann and Ornstein is the debt ceiling battle of mid-2011. Appalled by the seeming recklessness of the GOP, the authors are at pains through the first third to note that the fiasco was due to a combination of ideological extremism, disregard for tradition, and an indifference to the health of the economy that prompted the congressional Republicans to push for spending cuts in exchange for an expansion of the debt ceiling.
Yet Mann/Ornstein fail entirely to note that, though the debt ceiling battle is unprecedented, so also is the crushing burden of federal debt. Never before in peacetime has the country had an annual budget deficit that has hit almost 10 percent of gross domestic product. In a fair account of the debt ceiling battle, this might have merited some attention, as it helps explain what was moving the GOP; but the Republican party’s motivations are simply chalked up to extremism.
Mann/Ornstein also give short shrift to the fact that, in the final stages of the negotiation with Speaker Boehner, President Obama demanded $400 billion extra in new tax increases—or, in the parlance of the Democratic National Committee as well as the authors, “revenues.” This fact is mentioned but there is no pause to consider whether and to what extent Obama was being pulled to the left by his own allies, or whether he was playing political games of his own.
According to Mann/Ornstein, there are hard data to back up their claims. They make much of a graph of ideological polarization derived from the analysis of political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, which supposedly demonstrates that the Republicans have moved farther away from the middle than the Democrats. But what they fail to mention is that the “middle” in this data set has no fixed meaning over time. Instead, it is relative only to congressional voting in any given session, thus undercutting the thesis that Congress has been gripped by “asymmetric polarization.”
Similarly, they offer data on the increased use of the filibuster without noting that the employment of such dilatory tactics is a common one in any legislative body—the House had a filibuster of sorts until Speaker Thomas Reed destroyed it 100 years ago—and that it was the Democrats who made the filibuster easier to use in the Senate. The late Robert Byrd of West Virginia, long celebrated as the “constitutionalist” of the Senate, introduced a “dual track” system that allowed the Senate to carry on other business while a filibuster was ongoing. This substantially lowered the time costs to the minority to delay legislation, and so, unsurprisingly, the use of the filibuster has skyrocketed since.
Mann/Ornstein are also at pains to expose the GOP as bareknuckled partisan brawlers who will even disrupt regular government business to impose their ideological agenda. To that end, they make much of the party’s seemingly uncalled-for blocking or holding of executive appointments. Without defending the Republicans on the issue, it is worth pointing out that Democrats are at least as responsible for upping the ante on delays through the Senate’s role as an advising and consenting institution. It was, after all, the Democrats who blocked the nominations of judges Clement Hayns-worth, G. Harrold Carswell, and Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, and also threatened the use of the filibuster to block appellate court nominees by George W. Bush.
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.