Weekend Reader:It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics Of Extremism

Weekend Reader:<i>It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With The New Politics Of Extremism</i>

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.

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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.

Ironically, Obama made great efforts to work cooperatively with Republicans during his first term. He learned painfully that his public embrace of a policy virtually ensures Republican opposition and that intensive negotiations with Republican leaders are likely to lead to a dead end. No bourbon-and-branch-water-laced meetings with Republicans in Congress or preemptive compromises with them will induce cooperative behavior. The scope for presidential leadership is limited, and based not on naïveté about the opposition he faced but on a hard-headed determination to make some cooperation in the electoral interests of enough Republicans to break the “taxes are off the table” logjam and move forward with an economic agenda that makes sense to most nonpartisan analysts and most Americans.

The president may be helped, a bit ironically, by the “lame duck” status conferred on him by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. If Mitch McConnell’s number-one goal in 2011-2012 was to make Obama a one-term president, he has to adjust the goal in 2013-2014; after all, he has already achieved the goal of making Obama a two-term president, and he cannot win a third term. McConnell has two main objectives now: winning his own reelection and a Republican majority in the Senate in the 2014 midterm election. Those goals, to be sure, are in some conflict, since McConnell will have to be very wary of his own right flank. But given the public unhappiness with Washington and gridlock, the latter goal will not easily be achieved by obduracy and confrontation. Any hope of progress on major or minor issues rests with the desire by some Senate Republicans, for their own reasons, to cooperate with the president, and with the willingness of the Speaker of the House, once bills pass the Senate with comfortable bipartisan majorities, to bring them up for votes that may well find resistance from a majority of House Republicans.

Prospects for Change

As we write, there remains some chance that negotiations over the FY2014 budget will produce an agreement, more a “mini-bargain” than “grand bargain,” that replaces the sequester with a package of discretionary and mandatory cuts in spending and revenue increases—one that allows for much-needed investments in research and infrastructure; avoids harmful cuts in essential government programs; makes some tangible progress in slowing the growth rate of entitlement programs, mostly those for the elderly and disabled; and further reduces projected annual deficits over the next decade. The specific components of such an agreement are clearly in sight (and incorporated into the president’s FY2014 budget). If achieved, they would position the country to both invest immediately in economic growth and begin to tackle the long-term challenges associate with an aging society and growing health-care costs.

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Any degree of success in this arena requires enlisting a small group of Senate Republicans who have tried of the lockstep opposition to Obama and relish an opportunity to legislate. As we’ve seen, there are ample numbers of House Republicans who don’t feel the need to answer to their Senate colleagues and allow a vote. But a coalition of seventy or more senators passing such a package might generate enough political pressure that Speaker Boehner needs once again to set aside the Hastert Rule and bring the measure to the House floor. It’s quite likely that such a vote would allow a Democratic majority, with a small number of Republican supporters, to prevail. But we are all too aware that there is a more plausible pessimistic scenario, in which the Norquist tax pledge retains its hold on virtually all Republicans in Congress, preventing the enactment of such an agreement and tempting Republicans to return to a strategy of hostage taking and brinkmanship built around the need to raise the debt limit.

A brighter future for politics and policy requires a different Republican Party, one no longer beholden to its hard right and willing to operate within the mainstream of American politics. After losing five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, Democrats (thanks in large part to the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton) made a striking adjustment that put them in a position to nominate credible presidential candidates, develop center-left policies responsive to the interests of a majority of voters, and govern in a less ideological, more pragmatic, problem-solving mode. Nothing would contribute more to strengthening American democracy than Republicans going through that same experience. The initial post-2012 election assessment by the Republican National Committee took some steps toward frankly acknowledging their problems with the electorate and suggesting a course of action. However, with the striking exception of immigration policy, it moved little beyond message and process and in no way questioned the party’s absolutist position on taxes or crabbed position on the scope and size of government. That failure to move further made it even more difficult for the few problem-solving-oriented House conservatives, along with some of those in the Senate, to ignore the threat of well-financed primary challenges for apostasy from those absolutist cases.

Republicans have reason to believe the 2014 midterm elections will strengthen their position in Congress, even if they continue on the oppositionist course they set in the 112th Congress. Midterm elections usually result in losses for the president’s party, and if there is disgruntlement over continued dysfunction, voters may take it out on the perceived party in charge. But Republicans also know that there are risks associate with brinkmanship and obstruction, and they could be setting themselves up for a trouncing in 2016. Nothing concentrates the minds of politicians and their parties so much as the prospect of electoral defeat and political marginalization.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here

Excerpted from 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. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group © 2012.

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