Political scientists Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann, who wrote “It’s Even Worse than It Looks,” a book about the recent dysfunction in Congress and its causes, have written a new article for Vox connecting the dysfunction over past years with the nomination of Donald Trump.
They have also – foolishly or bravely – attempted to look down the road to see what happens to the dysfunction if Hillary Clinton or, alternatively, Donald Trump, wins the presidency.
Their piece is headlined: “The Republicans waged a 3-decade war on government. They got Trump.” It begins:
Trumpism may have parallels in populist, nativist movements abroad, but it is also the culmination of a proud political party’s steady descent into a deeply destructive and dysfunctional state.
While that descent has been underway for a long time, it has accelerated its pace in recent years. We noted four years ago the dysfunction of the Republican Party, arguing that its obstructionism, anti-intellectualism, and attacks on American institutions were making responsible governance impossible. The rise of Trump completes the script, confirming our thesis in explicit fashion. …
The Republican Party was about to nominate the most inexperienced, unpopular, and temperamentally unsuited major party presidential candidate in the history of American politics, and there was nothing the establishment could do about it beyond trying to contain the political damage.
I pretty much subscribe to the Ornstein-Mann thesis, which sometimes goes by the rubric “asymmetric polarization,” although my own analysis also relies on some of the inherent shortcomings of the U.S. system of government. Our system relies more on bipartisan compromise than any other system. In the absence of willingness to compromise, our system breaks down in a way that others would not, because the others have fewer chokepoints for legislation and most of them have more than two parties, which makes various coalitions possible. In a typical parliamentary system, the prime minister never vetoes a bill. And if the governing party or coalition cannot pass legislation, it triggers an election so the voters can put in a government that can govern.
But Ornstein and Mann focus more on comparing the U.S. government when it worked better to what is happening now.
As they use the term “asymmetric polarization,” it means that over recent decades, the two parties have sorted themselves out ideologically so that almost all Democrats are left of almost all Republicans, and there are not that many moderates. But the “asymmetric” piece means that one party – the Republicans — has moved further from the center and become more averse to compromise.
Ornstein and Mann recognize that “objective” journalism got in the way of many reporters describing the “asymmetric” piece of the polarization. They wrote:
The safe haven of false equivalence led the press to ignore one of the most consequential developments in contemporary American politics: the radicalization of the Republican Party. … We had seen the GOP go from a problem-solving center-right party to a problem-solving very conservative party — and then evolve into an obstructionist party intent on appeasing extreme forces inside and outside Congress.
In their book, they highlighted the rise of Newt Gingrich as a key development in turning the Republicans into the party that would no longer compromise, for fear of making the Democrats look like they were accomplishing anything. In the Vox piece, they wrote:
The [Gingrich] theory was that a deliberate strategy to make all government action in Washington look disastrous, whether by stopping legislation or delegitimizing the process and its products, would work against the party in power: the Democrats. Scandal politics, which vaulted Gingrich to prominence in the first place, could be hyped and exploited; see Benghazi.
The “birther” movement was not explicitly embraced by party leaders, but it was encouraged; it was an indirect way to criticize the “African” president while also, incidentally, vaulting Donald Trump to prominence in the political realm.
We do not believe that party leaders themselves believed Obama was a secret Muslim, that Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin was a terrorist, or that a Black Panther uprising was ever imminent. But those claims were cynically exploited to foster anger among base voters. …
Having worked to demonize the president as illegitimate and not loyal to America or American values, every subsequent compromise made by GOP leaders to keep the government open or to pass policy was by definition working with the enemy. …
All these forces created a massive backlash against the Republican Party leadership. From the beginning stages of the presidential nomination process for 2016, 60 to 70 percent of Republicans in polls opted for insurgent or outsider candidates, with 20 percent or less for insiders and establishment figures. In the end, the only two viable contenders were Ted Cruz, whose calling card was calling his own leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor — and Donald Trump.
So, to recap, while the Gingrichian/Tea Party no-compromise, government-is-the-problem strategy may have been designed to hurt the Dems and help the Repubs, it also created a rising anger in the Republicans base against anyone who had any experience in or interest in governing and anyone who was interested in the old model, which required compromise. Back to their piece:
Consider the ironies: A tribal party ended up nominating a man who has a very loose connection to the party and has had as many party affiliations in the past as he has had wives. A party moving toward more strident right-wing ideology, reflected in the candidacy of Ted Cruz, chose a nominee who is against free trade, has a long history of pro-choice sentiment, boosts Social Security, Medicare, and Planned Parenthood, and can sound like a neo-isolationist.
In the end, the exploitation of anti-government sentiment by Republican leaders, and the active efforts on their part to make all government look corrupt and illegitimate, reached its logical conclusion. The Republican political establishment looked no less corrupt, weak, and illegitimate than the Democratic one, and the appeal of a rank outsider became greater.
What if Clinton wins?
Ornstein and Mann call a victory by Hillary Clinton more likely than a Trump victory. According to their analysis, that will strengthen the Ted Cruz/Freedom Caucus element of the Republican Party, which will argue that the Dems won because the Repubs didn’t nominate a real, pure conservative. That will loop right back into the old anti-compromise logic.
At the same time, they expect that, if Clinton wins:
Trumpist populists inside and outside Washington will attribute any Trump loss to the perfidy of the party establishment. Aided by the bevy of cable TV hosts, talk radio impresarios, and bloggers who thrive on chaos — they will spread the belief that Americans have been betrayed both by Democrats and by weak-kneed and corrupt Republican establishment leaders. They will continue to push nativist and protectionist policies.
And the establishment itself, divided over its level of support for Trump, battered by a horrible political year, targeted both by the purists and the populists, will have little traction to craft the kinds of policies that both fit its broader philosophy and can achieve meaningful compromises with Democrats.
In addition, Ornstein and Mann predict, the 2018 midterms will likely increase Republican power in Congress, which will increase the ability of the right to deliver more gridlock.
On the other hand, they write:
A Trump victory, unlikely but far from impossible, would not create a new GOP: The old problems we identified would remain, along with new ones. There is no way to predict how Trump, who has no discernible knowledge of public policy or the governing process but who has made stark pledges on a range of issues, would handle his presidency, but the differences between his stated policy preferences and those of party leaders in Congress are substantial. In any case, Democrats will have enough members in the Senate to filibuster his initiatives.
The last sentence of their piece is a real picker upper:
Anyone expecting a quick or clean resolution of this turmoil will be sorely disappointed.
Perhaps this is an apt moment to remind you that their book was titled: “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”