Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
Sunday May 13th, 2012
By Barrie Dunsmore

It is now commonplace to describe the current American political system as “dysfunctional.” Most people know that instinctively or through personal experience. However, what most Americans do not know is exactly why their government doesn’t function the way it used to. If you are among that group, I am eager to inform you that the answers are in a new book.

The book is, “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.” The authors are Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the (centrist) Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the (conservative) American Enterprise Institute.

Mann and Ornstein are among the brightest and best informed political scientists in the country. What they write is not just another “pox on both their houses” look at what has happened to the American political system. You may not agree with their conclusions, but it’s important that you understand that Mann and Ornstein are among the very few official scorers of the American game of politics who consistently make their calls without fear or favor from any political party or candidate. Their work is widely respected both for its scholarship and because it is untainted by partisan politics. That’s why this book really is a “must read” for anyone who cares about what is happening to this country.

The authors launched their new book just two weeks ago, with an Op-Ed column in the Washington Post, under the eye-grabbing headline, “ Let’s Just Say It: Republicans are the Problem.” As they put it, “In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.”

Next came the sentence from the book which was sure to receive the greatest attention because it sums up their remarkably candid analysis of today’s party of Lincoln.

“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; contemptuous of inherited social and economic policy; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government.”

This new book is not a tome but a slender volume of just over 200 pages. Nevertheless it persuasively supports that dramatic assertion. Here is the flavor of a few of its many compelling arguments.

- What happened to the GOP? After noting the realignment of the South following the Civil Rights bills of the 1960s after which most Southern Democrats became Republicans, Mann and Ornstein go right for the jugular. 

“The real move to the bedrock right starts with two names; Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.”

- Gingrich entered Congress in 1979. 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.” Gingrich got his House Republican majority, but “the forces Gingrich unleashed destroyed whatever comity existed across party lines (and) activated an extreme and virulently anti-Washington base.”

-Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 and his Tax Payer Protection Pledge the following year. In the current congressional term, “the pledge, which binds signers to never support a tax increase (and that includes closing tax loopholes) has been signed by 238 of the 242 House Republicans and 41 of 47 GOP senators.” The failure of a Congressional Republican to sign Norquist’s pledge, or even consider compromises with the Democrats, can be political suicide for Republicans seeking re-election. (Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, who served six senate terms as a respected, moderate foreign policy specialist, was the hard-line conservatives’ latest victim last Tuesday when he lost his primary bid to the Tea Party candidate by 20 points)

- House majority leader Eric Cantor gets special credit for inspiring last year’s, “debt ceiling fiasco.” Cantor is fingered for deliberately jeopardizing the credit rating of the United States for partisan political leverage.

The Filibuster was once relegated to a handful of major issues in a given Congress.

Under senate rules (there is nothing about filibusters in the Constitution) it takes sixty votes to prevent a filibuster. That means 41 Republicans can and do now use the filibuster as a routine weapon – for instance to block nominees to agencies such as the Consumer Protection Bureau as a way to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented. “Since Obama’s inauguration in 2009 the filibuster is more often a stealth weapon, which minority Republicans use not to highlight an important national issue but to delay and obstruct quietly on nearly all matters including routine and widely supported ones. It is fair to say this pervasive use of the filibuster has never before happened in the history of the senate.”

-The authors are critical of the news media for basically missing the most important political story of the last three decades: the transformation of the Republican party. They also reject the media’s tendency to “convey the impression that the two sides are equally implicated.” They are not. “We understand the values of mainstream journalists…..but a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politicians are telling the truth? Who is taking hostages? Look ahead to the likely consequences of voters choices in the November elections.” (That is the substance too often missing.)

The title of Mann and Ornstein’s book and the last words in their Post column are obviously not optimistic. Only if the voters “punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents, then an insurgent outlier party will have some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.” 

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