Dunsmore: Must-read book blames GOP

Editor’s note: This op-ed by retired ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore first appeared in the Sunday Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

It is now commonplace to describe the current American political system as “dysfunctional.” Most people know that instinctively or through personal experience. However, what most Americans do not know is exactly why their government doesn’t function the way it used to. If you are among that group, I am eager to inform you that the answers are in a new book.

The book is, “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.” The authors are Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the (centrist) Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the (conservative) American Enterprise Institute.

Mann and Ornstein are among the brightest and best informed political scientists in the country. What they write is not just another “pox on both their houses” look at what has happened to the American political system. You may not agree with their conclusions, but it’s important that you understand that Mann and Ornstein are among the very few official scorers of the American game of politics who consistently make their calls without fear or favor from any political party or candidate. Their work is widely respected both for its scholarship and because it is untainted by partisan politics. That’s why this book really is a must read for anyone who cares about what is happening to this country.

The authors launched their new book just two weeks ago, with an op-ed column in the Washington Post, under the eye-grabbing headline, “Let’s Just Say It: Republicans are the Problem.” As they put it, “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.”

Next came the sentence from the book which was sure to receive the greatest attention because it sums up their remarkably candid analysis of today’s party of Lincoln.
“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; contemptuous of inherited social and economic policy; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government.”

This new book is not a tome but a slender volume of just over 200 pages. Nevertheless it persuasively supports that dramatic assertion. Here is the flavor of a few of its many compelling arguments.

• What happened to the GOP? After noting the realignment of the South following the Civil Rights bills of the 1960s after which most Southern Democrats became Republicans, Mann and Ornstein go right for the jugular. “The real move to the bedrock right starts with two names: Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.”

• Gingrich, entered Congress in 1979. His eagerness “to paint his own institution (when Democrats controlled it) as elitist, corrupt and arrogant … undermined basic public trust in Congress and government. … His attacks on partisan adversaries in the White House and Congress created a norm in which colleagues with different views became mortal enemies.” Gingrich got his House Republican majority, but “the forces Gingrich unleashed destroyed whatever comity existed across party lines (and) activated an extreme and virulently anti-Washington base.”

• Norquist founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 and his Tax Payer Protection Pledge the following year. In the current congressional term, “the pledge, which binds signers to never support a tax increase (and that includes closing tax loopholes) has been signed by 238 of the 242 House Republicans and 41 of 47 GOP senators.” The failure of a congressional Republican to sign Norquist’s pledge, or even consider compromises with the Democrats, can be political suicide for Republicans seeking re-election. (Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who served six Senate terms as a respected, moderate foreign policy specialist, was the hard-line conservatives’ latest victim last Tuesday when he lost his primary bid to the Tea Party candidate by 20 points.)

• House majority leader Eric Cantor gets special credit for inspiring last year’s “debt ceiling fiasco.” Cantor is fingered for deliberately jeopardizing the credit rating of the United States for partisan political leverage.

• The filibuster was once relegated to a handful of major issues in a given Congress. Under Senate rules (there is nothing about filibusters in the Constitution) it takes 60 votes to prevent a filibuster. That means 41 Republicans can and do now use the filibuster as a routine weapon – for instance to block nominees to agencies such as the Consumer Protection Bureau as a way to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented. “Since Obama’s inauguration in 2009 the filibuster is more often a stealth weapon, which minority Republicans use not to highlight an important national issue but to delay and obstruct quietly on nearly all matters including routine and widely supported ones. It is fair to say this pervasive use of the filibuster has never before happened in the history of the senate.”

• The authors are critical of the news media for basically missing the most important political story of the last three decades: the transformation of the Republican Party. They also reject the media’s tendency to “convey the impression that the two sides are equally implicated.” They are not. “We understand the values of mainstream journalists … but a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politicians are telling the truth? Who is taking hostages? Look ahead to the likely consequences of voters choices in the November elections.” (That is the substance too often missing.)

The title of Mann and Ornstein’s book and the last words in their Post column are obviously not optimistic. Only if the voters “punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents, then an insurgent outlier party will have some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.”

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  • George Cross

    Great post. Mann and Ornstein are truth tellers. We all need to listen.

  • Rob Macgregor

    While it’s all well and good that someone has finally committed this to print, it’s not news to anyone who has been paying any kind of attention…..

  • Ann Owen

    Thanks for bringing this book to our attention, Barry. I’m off to purchase this important read.

  • Based on Mr. Dunsmore’s characterization, what this “must read” book actually proves is that elitists LOVE talking about how much smarter they are than the rest of the voters. If only the common man and woman understood how politics SHOULD work, the refrain goes, they wouldn’t be sending these extremists to Congress, and they wouldn’t reward them for signing no-tax-increase pledges.

    The fact remains that parties lose seats unless they represent people accurately. Neither Republicans nor Democrats gain anything by being uncompromising just for the heck of it; they do what people want in order to get votes.

    Mr. Dunsmore claims – without supporting evidence – that “most people” consider our political system dysfunctional, with the lack of comity and compromise in Congress as Exhibit A. But the best evidence available to us – the makeup of Congress itself – militates against Mr. Dunsmore’s conclusion; after all, it takes “most people” to elect Congress.

    • I could cite:

      Pew poll, April 2010 – 78 pct of respondents don’t trust the federal government.

      Fox poll, December, 2011 – 71 of respondents overall say DC is “dysfunctional.” 79 pct of indies, 77 pct of Rs, 64 pct of Dems.

      and many others.

      But one doesn’t need polling; simply come down and watch the machinery grinding to a halt. There is plenty of direct evidence that Congress is dysfunctional.

      Been away from this blog for a bit, but it appears little has changed. In Mr. Kheiry’s world, anyone with expertise is a de facto “elitist.” In the case of Messrs. Dunsmore, Mann, and Ornstein, this is simply insulting. These three gentlemen have more than a century’s worth of direct experience with the American political system, and with politics more generally. Disagree with their findings or opinions if you like, but spare us the invective.

      Might help if you read the book, too.

      In the actual practice of politics, people win or lose seats for lots of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with actual job performance. And it really doesn’t take that much, especially in an off-year federal election, to get a passel of angry candidates elected.

      As someone who has worked on Capitol Hill, in both houses, I can tell you the current stalemate in Congress has less to do with who voted people into off than the Senate filibuster rule, which gives a determined minority the ability to shut the place down whenever it cares to. On the House side, Speaker Boehner would probably prefer to have more room for debate and compromise, but the Tea Party members of his caucus are loud and numerous enough to force him into intransigence. Finally, there are members who are, in fact, uncompromising, not for the heck of it, but because they intent to make government dysfunctional, either due to an inherent dislike of the institution or because – as is the case for many Rs right now – they think this is the way the beat Barack Obama. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell all but said as much in late 2008.

      • Mr. Fairbanks – thanks for those poll results; I think they support my contention: A significant majority of people don’t trust the federal government and think it’s dysfunctional. When you consider those results along with who they have elected to office, it’s clear that many people want it to change dramatically; if that means throwing sand into the gears of compromise, perhaps that’s what they’re actually after!

        And to your claim that I consider experts to be de facto elitists: I absolutely will admit that when anybody – whether billed as an expert or not – puts forth positions that essentially dismiss the expressed will of tens of millions of their fellow citizens as being uninformed, unthinking, and worthy of only disdain, I consider it elitist.

    • Jamal, I’m still proving to folks how wrong they are about national level group ACORN (you know – the low income advocacy group that was attacked by our own Rep Welch and his radical right wing buddies in Congress by the use of provably false claims). It isn’t a matter of the elite THINKING they can twist the voters’ mind to ignore reality – it is a matter of elite KNOWING this can be done and is done regularly.

      Pointing out this fact isn’t elitist – it’s factual.

  • Kathy Callaghan

    I had heard good things about this book and now look forward to reading it even more. I’m glad that someone had the courage to write it.

    “The fact remains that parties lose seats unless they represent people accurately”. If only this were true. Parties have very little to do with the wishes of the electorate. Parties have platforms. Once representatives are elected, they do what is politically correct in a given situation, or they adhere to the party line. Most votes are along party lines regardless of whether particular legislators agree with the issue or not, and this occurs both at the national and state levels. Yes, right here in our beloved State. Anyone doubting this should spend time in committee rooms or in the halls or cafeteria at the Statehouse. Not to say that our elected reps don’t work very hard or are not honorable folks, but one needs to understand they way it really works.

    The gridlock and deadlock in Washington will only be broken when the electorate pays VERY careful attention to campaigns, and yes, “punishes idelogical extremism at the polls”.

  • Paula Schramm

    Mr. Kheiry is wrong ,( I feel, about many things, but I’ll point out one ). It takes less than “most people” to elect Congress. Many Americans who are eligible to vote, or even already registered, are too ambivalent, or too fed up with dysfunctional politics, or too preoccupied with survival, or too overwhelmed by their sense of powerlessness, to even vote. Of the ones that are left who actually go to the polls, it takes only just over 50%. So Congress is not elected by most people. And it is a successful strategy of many Republicans to even further lower the number of voters with legislation to make it more difficult to vote, especially the elderly, the poor, and students – all demographics more likely to vote for Democrats.
    Americans aren’t dumb, but they are low-information, thanks to a media that now more than ever, in the age of super pacs, caters to the big bucks, and presents millions of $ of slick propaganda in sound- bite ads, and pitifully little discussion of actual issues.

    • Ms. Schramm,

      When it comes to low-information Americans, we have more information available to us than ever before, thanks to the web and the proliferation of special interest groups and think tanks that poll, research, publish, and pontificate. It’s a great time to be a citizen of a republic, if you want to vote.

      To quote Rush (the band, not the blowhard radio guy): “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”

  • Pete Novick

    Actually, the federal government is lot less dysfunctional than you might think. And since the authors put the term “American Constitutional System” in the title of their new book, let’s start there.

    The single most important thing Congress does every year is pass the federal budget, which they do, using the guidance contained in the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, which, established the congressional budget process, which coordinates the legislative activities on the budget resolution, appropriations bills, reconciliation legislation, revenue measures, and other budgetary legislation. For a good summary of this process please see:

    Despite the endless posturing, theatrics, and sky-is-falling antics on both sides of the political aisle, Congress manages to get a budget passed every year. Forget the Defense of Marriage Act, the bilateral trade agreement with South Korea, or how watered down the Volcker Rule gets, Congress well knows which side of the bread needs the butter, and year in and out, they deliver.

    Do you remember when Governor Perry said that if elected he would shut down the Commerce Department? Why hasn’t anyone in Congress proposed that? Because Congress as a legislative body approves of what the Commerce Department does for America. And they do a lot. See for yourself:

    And exactly where does the Commerce Department’s authority and funding to carry out their many vital functions come from?

    Why, it comes from Congress.

    And it works.

    • John Greenberg

      “The single most important thing Congress does every year is pass the federal budget, which they do ….” Except the years they don’t. Like 2001- 2011. In fact, unless I’m very mistaken, Congress has failed to pass the budget resolution for many recent years, and has been governing by “continuing resolutions.” See:

      Which is just one symptom of the problem under discussion.

      • Pete Novick

        John, Good comment though you are mistaken. Congress ALWAYS passes the budget spending bills, though for the past decade or so, they have not been able to get them to the President for signature until after the start of the new fiscal year on October 1 each year.

        For the current fiscal year (2012: October 1, 2012 – September 30, 2013) the US government operated under a continuing resolution for almost 5 months.

        This does not mean there is no money to spend. The rules are complicated, though in a nutshell they are these:

        – Spending is capped to the previous FY level
        – No new program spending is authorized
        – No new federal hiring (although, one again, there are exceptions)
        – No new contracts can be funded

  • Paula Schramm

    Mr Kheiry, I agree, there is a huge amount of information on the web, and for that we live in fortunate times. There is indeed a proliferation of special interest groups and think tanks that pontificate. Lies and propaganda flourish there as well as the ability to research something deeply.
    I repeat the description of many Americans who are frustrated, confused,( with good reason ! ), struggling to survive, overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness. They choose by opting out of the voting game, they don’t have time to sit at the computer following favorite blogs or researching how financial institutions work, or delving into the voting history of some candidate. They sit down in front of the TV with a beer or a coffee, and listen to the news, and are left with no idea of what’s going on in the world.
    My point is, Republicans are happy to have confused, and disgusted Americans opt out. Works great for them.