Republicans Gone Wild: Q&A with Mann and Ornstein

In 2012, they warned that one of our political parties was heading off the rails. Now is it too late?

Unsafe at any speed?

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein are longtime scholars of American politics in general and the U.S. Congress in particular. They were among the first mainstream analysts, and arguably the most influential, to make the case that the "broken" condition of Washington is actually a manifestation of a single broken political party. After House Speaker John Boehner announced his resignation, I began an e-mail conversation with Mann, of the Brookings Institution and the University of California at Berkeley, and Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, about the dangerous state of Congress.


Gentlemen: During the last presidential election you published "It's Even Worse Than it Looks," which detailed how Republicans in Washington were abandoning political and governing norms and how partisan gridlock was growing increasingly intractable. In a much-quoted passage you wrote:

 The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier -- 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.

We just had a sitting speaker of the House resign in the middle of his term because his own hefty majority proved unmanageable. (And after I first contacted you, the cannibalism continued with Representative Kevin McCarthy as the meal.) The question begs: Is it even worse now than you told us it was in 2012?


A few months back, Barney Frank said to us that perhaps the next book we do should be titled "It's Even Worse Than It Was When We Said It's Even Worse Than It Looks." In most respects, it is worse, which was, sadly, not unpredictable. The fact is that the "Young Guns" -- Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, as we wrote early on in the book -- actively incited anger and raised expectations among populist Tea Party adherents when they went out in 2009-2010 and recruited candidates to run in the midterms. They told them to use the debt ceiling as an issue and to promise to bludgeon Obama with it to force him to his knees, to repeal Obamacare and cut government dramatically. They promised that if they took the majority they would immediately cut spending by $100 billion.

That led to the debt limit debacle in 2011, when they finally backed down at the brink-- after Jason Chaffetz, whom we quote in the book, led the charge to take the country over. And the promise of $100 billion in spending cuts went unfulfilled. The combination of empty threats and unfulfilled promise, amplified by tribal media and social media, has created both a broad public anger at Republican establishment leaders among more radical Tea Party voters, and a seething anger among the 40 to 50 most radical House members at their own leaders for their fecklessness.

That's why outsiders in the GOP presidential race are garnering majority support among Republican primary voters in the polls, and why John Boehner became a target, Kevin McCarthy became a second target and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell will not be far behind. It is why we face another impending set of crises over the debt ceiling and government shutdowns.

To be sure, it's not all bleak. McConnell was able in the past to avoid a debt limit breach by creating a rule that enabled the president to raise the debt ceiling and veto a subsequent motion of disapproval, and sustain it with Democrats in Congress -- the same kind of mechanism that worked with the Iran deal. But it is a sad commentary on our dysfunction that we need such work-arounds to prevent catastrophe.


Norm's response underscores the reality of asymmetric polarization, which the mainstream media and most good government groups have avoided discussing -- at great costs to the country. As we wrote, Republicans have become more an insurgency than a major political party capable of governing. Their actions in Congress in recent weeks and on the presidential campaign trail underscore this reality.


Which will happen first -- Democrats will emulate Republicans and go off the deep end? Or mainstream media will adjust to the new reality and acknowledge that Republicans are not merely ideologically different from Democrats but engaged in a unique form of politics that undermines the system itself?


There is pressure within the Democratic Party to emulate the Republicans in one respect -- to articulate a more aggressive and uncompromising policy agenda. Bernie Sanders has responded to that sentiment in the Democratic base and done better than anyone expected. But while Democrats in Congress have diverse views on some policies, they remain a governing party and accept compromise as an inevitable part of the democratic process. Nancy Pelosi is a practical politician who could never embrace norms that threaten the normal functioning of government, whatever its size. If the coverage of this presidential election campaign is any indicator, the mainstream media is nowhere near accepting the reality of asymmetric polarization.

Perhaps a more likely scenario is that other responsible conservative voices in the Republican Party achieve some traction, perhaps as a consequence of losing the White House once again.


What does the fiasco in the House leadership -- Boehner's resignation followed by McCarthy's withdrawal -- tell us? Is this an institutional problem or a party problem?


This is a Republican Party problem, which has serious implications for Congress as an institution and for American governance more broadly. Republicans are paying the price for having encouraged government-hating candidates to seek office with the expectation that they could undo Obama's 2009-2010 achievements. Their constitutional ignorance and political naiveté was breathtaking. But Republican establishment leaders, who had few policy differences with the new radicals, soon became victims of the forces they helped unleash. Their party reminds us of the nullification forces in the antebellum South. The champions of "The New Nullification," as we refer to it in our book, have left damage and chaos in their wake. More is likely to follow.


This moment of pure chaos is basically the afterword to your book, isn't it?


The House Republicans are in full implosion mode, a reflection of the deep and unresolved, and maybe unresolvable, schism in the party between radicals who want more confrontation on the debt ceiling and the budget, and bedrock conservatives who want to find ways to show that they can govern while holding both houses of Congress. Right now, it is clear that the radicals have the upper hand. The House majority has no easy way out.

The best outcome? Boehner, a victim in his own right, could thumb his nose at the radicals in his lame-duck period and bring a blockbuster package to the floor -- a two-year budget deal that raises the sequestration caps; an increase in the debt ceiling along with institutionalization of the McConnell Rule to prevent future debt-ceiling debacles; Ex-Im Bank reauthorization; a robust infrastructure bill.

The worst case? We get a Speaker Jeb Hensarling or Jim Jordan, and a breach in the debt ceiling and a series of government shutdowns threatening the well-being and future of the economy.


How did we get here?


We know a lot about how we got here. Some of the roots were set in the run-up to the 1994 elections. Newt Gingrich delegitimized the Congress, which had been run for 40 years by Democrats, to nationalize the elections and use popular and populist disgust to create a Republican majority. He recruited candidates to advance these themes, portraying Washington and government as a cesspool and Democrats as the enemy.

That began conservative populist hatred of all government, and a gradually building anger at the establishment -- which in turn led to Newt's demise as speaker four years later. Add some more anger in the George W. Bush years at compassionate conservatives not cutting government but expanding it -- especially a new prescription drug benefit -- and, for many, a backlash against two wars that weren't paid for. Then toss in a bailout engineered by the elites in both parties that left ordinary Americans screwed while financiers got bonuses.

The Young Guns (Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan) took the Gingrich playbook and sold a bill of goods to Tea Party candidates and their adherents. Tribal media and social media played their own populist cards. Finally, a successful "Kenyan socialist" president not only got his agenda through in his first two years but was re-elected and now shows new life in his final two years. Voila.


What I would underscore in what Norm has said is the wildly unrealistic expectations of the Freedom Caucus about the House as an institution, and about the Madisonian constitution's imperative for bargaining and compromise. Boehner is a legislator whose party embraced an oppositional stance that made it impossible to legislate in cooperation with the other party. He did as well as he could to keep the lights on. Hard to see how his successor does any better without the Republicans controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The risk with that -- united party government -- is not dysfunction, but overreach.


Well, if that's how we got here, how do we get out? Do we get a replay of the '64 election to push Republicans over the edge? What are the prospects for moderation and respect for democratic norms reasserting themselves?


There is no clear path out of our current distemper. The solution, like the diagnosis, must focus on the obvious but seldom acknowledged asymmetry between the parties. The Republican Party must become a conservative governing party once again and accept the assumptions and norms of our Madisonian system. That will likely require more election defeats, more honest reporting by the mainstream press and more recognition by the public that the problem is not "Washington" or "Congress" or "insiders" or politicians in general.

The burden is on the GOP because they are currently the major source of our political dysfunction. No happy talk about bipartisanship can obscure that reality. Unless other voices and movements arise within the Republican Party to change its character and course, our dysfunctional politics will continue.


Tom is exactly right. A devastating, top-to-bottom defeat in 2016 might force the party's conservative pragmatists, and the few moderates, to move more aggressively to take back control of their party. That would require a divorce from the Freedom Caucus Republicans, and a long period of readjustment to become competitive beyond red states.

But a conversation I had with conservative pragmatist (and former Representative) Vin Weber shows the dilemma. When I referred to the GOP as an insurgent outlier party, Vin took serious exception, saying, "We have the House and Senate, more governorships and state legislatures than in our lifetimes, huge gains in 2010 and 2014, all but the presidency. How is that an insurgent outlier party?"

Of course, winning in midterms, with smaller and narrower electorates, does not make majority status. Republicans can win many states, hold the House and compete for the Senate for a long time, making the drive for reform a much more difficult one. Otherwise, we have to try to change the campaign finance system, enlarge the electorate, change the nature of the House through redistricting and maybe even push for more substantial changes (like multi-member or at-large districts) and create a new public square. All of these are long-term battles. None is a panacea. The future still looks pretty grim.        

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