The Magazine

Elephantiasis

Everything, apparently, can be blamed on Republicans.

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By JAY COST
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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.

Donkey and Elephant friends

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.