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It’s Even Worse than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism
by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein
Basic Books, 226 pages, $26

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein just don’t seem to understand—or they just choose to ignore—that lots of Republican politicians and voters actually believe Ronald Reagan’s comment in his first inaugural address, that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Those on the right, the authors insist, just aren’t as interested in “solving problems” as they are in scoring partisan points.

And “solving problems” means the federal government passing legislation and extending its reach. A mainstream problem-solving party would support tax increases, never oppose an increase in the debt ceiling, and never doubt that massive government spending staves off recession. A reasonable Republican party would support bigger government but support its growth at a slower rate than Democrats would.

They waste no time in ringing the alarm: “To us, the battle [over raising the debt ceiling in 2011] was a template for all that is wrong with contemporary society and politics. Balancing interests, conducting meaningful deliberation and debate, respecting adversaries, and, most of all, focusing on problem-solving all took a back seat to the Republicans’ take-it-or-leave-it bargaining positions.” But they’re here to help bring the Republican party “back into the mainstream of American politics.”

Aside from the gumption it takes to lecture legislators on “respecting adversaries” when they quote approvingly a writer who compared the GOP to “an apocalyptic cult” and akin to the “authoritarian parties of twentieth-century Europe,” the authors’ main problem with the Republican party is that they simply don’t agree with its goals and policies.

When complaining about GOP legislators not being problem solvers, the first question to ask is, which problems? Their answer is, in effect, problems identified by Democrats whose answers are Democratic answers.

They insist that compromise and “splitting the difference” are what governing is all about. But compromise and difference-splitting only work one way. Democrats meet the “willing-to-compromise” standard not when they compromise with the GOP on how much to reduce the size of the federal government but when they agree to reduce the rate at which their proposals create a bigger government.

This would have been a dramatically different book if the authors had posited that GOP policy objectives were as legitimate as Democratic policy objectives and then asked whether the way in which the GOP pursued their goals was unreasonable. But the authors fixate on policy while claiming to examine process.

Their blatant policy preferences are coupled with paeans to “moderate Republicans”—those who talk small government on the campaign trail but vote for bigger government in Washington. The problem, of course, is that this kind of duplicitous behavior infuriates a politician’s original supporters.

This is why the frustration of conservative voters has gradually grown over the last several decades. Reagan set the agenda for modern conservatism but could not, or would not, reduce the size of Washington dramatically during his two terms. George H. W. Bush then ran on the pledge of “no new taxes.” Many conservative voters took that pledge as a statement of principle rather than as a bargaining position, as the senior Bush seemed to regard it.

After a rebuke at the midterm polls in his first term as president, Bill Clinton announced that “the era of big government is over.” But it wasn’t. Whatever inclination George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” might have had for shrinking the size of government was reversed by 9/11. Now, Barack Obama and his pro-government vision have been affirmed at the polls, though this does not mean that the right will (or ought to) drop its wise skepticism about what the state can accomplish.

Self-described conservatives form a large plurality of the nation’s electorate (up to 40 percent, in some surveys). Many of them sincerely want to see policies that reduce taxes, simplify regulation, and end in an overall smaller role for the national government enacted by the men and women they elect. These voters hardly show up in Mann and Ornstein’s book except as dupes of conservative politicians and organizations.

Mann and Ornstein complain that Republicans value their “brand name” over the interests of the country. But Republican concerns about reputation arise from the experience of voters over the last thirty years.

The realism of conservative voters over repudiations of commitments like “Read my lips: No new taxes” should not be underestimated. The Tea Party movement arose in part in response to the Republicans’ lack of credibility. Many conservative voters are now attuned to the old game in which candidates pledge to reduce the size of government, then vote for bigger government while in Washington.

Because of the cynicism engendered by the type of hypocritical Republican behavior that the authors celebrate, Republican politicians now have the added burden of demonstrating the credibility of their campaign commitments. If Washington insiders like the authors hadn’t so willingly winked at GOP hypocrisy in the past, the current crop of the party’s legislators might not have to invest so heavily in demonstrating the credibility of their policy commitments.

In the latter half of the book, Mann and Ornstein relax the rhetoric and propose several policies to fix the party system in Washington. Many of their proposals are unobjectionable, although some also stand in tension with their own criticisms.

They endorse, for example, expanding the number of eligible voters. They propose to do that by “modernizing” voter registration, repealing voter ID laws, moving Election Day from Tuesday, and compelling people to vote. The basis for their recommendation can be seen in voter surveys in presidential elections: More of those who show up at the polls vote Republican than do those registered to vote. By increasing the number of voters, they expect that the average voter will vote more liberally than the average voter under the current system.

I have no objection to making it easier to register to vote, opposing onerous voter ID laws, and moving Election Day to the weekend. (Forcing people to vote seems unduly coercive. It is a privilege rather than an obligation, and if people don’t care about having a say in government, I don’t see that they should be forced to.)

Yet folks who are too apathetic to register to vote, or too apathetic to show up on Election Day, are often the least informed about the issues in elections. (There are, of course, also highly informed individuals who choose non-participation out of principle.) Mann and Ornstein complain about voter ignorance in the first half of the book, yet their proposal would result in increasing the proportion of poorly informed voters in the electorate.

Mann and Ornstein also endorse policy changes such as redistricting reform, open primaries, and multimember electoral districts. They of course oppose First Amendment protections for political action committees and contributions from lobbyists. My suspicion is that this money has marginal consequences in any event and that redistricting reform could benefit conservatives as much as liberals. The authors propose rule changes in the Senate to avoid delaying tactics on bills and nominations. I suspect that these too would have little effect on an ideologically committed Republican party.

If Republicans supported the same policies as Democrats, then failure to cooperate in enacting those agreed-upon policies would be a serious form of political dysfunction. But Republican attempts to actually do what they pledge to do in Washington is not about “branding” in the sense that competing gasoline companies brand chemically equivalent types of fuel.

Republicans genuinely don’t share the same policy preferences as Democrats because conflict in our national life is not, in the first instance, a result of mere incivility, something a dusting of courtesy and empathy would resolve. No, the clash arises because there are two sides holding substantively different philosophies of the state, the person, and indeed the purpose of human life.

My disappointment, however, isn’t so much with the pedestrian second half of the book as with its first half. There’s no problem with Mann and Ornstein advocating bigger government and arguing that Republicans should support higher taxes and bigger government along with the Democrats. But none of this is evidence that “it’s worse than it looks.” It’s evidence of democratic accountability.

Mann and Ornstein don’t like Washington politics because they simply don’t like the current policy goals of the Republican party. That they attempt to plaster their standard-issue partisanship with claims of neutrality and intimations of moral superiority indicates that perhaps the real cynicism lies not with the voters and politicians they criticize.

James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University and editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics.