Politics & Law

Today’s American political dysfunction

Brad DeLong

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute have a very nice op-ed this morning about America’s political dysfunction.

I, however, found it sad: their fantasy is for pressure to work in America’s interest to be directed toward Speaker of the House Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell by… the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Campaign to Fix the Debt, and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget — pressure groups that never had any purchase with the current crop of Republican legislators at any level.

Mann and Ornstein came to Berkeley 15 months ago to Jack Citrin’s Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS). They gave a very nice seminar. And here is the transcript:

Eric Schickler: Welcome everybody to the Institute of Governmental Studies. I will say, as my first point, that a couple of weeks ago when we were scheduling this for several days after graduation, some people commented: “Do you think a lot of people will come? You know it might be a little problem…”

Well, this is clearly the biggest crowd I have ever seen at IGS. We have had some great events in the past, but this one promises to be really special. I want to note there are some extra seats in the side room where you will be able to hear, for Tom and Norman will have microphones. You should be able to hear them in there. You might be more comfortable in there than standing in the back.

Brad DeLong: But no closed-circuit TV.

Eric Schickler: We did not arrange CCTV unfortunately.

Unfortunately, we can’t bring any more chairs into the room. There are fire code concerns that we have been warned about.

Eric Schickler: Introducing our speakers today, I want to note it’s a really special pleasure to have these two individuals here because of both the role they have played in American politics and also the special connection that they have had to IGS and Berkeley over the years. Both of these individuals have been here many times before. They are old friends of Nelson Polsby who brought them into our orbit. So we have always had special access to many opportunities to hear from them. As a faculty member here, I have really enjoyed that opportunity over the years.

Tom Mann and Norman Ornstein play a special role in Washington. They provide the kind of systematic careful analysis that political science prides itself on providing, while also speaking in communication and dialogue with policy makers, journalists, and other non-academics in the Washington community. They have been a bridge between these two worlds for many years. I think their role is especially important today, as we look at the state of American politics.

Tom Mann is W. Averill Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow in Government Studies at the Brookings Institutions. Norman Ornstein is Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. They have authored numerous books on American politics. I will just note a couple of their co-authored books: The Permanent Campaign and its Future, Intensive Care; How Congress Shapes Health Policy, and The Broken Branch; How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.

They are here today to talk about their most recent book, which is a book that has gotten a tremendous amount of attention. I hear it is going to even be appearing on the New York Times bestsellers list. It’s a huge success. Copies of the book, which may not be available in all that many bookstores as it’s selling so fast, are available for sale here at IGS if you would like to pick up a copy. The title of the book is; It’s Even WOrse than It Looks; How the American Constitutional System Collided with the Politics of Extremism.

I am now going to turn it over to Tom and Norman.

Tom Mann: From The Broken Branch to It’s Even Worse than It Looks. We are planning the sequel: Run for Your Lives.

It is a special occasion for us to be here. Jack and Eric, thank you so much for having us. It’s especially moving to us to have Ryan and Barbara here with us. They have, together with Sheila, have been almost lifelong friends and teachers and colleagues of ours. We are thrilled to have them with us.

Before coming we had a brief visit with Linda Polsby, and we caught up with her. The last time we were at IGS talking about The Broken Branch, Nelson Polsby presided over that occasion. I think Bruce Cain may have been here, Jack’s predecessor here at IGS. Norman and I are oriented toward what’s wrong and what can we do to fix it. It’s fair to say that Bruce and Nelson saw things a little differently. We even have had some rather pitched debates at professional meetings. Certainly Bruce and I did. I remember his students were in the audience, and Ray’s students were in the audience. Ray’s were on my side. The others with Bruce. He kidded something about how he came “from IGS, where the forces of darkness reside”, which always I found touching.

Let me say one other personal word if I might, about someone who played an important role in this university and in our profession and lives. that’s Austin Rannie. We dedicate this book to Austin. We we do so not just because we loved him, but because we think Austin, back in the early 1960s was remarkable prescient. He anticipated what would happen if the APSA Committee on “toward a more responsible two-party system” had its way. They thought would get parliamentary-style political parties: ideologically coherent, sufficiently separated if not fully polarized to offer a real choice to the electorate, and acting in a fashion that—the authors of this report argued–would improve American governance.

Austin wrote a dissent from the floor. It became a very famous article in the APSR. It was then turned into a monograph. Austin saw it way back then. He said: “Listen guys, you are talking about political parties parliamentary-style, but we have a separation-of-powers system that almost forces some degree of collaboration. There are too many impediments to governing in our system for it to function with parliamentary-style politics. So we dedicate the book to Austin, as well as to the families. because we think Austin is right.

That is the core of what we are writing about in this book. We have a severe mismatch. On the one hand we have the political parties of today, which political scientists have studied and characterized as intensely polarized, vehemently oppositional, and— given their strategic focus — inclined to act like they would if in a parliamentary system. But alas, they are working under a separation of power system which over time has evolved in a way that has increased the number of veto points — in particular the routinization of the filibuster, a subject on which we all turn to Eric for guidance and wisdom and history. It has changed its character, and made it especially difficult to govern. Our recent experience after the 2008 election shows what happens when you have a parliamentary-like minority, convinced that their only hope is to ensure that the president of the other party is unsuccessful, that he fails, occurring in a time of extraordinary economic crisis.

They planned it, they talked about it, they executed it.

It involves, obviously, opposition, delay, defeat if possible, discrediting if it manages to get through, and something we call a new nullification,: that even if the piece of legislation passes, you can deny its implementation not through legitimate means if you have the power to block appropriations, but to deny the conformation of executives to run the agency even if those nominees are fully qualified. It is as if we are in the pre-Civil War south, wher they can choose which laws not to acknowledge as legitimate.

That’s the thrust of what we are about in this book.

We had this piece in the Washington Post outlook section which went viral online. It’s been extraordinary for us. We have never seen anything like it. It’s quite remarkable: the title, the piece in Outlook, and ithe way it travelled through cyber space and fought its way onto newspapers—just not onto any Sunday talk shows.

Now the GOP is distinctive. We have this mismatch in general, but the asymmetry between the two parties is what contributes overwhelmingly to our dysfunctional politics today.

Over to Norman.

Norman Ornstein: Thanks Tom. Let me echo what Tom said about our delight to be here, and about the number of ties we’ve had with IGS, so many interactions so many years.

We have been in Washington now for about 22 1/2 years. We have been immersed in the politics of the town, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue but particularly with Congress. We haven’t followed the usual career paths of academic political scientists. We try to keep a foot in a whole series of different camps. And, as you know, we have devoted a lot of our lives to both trying to explain to a larger public how the governing process is supposed to work, and how it does work. We try to say how to improve the machinery and the institutions so that they work relatively well, or at least better than they have been working. And we have written a lot about these different institutions, and beenengaged very much in reform efforts.

This now is different for us. It is different because in those 22 1/2 years we simply haven’t seen it this dysfunctional. We have seen plenty of dysfunction. When you go through two impeachments, the trauma over the Vietnam War, a lot of other difficulties. But we also recognize that the nature of the political system is that bit’s war by other means. That’s what a democratic political system really is. You are going to have plenty of rancor. You are going to have politics and hardball played out in different ways. But this is different. We are alarmed by it. We are alarmed by it in addition because the kinds of problems that we face now, both short and long term are extraordinarily challenging. They put us, I think, in some very difficult points and crunch points.

We are not alone on that front. Many other political systems now are facing serious dysfunction, and their publics that are reacting against them.That includes countries that are going through the economic trauma that follows a deep recession caused by a financial crisis—which we know is different than a typical recession. It includes countries like Australia, that have done extraordinarily well in this crisis. And the only one seeming to escape it now is Canada, where you have a government that’s totally stable.

So it’s something broader than what we are seeing here in the United States. But we are seeing it here play out in frightening ways. If you think about how you get out of an economic mess like this, you need to de-leverage at the individual level, at the company level, at the government level, but you need to do it in a fashion that doesn’t cause you to collapse in the short run. And then you need to make a pivot towards the kind of long-term fiscal discipline that you need. Even if you had a political system operating on all cylinders, fully functioning the way you would hope it would, it’s not clear what the right policies are or what the right timing would be.

When you have the dysfunction that we have now, it just adds to that trauma. And if you throw in some of the other difficulties — what do you do when you have a group of people unemployed for a longer duration than we have seen even back to the Great Depression? And what does that do to the society, and how do you get them in a place where they can actually be functioning down the road? And, you know, a million other problems. It adds to the difficulty. You have a system that’s operating with the level of dysfunction that we have now. You have a political party that has basically decided: “if you want to implement real revolution, you’ve got to spill a lot of blood along the way”. It’s troubling enough that we felt we had to do this book in a different way.

And let me just add, in a personal note, Tom and I have had great success as partners and collaborators in a whole host of areas over four decades, in part because we have built a reputation as straight-forward, non-partisan, no axes to grind, plain and straight. We have had friendships and relationships on both sides of the aisle. We have had lots of them and a lot of access.

And this is going to change things for us.

We are talking a very firm and direct stand that’s going to make it harder, in an environment that’s not just polarized but tribal now.

And I think a good part of the problem is that one side is really trying to encourage that tribalism and make it and us versus them and make it an existential fight. Communicating with different audiences—something that we have actually been able to do pretty well, we could talk to audiences of all different colorations—is going to be harder now because we are going to be seen as having taken a side.

And we’d say we are not taking a side.

We don’t want a Republican Party that disappears or that just gets crashed into the dust.

The system doesn’t operate if it doesn’t have vibrant parties that can compete with different world views and butting heads. But it cannnot operate if you don’t have something the way the framers designed it, where you can deliberate and reach conclusions to make social change that almost inevitably means dislocation and change for people that will be accepted as legitimate. And that requires building bridges and finding common ground. And that’s not happening now.

We hoped that this book not only would sell well, and I should add it makes a great holiday gift, on this Mother’s Day it’s not too late, if you’ve got a mom…

Unknown female speaker: The fourth of July.

Norman Ornstein: Father’s Day is coming up, Brisses, Bar Mitzvahs.

But we really wanted—we wrote a book that’s not long and dense. We wanted people to read it, and to incorporate the themes and make it a part of the discourse in a crucial campaign. And in a campaign that leaves us I would say finally with great danger, because it’s going to be brutal, more brutal than we are used to. It’s going to be brutal in part because of the Supreme Court, the Federal Election Commission, and other entities are unleashing an unprecedented amount of private money that will have none of the restraints that are there for parties and for candidates.

Because the stakes are so high, we are going to be off the charts in terms of vitriol.

And we live in a culture—and a part of what we discussed in the book—is this isn’t just an institutional problem it’s a cultural problem. And part of the reason it’s a cultural problem is that lying now is part of the course. Instead of saying “oops I made a mistake” or “I lied”, you double down and repeat it. And if you’ve got the airwaves flooded with commercials that end with a disclaimer “not connected to any party or candidate”, you have no restraints whatsoever.

And, of course, if you are not disclosing where the funds are coming from you can unleash it even more.

That’s not going to be conducive after this election to saying: “well, now we’ve got to get together and make something happen”. Given the huge set of problems that are going to all come together with the perfect storm in December—you know I have seen all kinds of people including people who have made markets move saying: “well, of course they will resolve it because they have to. It’s unthinkable that they wouldn’t”. Well, start thinking. And if we don’t, we could have another trauma, economic and otherwise, and a crisis of legitimacy in the system that makes 2000 look like a picnic by comparison.

So that’s partly why we titled the book the way we did, but also why we hoped that this could do more than a typical public affairs book would, and really begin a different conversation. A recognition that this is not business as usual.

Brad Delong: I am Brad Delong, an economist, I have been telegraphing this to Norm for a while. The big question I don’t understand: the Democratic barons of the center, the Lincolns and the Nelsons now, in an earlier day the Sassers, the Borens, the Kerreys from Nebraska, even the Moynihans. People who seemed to think that their proper political and policy strategy was to say “we restrained the Hick from Arkansas or the Hick from Honolulu from doing more liberal things”. That’s a complete disaster as a strategy for your own reelection. You are likely to lose your job. You are likely to lose your majority status. You are likely to lose your chairmanship — which Moynihan felt extremely bitterly — if the president of your party is not perceived to be a big success in his first two years. And yet while someone like Olympia Snow or Susan Collins or even Voinovich, will when the chips are down be a Republican partisan first, last, and always, this doesn’t seem to hold for the Nelsons, the Lincolns, the Sassers, the Moynihans, the Borens, the Kerreys from Nebraska and a whole bunch of others. What’s going on with them?

Tom Mann: Most of the ones you mentioned are gone, or are on their way out. There isn’t much of that left anymore. It’s perfectly clear within the Democratic caucus in the Senate that the opposition party cannot be talked to, negotiated with, bargains cannot be struck. And so the whole notion that you could sort of move and optimize the policy choices by engaging in this kind of strategic coalition building outside the parties—it just doesn’t exist. For Ben Nelson, one of the latest, is floundering with a very red constituency in Nebraska. If you look at his record on most things, he came through and stuck with the Democrats. On the important things, he extracted a price along the way—but then so too did Arlen Specter, if you go back to the stimulus, and Susan Collins and others who extracted a price.

But I think much more important than any difficulties within the Democratic Party are the structural reality of the Senate and the filibuster in the face of an opposition party that’s determined to defeat and kill. Not use it as a device to extract a different end point in negotiation, but to kill. Nothing less than that.

I think that’s the new reality that we face now.

One last point, the period of time during Obama’s first two years in which he actually had 60 Democrats in the Senate was relatively small. We were with Al Franken three days ago, and remember Al didn’t get into the Senate until July. It took some time to get to the 60, and then you still had the Nelsons and the Landrieus that you had to negotiate with. You had to negotiate with Republicans to get them, even if you never got any Republicans. So it was difficult, but they managed. I think Obama actually maximized the output of the first two years in terms of legislative achievements. We can criticize the sufficiency of some of what he did, but I think the nature of the opposition party trump, I think, those factors you were discussing of those annoying Democrats.

Norman Ornstein: You know, it’s a really interesting question and some of this goes back way before that. Look at Franklin Roosevelt’s deep frustration with the Southern Democrats, and even his decision to campaign against many of them in 1938. I think it reflects a deep cultural difference between the two parties in a host of different ways. And part of it is the Republican part. In the Republican Party, moderates and progresses were always a relatively small minority. They were there, they were significant, but they never made up more than 20, 25, 30% of the party. For the Democrats, the southern conservatives made up 50% or 40% from a very long period of time. And so there was a different sense of the importance and the power that those people had. Secondly, I do think there is simply a cultural difference. For Republicans, it’s almost more of a religion or a tribal identification than it is for Democrats.

That is sometimes really curious to see. Watch Olympia Snowe get caught up in this the way that she did. I worked with Olympia very closely on the campaign reform staff. She was under enormous pressure from McConnell and others. She stood fast. Then you fast-forward to the aftermath of the Citizens United decision. What we worked on with Olympia, when campaign finance reform was floundering over the Republicans’ insistence that if you are going to keep corporations out of the game, you need to freeze labor out too. Trying to find a common ground. So we came up with something that ended up being the Snowe-Jeffords amendment — which was a way of keeping corporations and unions out of elections and communications when we are close to elections, all of that stuff.

It passed the court when Sandra Day O’Connor was still there. It was the target, as much as anything in particular was, of Citizens United. So we get the response to Citizens United: the Disclose act. Now you can quibble with portions of that. But this is a bill that passes the House handily, and then gets to the Senate and all 59 Democrats support it. And not one Republican, including Snowe — this was her most important legislative achievement — would vote for cloture, and so it dies. We would be in a different place if that bill had passed–not radically different but different, and you will see more of this sort of coming forward. The desire not to be shunned within your own party is a part of it.

It’s almost like you are in a religion. You look at misbehavior on the part of the leaders of that religion, and you are shocked and dismayed, but you are not leaving your religion. And you are still going to go to church: you just can’t give up something that you held in a lifelong way.

I think Democrats are just different in that front. They don’t have the same discipline. I see even some of it outside. You get a talking point that gets distributed. Now, for example, we can’t meet anybody in or out of office who doesn’t say: “Well, what do you say about the Senate not passing a budget resolution for three years?” They picked up on a talking point. It’s a phony talking point. But it’s a talking point. It’s not like they have a phone call every morning where everybody dials in and they are given marching orders. It’s just there and they pick up on it.

By contrast Democrats are all over the map.

So there is a difference in culture there. But I would just add that I think Thomas was right in pointing out that given all of that, Obama’s achievement–and you know you have to give some of it to Pelosi and to Reid–at getting all 60 democrats from socialist Burney Sanders to Ben Nelson to vote for a health care bill…

Brad DeLong: The Heritage Foundation’s healthcare bill. Romney’s healthcare plan. Something that’s significantly to the right of Olympia Snowe’s policy priorities, as demonstrated by her life up to 2008.

Norman Ornstein: Okay. And they got socialist Barney Sanders to vote for it.

Brad DeLong: Yes.

Norman Ornstein: You know it’s the Heritage Foundation’s bill, but it’s also the Hatch-Grassley healthcare bill.

Brad DeLong: Yes.

Norman Ornstein: But the fact Pelosi got enough Democrats to support a cap-and-trade bill, even if it never went though the Senate.

Brad DeLong: But they were not organized enough to pass a carbon tax through reconciliation in February of 2009 and then bargain back in the Senate to cap-and-trade.

Norman Ornstein: Well, you know, let’s remember this is the Democratic Party. Will Rogers said: “I am not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat.” So that’s built into the culture as well. But there is a difference here. I think it’s one of the things — part of our frustrations, I could easily pick out 30 Republicans in the House who are problem solvers, and who would love to be out there working with Democrats–and in some cases they do in committee and sub-committee. Then there are bills which they contributed to, and they have been compromised before they even get to the floor, and they all vote against him. And of course the other part of this is there is no Democratic Club for Growth that says: “We are waiting for you, and if you vote in way that we don’t like, there will be millions in to knock you off in the primary.” It happens to Democrats, but nowhere near as significant and the threat is nowhere near as deep.

Brad DeLong: So is the problem that Daily Kos and Netroots Nation are not strong enough?

Norman Ornstein: No, we are not advocating having both parties have an ideological police. Yes?

Eric Schickler: Okay, tell us who you are.

Peter ????: To what extend is this in the electorate–is it more of a cultural issue and not just a Washington structural issue?

Norman Ornstein: Oh, it’s deeply rooted in the electorate. You are absolutely right. The seeds of these developments were planted as far back as the 1960s. it was caught up in the culture, then the Voting Rights Act. You began then getting the realignment in the south and, thanks to California, Proposition 13, supply side thinking about taxes, a dynamic occurred in which people sorted themselves into one of the two parties based on their views and values and eventually…

Tom Mann: And geography.

Norman Ornstein: And geography. The Big Sort is right. Finding neighborhoods. It’s more finely grained than states and congressional districts. It’s neighborhoods that your economic situation and your values lead you to it. ????So that now when people say and [0:31:16] [inaudible] and Dave Brady would be the prime examples of this.???? We’ve got a broadly moderate electorate, you know, the huge center in American politics. Iit’s the elites that have polarized and produced this kind of behavior. It’s in Washington, of course; it’s in every state legislature and local government, it’s all around.

Most people who participate in politics have made a choice, and they put those lenses on, and they interpret the world in that fashion. They get re-enforced by going to news sources that affirm their existing beliefs. And that’s a big part of the problem, which is why in the end we talk about structural reforms of various sorts.

We are fans of the Aussies’ mandatory attendance at the polls and a variety of other things. But in the end we remind our readers that it lies with the public and the electorate to change. But in a country where people are very busy and spend relatively little time gathering information, paying attention, you’ve got to think about how policy choices get explained and structured in ways that can optimize constructive political accountability.

And it’s very tricky in our kind of constitutional system.

Unknown male speaker: I would just add quickly that I have sympathy for voters, in the sense that if you are trying to figure out what’s going on or what you can do about it, it’s really hard. It’s hard in part–you know, we have taken the press to task because the press basically doesn’t give you any guidance. They say, you know, they are all the same. It’s all their fault. And that’s why part of the reaction is we elect people who just pop up like Herman Cain and say: “I don’t speak politician. I am not like them”. And you think: “Well, it’s all the politicians fault so let’s bring in people like that”. And they are the ones who make it worse. And we leach out the politicians who actually can make something happen.

And if you think about that and then think about the dilemma now where unlike a parliamentary system you don’t have an election that can necessarily bring accountability if you could figure out who was accountable. Yeah it’s a tricky business…

Eric Schickler: All the way in the back, please.

Unknown male speaker: In your Washington Post article, you talk about pledges. Do you see a type of coordination, kind of a trigger strategy where basically if somebody signed a pledge with a prolife group everybody must, or do you see it in much more individual?

Tom Mann: Well, many of the groups that have pledges and keep score cards share a broad social, conservative agenda. They do coordinate. But the most consequential pledge by far is the “no new taxes” pledge. Nothing has done more to prevent collaboration on dealing with economic problems than that pledge. It’s not Grover Norquist’s fault. He was innovative and creative enough to see an opening after Ronald Reagan and Bush 41 signed those tax increases. He wanted to hold on to the image of the early Reagan, and they worked it very well.

They coordinate very closely with the Club for Growth, and all of the economically-oriented groups on the outside that put enormous pressure on Republicans who are not naturally disposed to sign such a pledge to do so. And it hit a tipping point, where if you are not part of it you are out there alone. And it’s dangerous and it is uncomfortable being in the Republican Party. If I were a dictator and could change one thing, I would get rid of the pledge and any memory of it, and so to try to return people to a time when they could argue about taxes but not—it wasn’t a religion.

I have seen more foolish pseudo-economic science attributing great wonders to ever lower taxing rights. I learned in Brad’s blog and other such places. Think about it: we are in a campaign now where the Republicans are using the large deficits and debt we are having now as a sign of collapse of the country and its future. They were mainly responsible for it (in addition to the Lehman collapse). ????Two, the proportion up there that have [0:37:12] [inaudible] a political point. I mean it’s a straight forward argument and yet what part of the electorate would you belief, you know, actually understand anything close to that and maybe you think better messaging or a more effective president or leader will do it, but it is really quite striking. Yes, sir??..

Unknown male speaker: Thinking about this issue of cultural tribalism, looking ahead 10, 20, 30 years, in the context of these demographic changes, where do you see this headed?

Tom Mann: Run for your lives.

Unknown female speaker: The next book, right?

Tom Mann: We may well see a different power dynamic because of the demographic changes. But demography is not always destiny. We’ve had all kinds of books in the past suggesting that there was an emerging Republican majority or an emerging Democratic majority. Nothing is certain in this life. We keep getting push back telling us: “Well, if they are so extreme, how come they won the House and they won all those state legislatures and how come they could win everything this time?” My response to that is: “Well, let’s see if we could think about examples in history where an extreme party somehow won elections. We could all think of a couple of examples.” Perhaps over in Europe.

In the past there has usually been a jolt, a crisis, and we suddenly realize we are all on the same boat. I am just not sure anymore if we keep going down this path that that is going to work the next time. And if you look back even to the TARP example, it failed in the House of Representatives when we were at the edge of the abyss, and you couldn’t find a major opinion leader who didn’t say: “My God! We’ve got to act! We’ve got to act now!” The Republicans in the House said no. Then the Dow dropped 700 points, which back then was a big deal, and they were jolted, and they did it.

Do you think if all of a sudden there was a collapse and everyone from Paul Volcker to Ben Bernanke to Warren Buffett steps in and says, “we need another bailout”, that it would pass this time? I don’t. I fear that we could splinter in serious ways if we are not attuned to this. But I also have no clue as to whether voters then decide: “Alright, one party is so bad, we banish them into the dessert and the wilderness for the next 40 years and we let the other side take over.” It doesn’t work that way.

Unknown male speaker: My only problem about the book is the recommendations. I think we need to go further, extreme as it may seem, we need to revisit the constitution. Do you think it’s deceptive that the voters and now the politicians are aligning themselves into the system as they can. So it seems to me that you call a limited constitutional convention, with the delegates chosen by the people on the other side of the aisle, that would produce a moderation of those delegates to the convention. It’s conceivable that that’s the long term project in here. We need to take responsibility for the fact that the constitution is 200 years old. There are no less-modern constitutions.

Tom Mann: There have been a fascinating series of books now by our colleagues in law schools and elsewhere, calling for a reconsideration of the fundamental constitutional document and raising questions. Dave ???? brought partisan balance is really designed to take on that argument, and identify the provisions that have been really problematic in our government. I think if you have read our book, you see we acknowledge where the barriers to effective government are constitutional in nature. But we are skeptical of even intermediate term constitutional change. And frankly we worry about a constitutional convention. I think such an entity can’t be constrained. The last one wasn’t. Thank God then–but maybe not so good now.

And I’m for groups using a particular problem, say the role of money in politics, to use the idea of a constitutional amendment as a form of social and political mobilization. I am all for the discussion, I still don’t think it’s a practical or serious guide to reform.

Norman Ornstein: So I guess we are putting a few names down on the sides of a ledger. James Madison, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton on one side; Michelle Bachman, Allan ???? on the other. I am being facetious. But the risk of what could happen at a constitutional convention–that some billionaires and others would mobilize to try and make sure that they could stack the deck at a convention. The thought of what might happen to the first ten amendments to the constitution scares me. The cost-benefit analysis, the risk to me, to us, it’s just a bridge too far.

Unknown female speaker: [inaudible].

Norman Ornstein: One of the things I find so fascinating is that Obama is getting attacked for his support for gay marriage on two simultaneous fronts. The first: public opinion doesn’t support this at all, 37 states have voted overwhelmingly against it. The second is: he did it for political reasons. Now if you could tell me how those two things cohere in any kind of reasonable logical fashion, I would like to know. I think you could make a case that it had a solid political component, and it has a political component because the world is moving forward. And it may not be moving uniformly. But I have to say I have never seen a public opinion change on a social issue more dramatically over five years than this one.

And you know, if you think back civil unions bills and there was a huge backlash. As soon after that many of their legislators lost and the center was, you know, you support civil unions, it’s like the third rail, which we always said about Social Security. In two or three years, civil unions were the fall back moderate position. Now you are even getting conservatives saying that civil unions will be okay. And the proportion of people who are supportive of same sex marriage just keeps going up. So it’s a matter of time, I don’t know how much time before this completely occupies the center, and he stepped in a fashion that I think he is not—if he changes his position, it’s going to be changing his position away from saying “let’s get this thing to the side which if you think of this as a basic civil right and about an issue of equality”, it’s untenable I think to say “let’s let the states decide this”.

Tom Mann: Just a footnote to that, the effects in the short term could actually hurt Obama in a very close election. In a handful of states, if it’s decreasing turn out among his loyal black supporters or in other ways, it could. But in the long run, by positioning himself and the Democratic Party on this side, he is moving powerfully, inexorably for the tolerant position. Going back to your question, it puts the Republican Party in just an untenable position–as they have been put in on issues of immigration and others to be sure. So he took a risk in the short term for a long term gain. Yes?

Unknown male speaker: I don’t quite understand is when the Republicans block legislation, are they happy? Are they–you know, I don’t understand–I think I understand the whole structure of the Democratic/progressive, well allow me to group them here, we want government to be productive. I don’t understand the other side’s whole side.

Norman Ornstein: The way it’s been set up in the Republicans’ minds is there are two camps, the statists and the freedom fighters. And the idea here is if you can take the reins of power, and Paul Ryan among others said this very clearly and of course he also says this is what Governor Walker did in Wisconsin–which happens not to be the case,–we will articulate our vision and if we win we have a mandate. I think that the plan was clear, if they win the House, win the Senate, win the White House, they will do what Ryan and others have privately called the mother of all reconciliation bills–and they will change the reconciliation processes if need be. The Byrd rule will go. They will try and implement as much of that agenda as they can.

And the belief is that if you eliminate as much of government as you can, reduce taxes as much as you can, people will breathe the air of freedom. And this was a great theory in Iraq: topple Saddam and then breathe the air of freedom and all will be fine. Maybe you will have to withstand some pains for a few months, but you will see that this is a better way to live and that you will provide opportunity for all and the private sector will be unleashed and it, you know—

Brad DeLong: And this is why the Republicans voted for Medicare Part D…

Unknown female speaker: You don’t have to be consistent.

Norman Ornstein: I think if you are asking for consistency here, Brad, you need to look at California. Plenty of them deeply regret the vote for Medicare Part D. From their perspective that was a tribal reaction that went bad. So that’s the goal, and I think if they needed to accomplish that goal by devastating the filibuster along the way, they would think long and hard about whether the short term, this window of opportunity was there, but would probably go ahead and do it.

Now, one interesting question is how much can you hold together those private factors and you begin showing things that clearly cut directly against the interests and desires of their own constituency. Most of them have no clue what the government does. And if you think about it, you know, the Tea Part has a lot of older voters who don’t understand how this will affect them. Just to pick one example, cut Medicaid by 30% and eliminate the state and local tax deduction and then think about who is in a nursing home. Now they will still be in a nursing home, there will be one nurse’s aide for every 25 patients instead of one for every three, so you will never be seen. You will ring your little bell, and four days later somebody may stop by and say “oops, let’s remove that one, we are going to need another patient for this bed.”

There are lots of things that are going to hit people, and lots of areas where people get government support and don’t even think about it as government support. So it may not work, but that’s the goal. And there really is a belief that if you give people freedom all will be well.

Tom Mann: I think it’s fair to assume that if that is true, if they are elected and they act on that basis, they will pay a price eventually. But the bet is, this is our shot. This is our opportunity to repeal the Affordable Care Act, to put in place a new tax structure, to basically cut Medicaid off from sort of federal funding guarantees. And then, even if they are tossed out and lose their majority, they are in a position then once again to play defense. They need one year or so of aggressive offence setting a new status quo. That then puts Democrats back in power, but with few resources to respond to the problems. And the way our system works we will get rid of them again, so republicans will wait their time.

It’s really bold what they have in mind. It’s really just unbelievably striking. I think it was four Republicans a couple of years ago, voted for the Ryan Budget. Now all of them do. You know, they made those choices.

Norman Ornstein: Understand that one of the frightening element of this is that if they do achieve this, they will then pass at the federal level a series of proposals to suppress votes of those that they don’t like. They have done this at the state level to try and shift the electorate in a fashion where they can stay in power artificially longer to see this through. And that’s another really unsettling facet.

Brad DeLong: So why aren’t you advocating the rapid destruction of the Republican Party as fast as possible? Why aren’t you telling everyone go out and vote Democrat now, for this is your last chance?

Tom Mann: Anyone who reads the book, you know, well, might draw that influence in the short term. We talk about reining in the outlier party, and the only way the Republican Party will change is when they are embattled. When it looks as if what they were doing consigns them to permanent a minority party status…

Norman Ornstein: I am not with that. I mean this– if we get identified as people whose goal is to elect democrats then this book goes right into the trash. I guess I wasn’t sort of clear about—what I am saying is one inference to draw from us in the last chapter is you look through this and look at the different dynamics of what could happen is if you agree with the republicans sort of running of the tracks, then they are going to have to suffer defeat before they change. That’s not the same as going out and saying everyone vote democratic you know.

Tom Mann: And also, you know, I am perfectly happy with the conservative Republican Party and I am perfectly happy having a lot of conservatives out there expressing what they want to do. But in a fashion that we used to have where it was also an understanding that you are not going to get your way on everything. But we’ve also got to try and find some common ground in important areas and especially you’ve got to solve problems and you are not going to hold the country hostage to a set of points of view where you are going to let the whole thing go down if you don’t get what you want..

Paul ????: I just want to say one thing. So you know what’s the anecdote to extremism in one party, and it has to be some kind of punishment, right? There are two aspects of this. One is that for a lot of these players and I think actually for an audience with a lot of political scientists, that raises really interesting issues about how we think about political parties, what really makes them tick in the contemporary environment, because It’s not about maximizing your vote, right? So that the punishment may be too weak to be effective. I think maybe they are less worried about the electoral consequences of extremism than we might think, but the other aspect that I am increasingly thinking is important that we haven’t really talked about yet is the media, you know. Because the media is complicit in this and essentially allowing, you know, allowing the Republican Party to present itself as if they are just another party with just another set of policy positions. And there seems to be no limits to what the leaders can say.

Tom Mann: We are not original certainly. You and others and certainly columnists have said about may things about this. But we do make a point of talking about the mainstream press—and not the partisan press, the nineteenth century press that’s with us as well. Professional norms and sort of fear of being charged with political or partisan bias lead to what has been labeled false equivalence. By the way now I see Matt Miller in the Washington Post saysing tht we are now a part of the false-equivalence police. I guess we are depriving the press of the ability to do their job and enjoying their first amendment freedoms. But it really is true.

One thing I want to tell you in response to the article going viral is that we have had two very interesting categories of emails that have come in. One is from self-identified Republicans, who were part of the group Norm would like to see more dominant within the party, saying: “Thank God! Someone needs to say it!” But the others are from reporters and major news organizations saying: “You have given us a basis to raise these questions again in our news rooms with editors and producers”. The best of them are deeply frustrated by this. The object is to get the story right, to tell the truth. It’s not to make sure both sides have their voice, for all you have done then is to blur and dumb down the commentary and demobilize the public, because the pubic then has no basis on which to make an intelligent choice.

Norman Ornstein: That’s all true. One of the troubling parts of this now is that the fact-check organizations are also trying to be “balanced”. You know you can’t be balanced if you’ve got one group of people that’s just really pants-on-fire with hundreds of statements, while the other is in the usual realm of politics of choosing your words carefully and fudging. All of that should be held into account or called to account.

I think there is this deep feeling, and some of this goes back to another part of the tribalism, the rise of Accuracy in Media a couple of decades ago on the right to try and bludgeon the press. I think it really was a liberal bias back then. Then you have FAIR emerge on the other side. Nobody is more thin-skinned in this society than journalists: they can give it out; they can’t take it at all.

For the mainstream press there is a particular sensitivity to charges of liberal bias. So they have not done their job. We do what we do just to hold them to account. I think you are absolutely right: electoral defeats may not work here. One of the things to keep in mind is if Mitt Romney loses—and he can go all the way over to the far end of the right end of the spectrum in almost everything that he does—the message and theme that will emerge from the right is: “See, we did it again, we picked another moderate ,and we can’t keep making that mistake”. So next time it’s going to be just off the charts. It’s not just need for a defeat. You have to bring back the concept of shame, and really force people into a position where they stop behaving badly. Yes sir? Hey John?

John Ellwood: It was a wonderful book and I am a bundler, so I have decided to assign it to many students.

Norman Ornstein: Okay. Do you hear that faculty? Great idea.

John Ellwood: One thing is missing here in what everybody here today says is a wonderful book. What is missing what I would call the McCarty-Poole-Rosenthal view. And that view is that what politics in the United Sates today is the rise of income inequality. You find them in the footnotes of your book. But there was no discusion of how something much bigger is going on. It’s going through the electorate first, and then through the politicians, and these trends aare exploited. So twhy not Poole and Rosenberg? Where are they?

Tom Mann: The answer is yes and we think highly of…

John Ellwood: And they love you. Today they love you in their blog http://voteview.com/blog/?p=494.

Tom Mann: We think highly of their work. It’s a complicated dynamic. We talk a lot about the Gilded Age ,and how we are returning to it in many respects. And so I think, without laying out and using that particular charts on House Polarization and Senate Polarization, they wrote a book about this and have an argument out there and it’s there for all to see. As Jack reminded me, we were delighted to see it when we were attacked for pointing out that Republicans really were qualitatively and quantitatively more polarized toward their base than Democrats. The Poole-Rosenthal team came on aggressively and in our defense.

So we are sympatico on all this. We are giving it a different twist, looking at things that we knew more about, but it’s entirely consistent with what we’ve argued.

Norman Ornstein: We wrote this quickly, and if we had had more time I think we would have focused more on this and and the danger that exists in the society when inequality reaches the levels that we have. You can’t sustain that with a democratic model forever. We have lots of examples from other countries. If you want to get more depressed, you start to think about the directions in which we are going. You’ve got social forces out there that are now interacting with cultural forces that are interacting with political forces in a toxic way.

John Ellwood: But there is a possible implication that we just have to live through it.

Tom Mann: Yes.

John Ellwood: It’s the pig and the anaconda. We’ve done this before in the second half of the nineteenth century with massive immigration. And of course we locked up the door in order to move through it. And it has a different implication than the elite implication that you mentioned. And I should say, because you mentioned it, if we got rid of the third rule we could solve the Austin Ranney problem by doing the inverse of what you guys want

Tom Mann: Right. Which is to turn the country

John Ellwood: Into a parliamentary system.

Tom Mann: Exactly. We do believe in Senate reform and filibuster reform. But we don’t propose doing away with the filibuster. There are strategic changes you can do with it that would still allow it to be tool used by a strong minority that’s trying to take their case to the public/ as was happening in the civil rights debates. You have every idea John. You know the senate as well as anyone in this room, but it’s become—Eric don’t be shocked when say this—I think the most dysfunctional legislative body in the democratic world.

And what we once saw as either an annoyance or as a useful tool as now become so commonplace, so accepted, and I think so destructive, especially as it’s applied to the whole nomination confirmation process in the courts and in the executive branch, that it makes is look like a banana republic. It really is bad. And I think there is no defense of the system as it exists now.

I think we have time for one last question.

Unknown male speaker: It seems that for some years we have been hearing that if only Democrats would learn how to frame the issues instead of accepting the Republican’s framing. But it seems like the Democrats still continue to accept the Republican framing in the media. Do you have any comments on that?

Norman Ornstein: There is a huge amount of effort put into messaging questions. It certainly made Frank Luntz a very, very wealthy man. We see the effort on the other side. I am just a little skeptical at the thesis that this is all in messaging—that if you just had the right words and the right frame that suddenly you get the Svengali who can give you those words that you can make things work. I think it’s important to focus on it. The book The Righteous Mind—it’s a really interesting book about how liberals and conservatives think and how people hear messages and how they prioritize. But there is no simple answer to this. Part of it too is that what we are talking about before is where there is a level of discipline. It’s not just having a message. It’s who carries out that message.

But we have participated in message groups that the parties have put together, and much of it is

Unknown female speaker: You’ve taken a top-down view. What you have to say about the bottom-up policy in terms of the Occupy movement? How do you see them impacting the relationships between the Democrats and Republicans and/or the rising of the Tea Party, etcetera?

Norman Ornstein: First, the comparison of the Occupy movement to the Tea Party movement that I find most interesting—and they reflect some of these cultural differences—is that neither have these top down organization. But what you saw with the Tea Party movement is that they move very quickly towards recruiting candidates to run for office, and trying to squeeze out candidates who didn’t fit what they wanted. And they have had pretty damn substantial success with those candidates. And even though now their larger public approval has gone down, they are still a very potent force.

One of the parts of this that troubles us is that a lot of the Tea Party freshman who ended up voting for a continuing resolution or for the debt limit are now are being attacked from the right because they voted for something—and they went Washington. Not many of them will lose, but the message that’s going to go out is: “don’t vote for anything, or you will be in trouble”.

???? is facing a pretty vigorous challenge from his right. I got an email from a terrific author, a historian, John Barry who wrote a book on the Mississippi, you know, the big floods. He said that he interviewed this guy, the one how is being challenged from the right, and what struck him was when he said: “You know, only in the last few years through my reading have I realized that Herbert Hoover was a socialist.”

This is the guy who has “gone Washington”.

The Occupy movement is occupying, and they have changed the dialogue. They brought the 1% nad 99% out in important ways. But other than just occupying, they are doing nothing that’s going to have an impact on the political process. If you have a movement from the bottom up, it has to go beyond demonstrations or just trying to change consciousness. It has to have more consequences. And it can make a difference. Let me just finally say that a core part of how we deal with this is to try and expand the electorate so that we are no longer driven by forces at the ends.

And that itself changes the dialogue, and it can change incentive for people who come into office. First you have to change the money system, because now recruiting the kinds of people you might want who are problem solvers to run for office is a steeply uphill battle.

Unknown female speaker: You don’t see Occupy having an impact on the president’s chilling of the pipelines?

Norman Ornstein: No, I think what happened, if you are talking about the pipeline, was Obama’s ozone decision–that if he did another decision that moved in that direction the environmental movement would go bananas. And that’s what drove the policy.

Eric Schickler: Alright. So I want to thank Tom and Norm for speaking here today.

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Comment to "Today’s American political dysfunction":
    • Anthony St. John '63

      Prof. DeLong, what the world needs with increasing urgency are inspirational and motivating leaders who can unite and focus all peoples to cooperate and implement solutions to increasingly destructive crises that are escalating out of control.

      Or has our state of political and intellectual dysfunction finally made this an impossible dream?

      [Report abuse]

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