Today the Weekend Reader brings you It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics Of Extremism by Thomas E. Mann, chair and a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, and political scientist Norman J. Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. The unlikely pair find common ground in this New York Times bestseller. Mann and Ornstein explain the incessant hyperpartisanship and gridlock in Congress that has impeded the political process, discussing who is to blame and what can be done to change the status quo. The recent re-release of the paperback version of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks includes a new afterword, from which the excerpt below was taken, that confirms their initial thesis and suggests that congressional dysfunction is here to stay unless political egos make the very necessary changes suggested in the book and begin working together across party lines.
You can purchase the book here.
Sources of Dysfunction
The year that has passed since this book first appeared has done nothing to make us question our analysis of the causes of America’s dysfunctional politics. First, today’s sharply polarized and strategically focused political parties fit poorly with a constitutional system that anticipates collaboration as well as competition within and across separated institutions. As we initially wrote in the Introduction, parliamentary-style parties in a separation-of-powers government are a formula for willful obstruction and polity irresolution. The continuation of divided party government and the promiscuous use of the filibuster after the 2012 election have largely frustrated the policy direction affirmed by majority electorates and supported in polls of voters taken since the election.
Second, the Republican Party continues to demonstrate that it is an insurgent force in our politics, one that aspires to rewrite the social contract and role of government developed and affirmed over a century by both major political parties. The old conservative GOP has been transformed into a party beholden to ideological zealots, one that sees little need to balance individualism with community, freedom with equality, markets with regulation, state with national power, or policy commitments with respect for facts, evidence, science, and a willingness to compromise.
These two factors—asymmetric polarization and the mismatch between our parties and governing institutions—continue to account for the major share of our governing problems. But the media continues, for the most part, to miss this story. A good example was the flurry of coverage in the early months of the 113th Congress based on or at best testing the proposition that policymaking failures could be attributed to the failures of Obama’s presidential leadership. Bob Woodward may have started the pack journalism with his conclusion that President Obama, unlike his predecessors Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, “failed to work his will on Congress” (whatever that means). Soon the critical question to be parsed by the press was whether elements of Obama’s personality (aloofness) or strategic decisions on how and when to engage members of Congress, especially Republicans, accounted for the failure to reach bipartisan consensus. Republicans were delighted to provide commentary on behalf of the affirmative: “he doesn’t call us, meet with us, invites us to the White House, listen to our views, understand where we are coming from, etc.” The drumbeat form the press eventually led Obama to respond. He hosted a dinner with a dozen Republican senators at The Jefferson, lunch with Paul Ryan at the White House, and then a second dinner with another group of Republican senators. He also made trip to Capitol Hill to meet separately with both Republican conferences and Democratic caucuses. Initial reactions from participants were favorable, but it wasn’t long before reporters wondered if the president’s “charm offense” was failing.
The framing of this question reveals much about the state of American politics and media commentary on dysfunctional government. Presidential leadership is contextual—shaped by our unique constitutional arrangements and the electoral, partisan, and institutional constraints that flow from and interact with them. Under present conditions of deep ideological polarization of the parties, rough parity between Democrats and Republicans that fuels a strategic hyperpartisanship, and divided party government, opportunities for bipartisan coalitions on controversial policies are severely limited. Constraints on presidential leadership today are exacerbated by the relentlessly oppositional stance taken by the Republicans since Obama’s initial election, their continuing embrace of Grover Norquist’s “no new tax” pledge, and their willingness since gaining the House majority in 2011 to use a series of manufactured crises to impose their policy preferences on the Democrats with whom they share power. Persuasion matters if the people you are trying to persuade have any inclination to go along, or any attachment to the concept of compromise. But if a mythical magician could create a president from the combined DNA of FDR, LBJ, Tip O’Neill, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, the resulting super-president would be no more successful at charming or working his will in this context.