Blame Gingrich, Lunatics for D.C.’s Poisonous Atmosphere: Books

The cover jacket of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. Source: Basic Books via Bloomberg

Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, who together have about 70 years of Washington punditry on their resumes, make a bold gambit in their latest book. They drop any pretense that both sides are equally at fault in the current impasse in American politics.

Their verdict: “One of the two major parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier.”

It is “awkward and uncomfortable, even seemingly unprofessional” to heap blame lopsidedly, the authors write. And then, all hand wringing aside, they go to it with gusto.

They describe the Republican Party circa 2012 as “ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government.”

These are two down-the-middle observers of American politics, Mann from the liberal Brookings Institution and Ornstein a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. So their vehemence is a bit surprising.

This is not another dry analysis of what’s wrong and what needs to be done. The authors wrote that book, “The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track,” in 2006. Now they argue that things have deteriorated, which is justification for calling their new book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”

Debt Limit

The title came to them as they watched the fight over the debt limit in the summer of 2011. Their retelling of what they characterize as a “hostage-taking” by Republicans forms a big piece of the book.

Their takeaway? A number of Republicans really were ready to execute the hostage. That’s how things are different now; that’s why the political dysfunction in the U.S. is worse than it looks.

In addition to indicting the Republican Party, the authors name names, particularly one: Newt Gingrich.

Back in 1978, Mann and Ornstein began a study of how Congress operates. They recruited a small group of freshman representatives, including Gingrich, Dick Cheney and Geraldine Ferraro, to participate in a series of off-the-record dinners where they might candidly discuss how legislation gets done and how politics is played.

Destroying the House

In this group, history professor Gingrich stood out as he described a bold approach meant to break the Democrats’ decades-long hold on the House.

“The core strategy,” they summarize, “was to destroy the institution in order to save it.”

Gingrich set out to deliberately intensify the public’s hatred of Congress, they write, so voters would buy into the need for sweeping change and throw the bums (the majority Democrats) out.

“His method? To unite his Republicans in refusing to cooperate with Democrats in committee and on the floor,” they write.

Gingrich led the Republicans to take the House in 1994 and became Speaker. Mann and Ornstein see the wellspring of today’s poisonous political climate in that election.

Changing Senate Rules

After describing the current political dysfunction, Mann and Ornstein propose solutions. Many are well-reasoned, such as their recommendations for changing Senate rules to make it harder for a minority bloc -- or a single, self-interested lawmaker -- to keep things from getting done.

A few are downright creative, such as their proposal for a shadow Congress made up of former lawmakers who have left or been drummed out of the increasingly polarized political sphere. They hope this body might help shape a more reasonable public debate. (Dick Lugar, are you interested?)

What Mann and Ornstein are attempting is tricky. How do you write frankly about the polarization of Washington without being, well, polarizing? They mostly pull it off, remaining eminently fair even as they call out those they believe are responsible.

They do a good job mustering facts and evidence. But they also make the point that a significant slice of U.S. politics and the electorate -- they are careful to point out that voters bear ultimate responsibility -- have grown resistant to facts and evidence.

If you buy their diagnosis, it’s hard to be optimistic. I can see their shadow Congress coming together on the proposed reforms. But the real one?

“It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism” is published by Basic Books (226 pages, $26). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Robert Dieterich is a senior editor at Bloomberg Markets magazine. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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