The following has been excerpted from It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, a new book by congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein.
Ornstein, who works at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and Mann, who works at the centrist Brookings Institutions, have laid out a compelling argument that explains how the Republican Party has systemically undermined the capacity of both Congress and broader federal government. You can purchase it here.
It is traditional that those in the American media intent on show- ing their lack of bias frequently report to their viewers and readers that both sides are equally guilty of partisan misbehavior. Journalistic traditions notwithstanding, reality is very different. The center of gravity within the Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right. Its legendary moderate legislators in the House and Senate are virtually extinct. To be sure, a sizable number of the Republicans in Congress are center-right or right-center, rather than right-right. But the insurgent right wing regularly drowns them out. The post-McGovern Democratic Party, while losing the bulk of its conservative Dixiecrat contingent, has retained a more diverse constituency base, and since the Clinton presidency, has hewed to the center-left, with an emphasis on the center, on issues ranging from welfare reform to health policy.
Anyone who has reviewed the voluminous literature on the intellectual and organizational developments within the conservative movement and Republican Party since the 1970s will find that an unremarkable assertion.
The conservative critique of the Great Society social welfare programs and of the regulatory state, the mobilization of the Christian right, and the development of supply-side economics set the policy plate of the modern Republican Party. Over the course of the last three decades, the GOP has become the reflexive champion of lower taxes, reductions in the size and scope of the federal government, deregulation, and the public promotion of a religious and cultural conservatism. The striking changes in the nature of the Republican Party over the past fifty years are especially well documented in the book by political historian Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. He notes, “movement conservatism finally succeeded in silencing, co-opting, repelling, or expelling nearly every competing strain of Republicanism from the party, to the extent that the terms ‘liberal Republican’ or ‘moderate Republican’ have practically become oxymorons.”
Republican presidents Eisenhower and Nixon and congressional leaders such as Senators Everett Dirksen, Hugh Scott, Howard Baker, and Bob Dole, and Representatives Gerald Ford, John Rhodes, and Bob Michel, pragmatic institutional figures who found ways to work within the system and focused on solving problems, are unimaginable in the present context. President Reagan ushered in the new Republican Party but governed pragmatically. The steps he took in office, as well as those the two Bush presidents took, were so far outside the policy and procedural bounds of the contemporary GOP that none of them could likely win a Republican presidential nomination today without disavowing their own actions.
Reagan was a serial violator of what we could call “Axiom One” for today’s GOP, the no-tax-increase pledge: he followed his tax cuts of 1981 with tax increases in nearly every subsequent year of his presidency. George H. W. Bush agreed to a 1990 deficit-reduction package that included tax increases and budget process reforms, turning back significant congressional Republican opposition (led by Newt Gingrich) along the way. And in more recent years, conservatives turned sharply against George W. Bush’s advocacy of broad immigra- tion reform (a violation of “Axiom Two”), expansion of govern- ment in health care and education (Oops! There goes “Axiom Three”), and steps to deal with the financial meltdown. That legacy, and Barack Obama’s election and extraordinary measures to limit the damage from the financial crisis and deep recession, prompted the formation of a right-wing populist Tea Party movement, which the Republican establishment subsequently embraced.