Thomas E. Mann is a Senior Fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. Norman J. Ornstein is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They co-authored an editorial piece for the Washington Post drawing on their 40-some years of experience observing and studying the way Washington works.
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.
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
“Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.
The authors trace this shift to a few events since the early 70s, but lay most of the blame on Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich – two horrible people who behave horribly. During his congressional tenure, Gingrich helped radicalize the GOP and effectively criminalize the notion of legislative compromise. Likewise, Norquist’s idiotic pledges – the signing of which has become de rigeur for Republican congressional candidates – prohibits bipartisanship and compromise, and has served to marginalize any semblance of a “moderate” Republican Party.
Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.
In the third and now fourth years of the Obama presidency, divided government has produced something closer to complete gridlock than we have ever seen in our time in Washington, with partisan divides even leading last year to America’s first credit downgrade.
On financial stabilization and economic recovery, on deficits and debt, on climate change and health-care reform, Republicans have been the force behind the widening ideological gaps and the strategic use of partisanship. In the presidential campaign and in Congress, GOP leaders have embraced fanciful policies on taxes and spending, kowtowing to their party’s most strident voices.
We joke here a lot about how the radicalization of the GOP became particularly acute when the country rather convincingly elected its first Black president in the midst of an epic global economic meltdown in late 2008. The hatred and Obamaphobia was so acute that the reaction ranged from Republican members of Congress voting against their own bills and resolutions in order to prevent Obama-success optics, to questions of Obama’s legitimacy because of his atypical background.
Unlike Republicans, “independents” and Democrats largely prefer compromise to gridlock. And if you’re about to invoke the way Democrats in Congress behaved under George W. Bush, consider:
Democrats were not exactly warm and fuzzy toward George W. Bush during his presidency. But recall that they worked hand in glove with the Republican president on the No Child Left Behind Act, provided crucial votes in the Senate for his tax cuts, joined with Republicans for all the steps taken after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and supplied the key votes for the Bush administration’s financial bailout at the height of the economic crisis in 2008. The difference is striking.
Because it’s unlikely that the Republicans will soon return to mainstream American politics from what a former veteran GOP staffer called an “authoritarian” “apocalyptic cult” , the authors make a recommendation to the press. Stop uncritically transcribing he said/she said accusations from both sides in an effort to maintain some sort of “objectivity” – tell people who’s telling the truth, and whose positions are particularly damaging to the country.
Certainly part of the contemporary Republican ethos is to simply say “no” when Obama or the Democrats say, “please”. But if there’s any ideology at play, it is a somewhat epic societal cleave.
However, maybe 5 years ago, that cleave was between, e.g., expansion of social programs vs. maintaining or minimally, incrementally improving the status quo. Now? The cleave is far starker, as Republicans eschew the status quo and advocate for a return to pre-Depression-era policies and a nihilist abolition of social programs. While the country should be continuing the conversation we essentially ended in 1964 over expanding Medicare to all, we’re arguing over whether we should privatize and voucherize Medicare, and turning Social Security into a big Fidelity account.
This crisis will eventually right itself, but it’ll take something pretty epic to defeat the destructionists.