There was a warning last April. It was that new book It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism – from Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. They were an odd couple. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution – a well-respected middle-of-the-road think tank now probably considered far left by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Brookings contributed to the creation of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan, and even if Brookings likes deregulation, some things are unforgivable. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute:
AEI is the most prominent think tank associated with American neoconservatism, in both the domestic and international policy arenas. Irving Kristol, widely considered a father of neoconservatism, was a senior fellow at AEI (arriving from the Congress for Cultural Freedom following the widespread revelation of the group’s CIA funding) and many prominent neoconservatives spent the bulk of their careers at AEI. However, AEI is not officially neoconservative. AEI resident scholar Norman J. Ornstein, a centrist liberal, criticizes commentators who label him a “neocon” …
Ornstein is not one of them, he just works there, and last year Mann and Ornstein agreed on one thing – Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem – an array of the key points from their new book, published in the Washington Post the week before the book’s release:
We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party.
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 party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
They shouldn’t have said that. None of the political talk shows would interview them about the new book. It broke the rule – you know, things are awful but, to be fair, both sides are to blame. That has to be said. News organizations can’t take sides, and they certainly didn’t want two of the most respected senior guys from two quite different think tanks tell them to wake the hell up and look at what’s happening, providing clear and unambiguous evidence that the Republicans had finally lost it. This was impossible situation. There was no way to prod these two into saying that the Democrats were just as bad – absolutely intransigent about their own issues and thus just as dangerous. Their thesis was that just wasn’t so – that was the whole point, and they could prove it. Chris Hayes interviewed them. Bill Moyer did. That was about it. The book disappeared, as if it had never been written.
Then an odd thing happened – the Republican primaries, with that array of candidates who presented themselves as true believers, scoffing at compromise, and at science and economics and so-called women’s rights and so-called gay rights, and at insufficient commitment to Jesus and Israel and all the rest. You can add in stuff about smelly and scary Mexicans too. Mann and Ornstein were right – these Republicans were outliers. This was an odd crew. The news was filled with the latest strange thing that each successive front-runner had just said – first Donald Trump then Michele Bachmann then Rick Perry then Herman Cain then Newt Gingrich, then Rick Santorum and then Gingrich again, and then Santorum again. The base was momentarily enthralled, again and again, while the pundits wondered what the hell was up with the now-crazy Republican Party.
Fox News tried to salvage what they could from this mess, excusing this and that as well-meaning enthusiasm and not that crazy if you really thought about it – or maybe the liberal media had it out for conservatives and were reporting what was said far too much, making a big deal out of little eccentricities. But after twenty or so primary debates it was obvious these folks weren’t ready for primetime politics. Only Mitt Romney survived, never winning big in any of the state primaries or caucuses, but never getting blown out anywhere – winning the nomination by being just crazy enough when a specific setting demanded that, and being general and inoffensive the rest of the time. He became the master of the conventionally daring, and no one ever knew what the hell he really believed.
They found that out with that hidden-camera videotape of Romney explaining that forty-seven percent of all Americans were whining moochers who had no sense of personal responsibility, and would never have one, so they should just be written off as useless dead weight. Those were the folks on food stamps, or getting unemployment benefits, or on Medicare or getting Social Security payments, even if they had paid into those programs – and maybe the folks who walked on government sidewalks or drove on government roads too. Well, no, Romney didn’t add that last bit, but he tried to walk the rest of it back, but it was too late. The election was never really going to be that close – Nate Silver kept showing everyone the data – but Romney assured his defeat when it became clear he really did kind of believe that forty-seven percent crap, and so did the party. That hurt, but Romney seemed to think it would be enough to remind everyone that he wasn’t Obama. It wasn’t enough. Romney did seem ideologically extreme and scornful of compromise – his book was No Apology: The Case for American Greatness – and unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science – he was undecided on global warming and evolution and all that – but he was dismissive of the legitimacy of his political opposition. As he said on the stump, everyone knew where HE was born. It was a little joke. That fell flat. The whole thing fell flat.
Mann and Ornstein had been right, even if the subject of their book was the legislation and administration – the process of government – not electoral politics. That didn’t matter. After the election the lame-duck Congress had to do something about that Fiscal Cliff they had set up with those Bush tax cuts that had been designed to expire at the end of the year, along with long-term unemployment benefits and other ways to keep people from starving in the streets expiring too, which they had made worse with brutal sequestration set to start too – cutting all government spending by twenty or thirty percent, on everything, with no exceptions or adjustments. They set up a disaster for the economy. Then we got the Mann-Ornstein Phenomenon. Republicans argued that no one’s taxes would remain low unless the very wealthy were assured of protection from higher taxes. Obama ran on taxes for the wealthy returning to their former rates, and poll after poll showed that more than two-thirds of the nation agreed, but the Republicans said they’d tank the economy over this. They were the insurgent outliers, but after a lot of drama, just after the stroke of midnight as the next year began, they folded – mad as hell. Sequestration was kicked down the road – they’d worry about that at the end of February, and then a month later they plan a big fight on raising the debt limit. They’ll let the country go into default and crash the world’s economy unless Obama agrees to end Obamacare and most spending on social-safety-net stuff and education and regulation and all the rest. After that they’ll shut down the government unless they get a budget they like – everything will close and no one will get paid. This is what Mann and Ornstein were talking about. You can’t run a country this way. Add too all the stuff about Benghazi – a bad business handled badly, but not much a scandal – and now the filibuster of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. Daniel Larison is puzzled by that:
The impressive thing about the anti-Hagel effort is how politically tone-deaf it is. It’s not just that their opposition is misguided, but they stand to gain nothing from it. No one outside of a small core of hard-liners sympathizes with what Senate Republicans are doing. While they may not be losing any votes over this, they are making sure that all of the moderates, independents, and realists that they have alienated over the last ten years will keep running away from them. Except for dedicated partisans, no one can look at the display most Senate Republicans have put on over the last eight weeks and conclude that these people should be in the majority.
Mann and Ornstein said this was what was happening. They were just early in saying it, and now Ornstein says this:
This has not been a good month for the fabric of governance. First we have the ridiculous demands from a majority of Senate Republicans for information about finances of private groups that former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel has been affiliated with, including transcripts or notes from all speeches he has given since he left the Senate, even when off-the-record and even when he had no prepared speech.
The request for finances, namely about foreign money given to corporations or nonprofits such as the Atlantic Council, is a simple smear, innuendo that Hagel may be wrongly connected to foreign interests or governments.
Ornstein runs down all the rest they’re demanding, and adds this:
And a little group of willful men and women, including those who have been the loudest critics of the sequester, are keeping the next head of the department from getting into office and beginning the hard job of managing the turbulence ahead.
That’s only the first on a list of irresponsible acts. If National Review is accurate, the unanimous Senate Republican response to deal with our debt problems and immediate budget crises is a constitutional amendment to balance the budget with a cap on spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product and supermajorities required to raise revenues or the debt ceiling.
If I were al-Qaida and looking to destroy America from within, I would love to see this amendment added to the Constitution.
Given our demographics and the GOP insistence on maintaining and increasing defense spending, this amendment would require huge cuts in Medicare, Social Security, homeland security, air traffic security, food safety, medical research, all basic research, infrastructure repair (including sewers, water sources, highways and bridges), child nutrition and everything else.
It would guarantee that in an economic downturn, the fiscal drag from states would be amplified, not countered, at the federal level. And it would guarantee regular breaches in the full faith and credit of the United States, debasing our currency and making us a second-rate power.
Other than that it’s a great idea, but as Ornstein notes, only as a ploy – there are just quite specific things they want to government to stop doing. It’s not that simple to balance the budget anyway. Spending only what we take in and never selling another treasury bond sounds sensible, just like paying cash for your house and never taking out a mortgage, or a business never borrowing money to invest in new equipment and expand. No, wait – that can’t be right. No one can conclude that these people should be in the majority. The other party isn’t this crazy.
Mann and Ornstein said so. The Mann-Ornstein Phenomenon is now accepted as real, and the Republicans do know they’re in trouble. They need a consultant, and in the New York Times Magazine, Robert Draper offers a long and curious item – Can the Republicans be Saved from Obsolescence? It seems that Democrats have overwhelmed Republicans with their technological superiority – at least that was the presentation by Red Edge, a conservative software company:
Romney’s senior strategist, Stuart Stevens, may well be remembered by historians, as one House Republican senior staff member put it to me, “as the last guy to run a presidential campaign who never tweeted.”
While Romney’s much-hyped get-out-the-vote digital tool, Orca, famously crashed on Election Day, Obama’s digital team unveiled Narwhal, a state-of-the-art data platform that gave every member of the campaign instant access to continuously updated information on voters, volunteer availability and phone-bank activity.
There’s lots of that stuff, but James Joyner sees more:
If Romney and Obama had switched campaign teams – databases, strategists, money managers, bloggers, etc. – it’s possible that Romney would have narrowed the gap. He may well have carried Virginia and Florida, two highly competitive states that traditionally lean Republican and where the contest was close. But Obama would have still won the election easily. …
For one thing, Obama’s simply a much better politician. He’s a natural schmoozer who connects well with large crowds. Romney, well, is not.
Beyond that, though, the Republican Party is still running on a platform designed to solve the problems of the Carter Administration. The world has changed but the Republican message hasn’t.
Democrats aren’t dominating Republicans among young voters because they’re more savvy at deploying Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit but because they’re proposing policies that appeal to young voters. While Republicans are fighting against gay rights and slashing funding for schoolteachers and student loans in the name of fiscal discipline, Democrats are offering free healthcare and proposing funding programs that benefit young people by increasing taxes on rich, old people. More clever hashtags aren’t going to solve that problem.
There’s also this from a focus group of women conducted by an actual Republican pollster named Kristen Anderson:
About an hour into the session, Anderson walked up to a whiteboard and took out a magic marker. “I’m going to write down a word, and you guys free-associate with whatever comes to mind,” she said. The first word she wrote was “Democrat.”
“Young people,” one woman called out. “Liberal,” another said. Followed by: “Diverse.” “Bill Clinton.” “Change.” “Open-minded.” “Spending.” “Handouts.” “Green.” “More science-based.”
When Anderson then wrote “Republican,” the outburst was immediate and vehement: “Corporate greed.” “Old.” “Middle-aged white men.” “Rich.” “Religious.” “Conservative.” “Hypocritical.” “Military retirees.” “Narrow-minded.” “Rigid.” “Not progressive.” “Polarizing.” “Stuck in their ways.” “Farmers.”
This didn’t go well:
The session with the young men was equally jarring. None of them expressed great enthusiasm for Obama. But their depiction of Republicans was even more lacerating than the women’s had been. “Racist,” “out of touch” and “hateful” made the list – “and put ‘1950s’ on there too!” one called out.
The cool kids don’t like this party much at all, and Kevin Drum sees why:
For years, Democrats complained about the fact that so many working class voters had abandoned them on pocketbook issues and instead began voting on social issues. These voters didn’t like hippies or abortion or busing, so they voted Republican even though the GOP was the party of rich people.
But now the worm is turning. The Reagan Democrats who started this trend are now senior citizens, or close to it. They’re no longer natural Democratic voters who are defecting to the Republican column – they’re just natural Republican voters who are voting for Republicans. That doesn’t really help the GOP.
What’s worse is that social issues are no longer a trump card with 20- and 30-something working class voters. So now Republicans are feeling some of the same frustration that Democrats did during the Reagan era, because they probably think they have a decent pocketbook case to make to younger voters: Democrats want to raise your taxes; Obamacare forces you to buy insurance you don’t want, and raises your premiums in order to subsidize older folks; liberals won’t let you send your kids to better schools; they’re wrecking the economy with higher entitlement spending and a refusal to save Social Security.
Obviously liberals have answers to all this. Still, Republicans probably feel like they have a reasonable case to make. And they do – not a slam dunk case, but a reasonable one.
But it doesn’t matter, because a growing block of voters is still voting on social issues. The problem is that the social issues they’re voting on aren’t hippies and abortion. The issues are global warming, gay rights, gun extremism, contraception, immigration, and a generally toxic attitude toward anyone non-white. And in this generation, all of these issues help Democrats. Even centrist 30-somethings largely don’t have a problem with gay marriage, are appalled at objections to contraception, and are offended when Fox News goes on one of its xenophobic jags. They want no part of this, even if they’re not super thrilled with the Democratic Party’s economic agenda.
And this was the day that Fox News, after dumping Sarah Palin, hired Herman Cain as their latest new highly-paid devastatingly-insightful contributor. Mann and Ornstein might have predicted that, Cain was pretty damned good at ideologically nonsense, and scornful of compromise, unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science – and here are the quotes to prove it.
Ah well, Fox News isn’t the Republican Party. It’s just its retirement home, and in Politico, Jake Sherman reports here on the private closed-door intense discussions the House Republicans have been holding. This is a scoop. Sherman got the inside dope on their musings about their agenda and message from here on out. There’s nothing too surprising, actually, as you get stuff like this:
“I think that we need to make being fiscally conservative cool,” said Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chairwoman of the Administration Committee and a close ally of Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Ed Kilgore giggles:
Wonder what that means? Hire a rapper? Finance a “fiscally conservative” TV sit-com, maybe a Family-Sitting-Around-the-Checkbook version of Two Broke Girls?
Then there’s this:
According to a source present, one meeting in Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) office featured GOP strategist Karl Rove floating a plan for every single Republican to give a floor speech on the same topic with the same message, in a bid to grab headlines.
Rove must have had the day off as a highly-paid devastatingly-insightful contributor at Fox News, and Kilgore sees the issue here:
Rove has always reminded me of the geeky kid in the old Far Side cartoons who spent a lot of time frying insects with a magnifying glass. But the idea of the Boy Genius orchestrating identical speeches for House Republicans brought back a different memory: Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, in which a character who had taken far too much LSD became obsessed with the idea of getting the whole world to simultaneously say the words: “Rich, Chocolatey Goodness,” after which God would appear or something.
I’ve never been a big fan of the idea that the basic task of political communications is to blot out all nuance and diversity and just hammer voters over the head with something so simple and artfully crafted they’d march to the polls in a state of rhetorical enchantment. But I’d far more likely vote for “rich, chocolatey goodness” than anything emanating from today’s House Republican Caucus.
Mann and Ornstein weren’t that snide, but they were saying the same thing. Something is very wrong. Maybe it’s not LSD and chocolate, but when one party moves this far from the mainstream, it really does make it impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges. We were warned. But of course the warning was suppressed in the name of being fair to both sides. We had to find out on our own, and we did.