The first thing you need to know about Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann is where they work – at the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, respectively. Those policy think tanks are among the oldest and best-respected of their breed; Brookings has been described across the political spectrum, but is probably best called center-left. The AEI is distinctly right-of-center – enough so that they booted thoughtful conservative pundit David Frum after an apostate column critical of the GOP.
The second thing to understand is that these guys have been navigating the shifting currents of the Potomac for more than 40 years each; their expertise is beyond serious debate, their credentials are impeccable, their reputations firmly established.
Which is why it’s extremely important to take note of their recent book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” In it, they lay blame for the current policy morass in Washington directly, unequivocally at the feet of one political party: the Republicans. In a blistering indictment, they write:
"The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
“When one side moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.” Wow – you just don’t see that decisive kind of language every day, especially in the sober stylings of scholars.
Indeed, it had become fashionable in this era of urgent information overload, to assume that “both sides do it” – the familiar “you’re one, too” defense of the schoolyard aggressor. Thus when Dems complained about Republican recalcitrance on ObromneyCare (originally a GOP idea) or the utterly meaningless and deeply self-destructive debt ceiling debate, the first response has always been “it’s just politics as usual.” Except it’s not.
Our fragmented media have fallen into the trap of letting the reader decide – assuming that both sides have some merit, and often giving equal time to preposterous positions, unhinged to reality. While there’s something to be said for balance, when that approach is uncritically applied it gives equal weight to, say, scientific consensus on one side, and the Department of MSU on the other (that’s “Making Stuff Up”). The 5th Estate can’t abdicate analysis – it must recall the admonition of every J-School prof: “If your subject says he has a mother, check-out the claim.” Paraphrasing these authors: you can’t have a balanced treatment of an unbalanced situation without distorting reality.
Recognizing this failure to fact-check, partisans have felt a new freedom to prevaricate: thus, we have the GOP nominee’s claim of actual credit for resurrecting the automobile industry, a contention directly contradicted by his published writings at the time. As above, facts apparently don’t matter.
The Republican Party’s processes have been devoted not to governing, but to the obstruction thereof, on policy and on nominations – as to the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, a demonstrably needed, duly enacted initiative that could not implement its mission without its initial senior staff. When a senior Senate leader (McConnell) describes the number one policy mission of his organization as “ensuring that Obama (best defined on the political spectrum as a centrist, in my view) is a one-term President,” you know his train has left the track. The Constitution that every legislator swears to uphold requires more, and the American People deserve better.
As with other eras in which an extreme element captures the flag, their tenure is usually short-lived. GOP Representative Allen West’s recent, ridiculous assertion that there are some 75-80 card-carrying Commies among his Democrat opponents hearkens-back to the McCarthy Era of the 1950s. Joe McCarthy’s influence was temporary – but real people got hurt, they’re being hurt now. It’s also instructive that there was no groundswell of GOP condemnation of West’s slander. Nor did the slow-afoot nominee rise to correct a supporter’s charge that Mr. Obama should be charged with treason (as the honorable Mr. McCain did, forcefully and immediately, in 2008).
There may be early signs that this GOP is overplaying its hand by purging its endangered moderate elements: witness 6- term moderate Senator Lugar’s parting warning today, after losing the Indiana primary:
“If Mr. Mourdock is elected Senator, I want him to be a good Senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goals of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results…In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the proposals of the other party…
“This is not conducive to problem-solving and governance. And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator. Worse, he will help delay solutions that are totally beyond the capacity of partisan majorities to achieve [prominently including the federal deficit].” It remains to be seen whether this GOP purge will “O’Donnell” the state party as its Delawareans did in 2010, but one can hope. It is pretty clear that Mr. Lugar deserved better.
Election season is upon us. 2012 will be different because of the increasingly strident partisanship –at-all-costs described by Messrs. Ornstein, Mann and now Lugar. It will be abetted by Super-Pac practices that will make us yearn for the relative truthiness of the SwiftBoaters. There are also early indications that Mr. Obama will drop the gloves and articulate a sharply contrasting, inclusive vision for the country – one that will capture the Great Middle Ground. Through it all, it will be crucial for citizen voters – and most especially those who consider themselves “moderate Republicans” to recall the wisdom in the Ornstein-Mann warnings about the games being played, the intentions of the players and the consequences of their actions.