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A Hostage Worth Ransoming

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism

By Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
Basic Books, 2012

Anti-flag, anti-family, anti-child, anti-jobs, betray, bizarre, collapse, decay, devour, disgrace, insecure, liberal, lie, machine, mandate, pathetic, radical, shame, sick, steal, taxes, traitors, unionized, welfare.

Take these words, a Republican memo advises, and “Apply [them] to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.” This election advice was written by Newt Gingrich in the run-up to the 1994 midterms, and as Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein write in their new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, his strategy of alienation “worked more spectacularly than he could have imagined.” The Republicans won fifty-two seats in the House that year, good enough their first majority in forty years.

It was the fruit of sixteen years hard labor. Gingrich, who believed the old guard had grown weak and complacent, had been trying to remake the House Republican caucus since 1978. “The Democrats,” Mann and Ornstein explain,

had controlled the House that Gingrich entered for twenty-four years, and he believed that the great advantages conferred by incumbent status made a race-by-race approach to winning a majority for his party a losing one. How, Gingrich wondered, could the minority party overcome the seemingly paradoxical situation in which people hated the Congress but loved their own congressman?

What follows will be depressingly familiar to those who subjects themselves to politics with any regularity:

The core strategy was to destroy the institution in order to save it, to so intensify public hatred of Congress that voters would buy into the notion of the need for sweeping change and throw the majority bums out. His method? To unite his Republicans in refusing to cooperate with Democrats in committee and on the floor, while publicly attacking them as a permanent majority presiding over and benefiting from a thoroughly corrupt institution.

This was Gingrich’s philosophy as he described it in 1978 at a meeting of freshman congressmen hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (one which the authors attended). It is nearly the same strategy Republicans use today against Barack Obama. Of course, once Gingrich was in power he overreached: government shutdowns and tawdry impeachment hearings were too much even for the low-information American public. But one difference between now and then—one among many the book seeks to explain—is that Republicans today are far more radical. Yet for the disastrous effects of their obstructionism—havoc that makes Newt and his merry men look like a gaggle of Benedictine monks—they were awarded in 2010 with sixty-three seats in the House, a landslide greater than 1994. In other words, as our authors would say: today it’s even worse.

The point Mann and Ornstein are striving to make – delicately, calmly; I believe the book has one exclamation point – is that the degenerative state of Washington politics is pretty much the fault of one side and that the political system is not equipped handle them. After four years of economic crisis, neither, this argument implies, is the country.

To be sure, the transformation of the Republican Party is an old process, one that began in earnest during the Civil Rights era. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act gave the Republicans an opening in the South, and Richard Nixon gamely pursued it. Put simply: over the next three decades the Republican party, which was already very friendly to business, became whiter and more devout. This trend was reinforced by Southward and Southwestward migration patterns and by redistricting, as each party, when it gained control of a given state legislature, carved up increasingly homogenous congressional districts in order to stifle competition. Safe congressmen are less likely to compromise.

Democrats, for their part, were buoyed by a burgeoning and increasingly empowered minority population and the expansion of higher education. They internalized the ideological gains of the sixties. Conservatism, for its part, was becoming more organized and extreme: a well-funded, loosely-connected network of think tanks, issue groups, religious organizations and commentators were furnishing politicians with personnel and ideas like supply-side economics and creationism. But while the conservatives grew more monolithic, America grew browner, less religious, and more tolerant. Mann and Ornstein sketch most of this out, and they do it well, but they could have gone one step farther and said what should by now by clear to everyone: for all the Tea Party’s ostensible preoccupation with macroeconomics, the only thing that can explain the ferocity of opposition to Barack Obama is culture.

To them, his presidency represents a desperate moment in American evolution, which for all the Republican electoral victories in the last half-century has been tilting inexorably away from the things they value. The premise here is existential struggle, and in that light the ugly, apocalyptic rhetoric of the true believers seems less unnatural, if no less coarse. Though they still control much of the party apparatus, conventional Republicans and opportunists like Mitt Romney must hew to the lingo as strictly as possible to survive. (Given the statistical consequences of redistricting, the sheep imperative is even stronger for congressmen and local politicians.)

So the Republican Party today is very different from what it was just twenty years ago. In fact, Mann and Ornstein argue, it is no longer behaving like a conventional American political party at all. Their modus vivendi can be summed up in a sentence infamously but not infamously enough uttered by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “The single most important thing we want to achieve,” he told the National Journal, “is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Their method is indiscriminate obstructionism, and as the authors point out, it’s actually quite common behavior – in parliamentary systems. Why, you could even call it un-American.

“A couple of years ago,” wrote a disgusted Republican staffer in 2011, whom the authors quote,

a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption… By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

Gingrich and Co. shut the government down at a time when the economy was relatively stable. The new crop pursues a still more uncompromising stance when the economy is weak. The menace of their inflexible anti-tax dogma was demonstrated before Obama took office, while Democrats and Republicans were clashing over the details of a stimulus package. In order to get the handful of GOP votes necessary to pass, the bill was laden with unhelpful tax cuts and other concessions to laissez faire doctrine. Obama was actually trying to live by the message of comity that propelled him to victory, but Republican negotiators changed the terms of the negotiation so many times – and Obama was too unwilling to pressure them publicly – that the stimulus that finally passed was quantitatively and qualitatively inadequate. Millions of jobs disappeared.

On the stimulus, if you can believe it, the Republicans were holding back. They played chicken well, but the economy was so bad a few of them would have had to vote for it or the whole party would have taken the blame for its failure. (As it turned out, Obama shouldered all the blame when it didn’t do enough.) After that, Republican negotiators—when there were any at all—were even more rigid and frequently shameless. When Obama asked Congress in 2011 to rush through an aid bill for the victims of Hurricane Irene, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (who is second to Speaker John Boehner) demanded budget cuts from unrelated social programs to pay for it.

That same summer House Democrats and Republicans were continuing a long argument about the rights of the FAA’s unionized workers. The old authorization for the agency had expired months before, but the House had been routinely passing temporary measures to keep it alive while the two sides negotiated. Out of the blue, chair of the Transportation Committee John Mica refused to allow a temporary re-authorization unless Democrats agreed to drastically curtail the scope of union bargaining and cut subsidies to small airports (the latter was aimed at two of his negotiating partners, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Max Baucus of Montana). Democrats offered to compromise on subsidies but Mica wanted the full slate of his demands met; he refused to release his hostages. In the end, more than 24,000 jobs were lost and $300 million in taxes went uncollected (a number, incidentally, many times larger than the savings that would have resulted from cutting those airport subsidies). Mica and his colleagues, however, burnished their anti-government credentials for the next election. It’s Even Worse is laced with these dispiriting anecdotes.

The FAA imbroglio is evidence of two of the modern Republican party’s stock techniques: a willingness to break faith by abusing means traditionally employed to enable dialogue, and a willingness to take hostages. The supreme example is last year’s negotiation over the debt limit, when the GOP used the continuing resolutions needed to keep the economy solvent in lieu of a final agreement to demand concessions that would in the past have been reserved for the final bill. “Congressional efforts to raise the debt limit are not rare events,” Mann and Ornstein relate:

Between 1960 and August 2011, Congress had done so seventy-eight times…Many efforts to raise the debt limit were contentious, and not a few pushed the issue to the brink, going right up to the date at which the Treasury Department declared that a default would occur absent congressional action…

Pyrotechnics and symbols aside, on every occasion on which the government needed to raise the debt ceiling, the key actors in Washington, including presidents and congressional leaders, knew that almost nobody—until now—had any intention of precipitating a default.

The 2010 midterms brought scores of hardline Tea Party sympathizers into the House (87 freshmen in all). Their leaders – Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy – were already there, and were in no small part responsible for recruiting them to office. John Boehner, the putative leader of the Republicans in the House and a much more conventional politician, had difficulty keeping them in line. Eric Cantor demanded that the continuing resolutions necessary to keep the government running be “of much shorter duration than is typical,” the authors write. “Six separate resolutions were needed between October 2010 and April 2011… This also meant there would be multiple threats to shut down portions of the government unless the GOP’s demands were met—the equivalent of serial games of chicken, each one with escalating stakes.” For the April continuing resolution Eric Cantor demanded $100 billion in cuts from the 2011 budget, which was already partially spent – the equivalent of 20% cuts across the board in discretionary spending, an incredible amount. Boehner was actually forced to deceive his own party: he won $38 billion in supposed cuts ($78 billion prorated over the entire year), but they were cloaked in “budgetese” and accounting shadow games.

May came and the final vote on the debt limit neared. Cantor led the negotiating team. For a few weeks negotiations went well, as Cantor’s team and their Democratic opposites discussed what budget cuts they could agree on. As the talks shifted to the other side of the compromise—tax increases—Cantor pulled out, to the surprise of his own Speaker. Boehner took over, but Cantor repeatedly sabotaged him, refusing to compromise on taxes, ignoring the threat of a credit downgrade for the entire country, the first in its history. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of six senators was working on a compromise that looked like it might pass, but the Republicans pulled out after Obama endorsed it. Politico reporter Mike Allen received an e-mail from a Republican aide explaining that “The President killed any chance of its success by 1) Embracing it. 2) Hailing the fact that it increases taxes. 3) Saying it mirrors his own plan.” Eventually, after two months, a compromise of sorts was reached: $400 billion in immediate cuts, $500 billion more over ten years, and the creation of a “super committee” to present a long-term debt plan for an up-or-down vote in Congress. If nothing came of that, or if Congress couldn’t pass its own plan, over a trillion in across-the-board cuts would kick in automatically in January 2013. The “super committee” failed when it’s Republican members refused to talk about tax increases, so Congress will resume the melee after the November elections, and America got its credit downgrade anyway. Mitch McConnell was again happy to explain: “I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting. Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this—it’s a hostage worth ransoming.”


McConnell, Boehner, and Cantor
Mann and Ornstein recount all of this fluidly: the events, the public rhetoric, the statistics. But they don’t have the space to get to the root of it, to explain why Republican economic policy has become the most radical in the Western world. It is in large part, again, about culture: the GOP’s natural exuberance for capitalism has become strongly fused with evangelism and, more quietly, with skin color. These things lay at the heart of conservative identity, and they worry that it is dying. The economic crisis and the election of Barack Obama brought those fears into stark relief, supercharging the old debates about responsibility, redistribution of wealth, and the size of government.

Today there isn’t a Republican alive who will vote to increase taxes. They are obsessed with the deficit, but their answer to debt is to kill social programs, increase military spending and cut taxes on the wealthy. It doesn’t make sense at first blush or at second, but true believers think the social programs are an indulgence for people who have no work ethic and that modest proposals for taxing the very wealthy are an attack on “success,” a word that has come to stand in for the myth of the independent entrepreneur who secures wealth through the pure exercise of his genius. There is a moral and intellectual poverty at the heart of this reverence for the Platonic businessman, a “wild self-worship,” as Leon Wieseltier recently put it. The drive to cut everything except defense spending, the impulse to privatize huge swathes of the economy, are not new, but they have never been pursued so absolutely. One side, embattled and radicalized, simply will not countenance the fact that the other side will score victories. So they obstruct.

One reason the Republicans can behave this way is that too many voters let them. Another is somewhat technical. Any law can be passed in the Senate with a simple majority of 51 or more votes – and they used to be – but if a Senator so wishes, he or she can filibuster (talk continuously or designate others to do so) and no further business can be done until 60 Senators override by voting for cloture. Filibusters are not a part of the Constitution. They were created in the early nineteenth century but remained relatively infrequent until the 1970s, when they slowly began to eat the legislative process alive. Contrary to habitual blamers of both parties, filibusters did not increase after George W. Bush took office. It was after the 2006 elections, when the Democrats took back the Senate, that filibusters and cloture motions (which are required to end a filibuster) increased most dramatically.

What this means is that every single piece of legislation, along with every judicial or administrative nomination, is now subject to the whims of the minority. The mere threat of a filibuster is enough to kill a bill or a nomination, and so they have many times in the past six years. Obama has seen a smaller percentage of his judicial and government nominees confirmed that any of his predecessors (a technique Republicans are using to prevent certain agencies – like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – from functioning). Furthermore, the minutiae of congressional business – the order of speakers, the format of debate – are conducted by unanimous consent. Here too the Republican minority has gleefully thrown a wrench into the machine. The system isn’t designed to work this way, but changing the rules is extremely difficult, and the Democratic majority is chary of a future in the minority without these powers. Maybe voters could throw the Republicans out of office, but too many are inattentive or inclined to applaud.

Mann and Ornstein place a lot of blame for the situation on the media. In the highest echelons of the Washington commentariat it’s still fashionable to blame both sides equally for fighting, but It’s Even Worse convincingly demonstrates that most of the slight leftward tilt in Democratic congressional votes can be accounted for by the black congressmen who displaced segregationists in the South, whereas Republican votes have shifted hard right, a phenomenon the authors rather wonkishly call “asymmetric polarization.” Whatever you call the disease, the news won’t diagnose it, so the symptoms worsen even as they remain misunderstood. The New York Times, for instance, regularly reports that a bill failed because it did not obtain the sixty votes necessary to pass without explaining that the routine use of the filibuster, even on non-controversial measures that end up passing anyway, is unprecedented. It’s an institutional pathology: the reportorial obsession with balance is often nothing more than the practice of stenography: if a person lies you can’t say he’s lying; you have to quote someone who says he’s lying. The question of truth, then, is left for the opinion pages, or is sequestered in one of those fact-checking sections news organizations are now rushing to ape, trendy appendages which themselves tend to suffer from an unfortunate case of balance.

One refreshing thing about the book besides its lucid presentation (it’s certainly not the subject matter), is that the authors themselves are respected members of Washington elite. Ornstein is even a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the place that fired ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum right after he that Republicans should have bargained on health care. In other words, in a country where most political bestsellers are Woodward-esque exposes and conservative screeds, Mann and Ornstein have enough social cache to get people to pay attention to them.

Unfortunately, I think their station and their desire to convince their fellow travelers have enabled the book’s most glaring omission. As a sign of the right’s deviance from the mean, Mann and Ornstein cite the persistent belief among many conservatives that Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in the United States, but there they leave it. Policy alone can’t explain it; universal healthcare is an old argument in America, and counter-cyclical government spending is an old remedy. There is an undercurrent of alienation behind the right’s conspiracy theories, one Republican politicians play on when they connect Obama to Europe, welfare and food stamps.

It seems so obvious: the president is black. What could better symbolize the modernity that conservatives find so discomfiting? Maybe the authors find that sort of thing difficult to quantify and not likely to endear them to their audience. One possible rejoinder could be that if you gather enough anecdotes – race baiting political rhetoric, strange conspiracy theories, racist placards at Tea Party rallies – sooner or later they shoal up into hard evidence. There’s actually a growing body of academic work on the subject: three recent studies strongly suggest that race cost Obama votes in the 2008 primaries, in the general election, and factored largely into opposition to his health care proposals. Most of the decrease from Obama’s levels of support in 2008 comes from working-class white men. Mitt Romney’s goal is to cultivate that bitterness by pilfering as many words as he can from Newt’s old list.

Mann and Ornstein are clearly hoping that the Republicans lose in November: taking money out of circulation with deep spending cuts could send the country into another, deeper, recession; gutting the Affordable Care Act would throw tens of millions off the healthcare rolls; fanatical American exceptionalism is a recipe for perpetual war. And the stakes go beyond policy: a dramatic win for the GOP would be a tragic validation of the obstructionism and clandestine racial politics of the last four years. Perhaps, our authors seem to suggest, a calamity like that is necessary to jolt the American public into scrutiny.

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks doesn’t have the obligatory why-Washington-is-broke-and-how-we-can-fix-it subtitle (they opted to gloss the title’s pessimism instead), but Mann and Ornstein follow the convention anyway. Most of their suggestions are very good: easy voter registration, weekend voting, free government identification, redistricting reform, new methods of apportionment like instant runoff voting and proportional representation, mandatory disclosure for big-money donors to political action committees, federal matching funds for small donors, curtailing the use of the filibuster, small tax credits for voters to bring in more moderates, and so on. Some of their ideas – like mandatory voting and shifting power for the executive – are extreme. And one – restoring public shame by getting respectables like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Bill Gates and Bill Clinton to call out lying politicians – is just plain cute.

Unfortunately, all of these and more are unlikely to occur in the near or medium term. Politicians don’t want these reforms, and their employers are too preoccupied to force them to accept. The authors themselves acknowledge this: “We end,” they write, “where we began: it is even worse than it looks. But we are confident that if the worst has not yet hit, better times, and a return to a better political system, do indeed lie ahead.” I think they’re right, actually. But culture wars burn hot and slow, and before we see change, we may have to look yet again into the face of reform’s old handmaiden, disaster.

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Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.