Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, are savvy political scientists who know Washington politics well. And they have been regarded as middle-of-the-road guys, centrists, for a number of years in DC. That is why their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, published by Basic Books in May, has startled some media types with its thesis, which argues, in a nutshell, that the core of Washington’s political dysfunction lies with the Republican Party. As they put it in The Washington Post:
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.
Along with their criticism of the GOP, Ornstein and Mann had some harsh words for the press. As they wrote in their book:
Because of the partisan nature of much of the media and the reflexive tendency of many in the mainstream press to use false equivalence to explain outcomes, it becomes much easier for a minority, in this case the Republicans, to use filibusters, holds, and other techniques to obstruct.
CJR’s Trudy Lieberman sat down with Mann to explore where he and his co-author think the media have gone awry. First the politics, then the press:
Why is the GOP to blame for political stalemate you describe in your book?
They are now the primary source of the stalemate. At the very beginning of the Obama administration, they made an explicit decision—now well documented—to eschew any policy negotiations with the newly elected president and Democrats in Congress. It’s a strategy of total political opposition—to avoid sharing any responsibility for the performance of the economy and to do nothing that might improve its performance, because that would boost the electoral prospects of President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Their motivation goes beyond differences on the issues. It’s an aggressive, non-negotiable stance, illustrated by the no-new-tax pledge of Grover Norquist, that makes any real constructive policy making impossible.
What’s in it for Republicans?
The worse the economy is, the better their chances of gaining control of the White House and both Houses of Congress and putting in place a radical view of policy that goes well beyond anything Republicans have proposed in the past.
As you see it, is this driven by ideology or the goal to control government?
It’s both. The ultimate objective is ideological, but the means to achieve that objective are very strategic.
Explain a little more about the strategy.
It involves abandoning and denigrating policy proposals you once supported as soon as the other party embraces them; denying the efficacy of governmental actions to deal with the economic crisis; threatening a public default, by holding the need to raise the debt ceiling hostage to non-negotiable demands to cut domestic spending, in the midst of a weak economy; using the Senate filibuster routinely and ruthlessly to deny sizeable majorities an opportunity to put its program into place; delaying or denying the confirmation of presidential nominations even when you approve of the nominee. The list goes on. You do everything you can to inflict political damage on your political adversary.
Are you saying the Republican Party has changed?
The result of all this is the transformation of the Republican Party into a radical party—not really a conservative party—that no Republican president in the modern era would have felt comfortable being a part of.
It’s a democracy—Isn’t it okay for one party to do this?
Of course, it is perfectly legitimate for a party to propose a radical change of policy course. But it is essential that the public have some grasp of what that party is proposing and what its likely consequences would be. Public opinion research suggests that citizens have little knowledge or understanding of either the source of our dysfunctional politics or the nature of the Republican policy ambitions.
In your book, you say that democracy’s ultimate weapon—the ability to throw the bums out—has proved wholly inadequate. Why?
The public can certainly get upset with the status quo and throw incumbent officeholders and parties out of power. Obama was the beneficiary of that in ‘08. The trick is figuring out whom to hold responsible for unsatisfactory conditions in the country. The most common target is the president and his party in Congress. But what if that president’s program has been weakened or subverted by the minority party in Congress? And who does one blame under divided party government, as we have in the 112th Congress?