Ornstein: It’s Even Worse Than It Looked

Former Vice President Walter Mondale asks Washington scholar Norm Ornstein a question during a presentation at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Photo by Kevin Featherly

Former Vice President Walter Mondale asks Washington scholar Norm Ornstein a question during a presentation at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Photo by Kevin Featherly

Noting that the finale of the much-lauded TV series “Breaking Bad” recently aired on the AMC network, famed Washington watcher Norm Ornstein today drew parallels between the show and modern-day politics.

“That is a television show built around a chemist who gets cancer and can’t pay his medical bills and opens up a meth lab,” Ornstein said. “Or, as some of us called it, the Republican alternative to Obamacare.”

Ornstein has always mixed in a bit of stand-up comedy when speaking on the politics of the day, but appearing at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs today—barely a day after Congress ended the federal government shutdown while narrowly avoiding the debt ceiling—he seemed to need the comic relief as much as anyone.

“As always, when I come here,” he said, “I like to get you laughing. Because it’s all downhill from here.”

Not quite, but Ornstein delivered a stern message. The co-author (with Brookings Institution scholar Thomas Mann) of last year’s “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Ornstein pointedly stated that American politics has gone tribal.

“And once you are tribal,” he said, “it means that finding common ground just becomes that much more difficult.”

Ornstein notes that polarization and even tribalism affect both political parties. But “it is not symmetric,” he said.

Both parties have changed and become more homogenous, he said. But the Republicans have moved much farther toward the extremes than Democrats, a party that still includes some moderates and even a few conservative caucus members.

Moderate and liberal Republicans, once a key component of American political life, have vanished, he said. As a consequence, what passes for “moderate” in the GOP now once would have been considered right wing, Ornstein said.

“The distinction now is not between moderates and conservatives, frankly,” Ornstein said. “It’s between conservatives and radicals.”

Conservatives believe in institutions, rules and law, Ornstein said. They believe in smaller, leaner government. But they also accept that there are some areas where government needs to be involved—national security, basic scientific research and maintenance of a fundamental social safety net, to name three examples.

Radicals, on the other hand, want to blow up government, Ornstein said.

“They don’t believe in the normal process or the regular order,” he said. “They basically are perfectly happy if government disappears. In a way, they just put out of their minds any notion that there is anything good that is done by government.”

Radicals left and right have always taken up space in the American political system—albeit on the fringes. But in the past two decades, radicals have had oxygen pumped into their belief systems, particularly by partisan broadcast media—Ornstein calls them “tribal media”—and by self-selective social media. Even private emails traded among friends and relatives containing whacked-out political memes are a huge influence.

Example: An email recently circulated widely, indicating that the word “Dhimmitude” is published on page 107 of the Affordable Care Act—a.k.a. “Obamacare.” The word’s inclusion allegedly means that, “Muslims are specifically exempted from the government mandate to purchase insurance,” according to PolitiFact.

The word “dhimmitude,” whatever it means, is in fact not in the healthcare law at all, which in any case does not exempt Muslims. If anything, as the PolitiFact web service declared while giving the email a “Pants on Fire” lie rating, the only groups exempted from the ACA are small numbers of Christians.

The problem is that today’s inflamed radicals will never know anything about that. They will never hear from generally more objective information sources that most informed citizens rely on, Ornstein said.

That problem is further exacerbated by a political finance system that has few effective controls, allowing small, mostly unaccountable monied interests to overtake even big business as the primary drivers behind insurgent political campaigns.

Campaign finance has careened out of control, Ornstein said. “And that is moving us even further toward the wild, wild west–or a new version of the Gilded Age.”

With respect to the political crisis just passed—only temporarily, Ornstein fears—he singled out a group of Republicans he called “the young guns.” The group included leading Republican U.S. Reps. Eric Kantor, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan and several others. They met privately in early 2009 and devised a plan to win the 2010 mid-term elections by recruiting Tea Party candidates for U.S. House, candidates who would pledge never to raise the debt ceiling regardless of the consequences.

For the first time in U.S. history, Ornstein said, a political party’s leaders conspired to use the debt ceiling as a kind of ransom demand. That led directly to the budget debacle of 2011.

Ornstein says he believes that those young guns, who were working with the backing of business interests, miscalculated. They thought they could get a new batch of energized, even radicalized new House majority elected, but then co-opt them once in office and steer them to a saner course.

“Now it is pretty clear who has really been co-opted,” Ornstein said. “That led to where we are now.”

Consequently, Ornstein said, House Speaker John Boehner became “a non-player.” In 2011, he had to be rescued by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden, who helped fashion the sequester deal that still hangs over the process.

Boehner was once again overtaken by events during the shutdown/debt ceiling crisis that was temporarily resolved last night.

“It’s quite clear to almost everyone that this was a debacle for Republicans, even as it is a continuing debacle for the country,” Ornstein said.

Republican support in recent polls has plummeted, Ornstein notes. But that does not mean the party will change tack.

“It doesn’t mean that this dysfunction has been conquered, or even ameliorated,” he said.

In fact, he said, Rush Limbaugh has already begun to beat a drum that will become familiar in the coming months, as another debt ceiling debate approaches next spring. Limbaugh told listeners that spineless, weak-kneed GOP leaders caved to Obama just as victory was at hand. Tea Party caucus Senators Ted Cruz and Raul Labrador have already echoed the meme, Ornstein notes.

“Now, if that is a theme that takes hold,” he said, “then breeching the debt ceiling will be back on the table again.”

Grownups may take over and move the Republican Party toward more sensible and realistic governance, Ornstein said, but he didn’t sound terribly optimistic.

If that were to happen, a key player would be Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential candidate.

But tellingly, Ornstein said, Ryan voted against last night’s deal to end the shutdown and avoid the debt ceiling.

Dysfunction in Washington over what appear to be childish matters has taken hold even as economic inequality is leaving more Americans out in the cold, alienated from Washington, and growing increasingly angry and disenchanted with government. They could rebel with a cataclysmic backlash affecting both parties, Ornstein said.

“That could create fertile ground for demagogues in the time ahead,” he said.

Ornstein’s speech was followed by a long question-and-answer session that featured former Vice President Walter Mondale. Some hours later, I emailed Ornstein a question that I had wanted to ask him during the session.

At one point in his talk he mentioned that the table may be set for a worst case scenario. So what, I asked him, is the worst-case scenario?

He wrote back with this answer:

“The worst case is probably that the backlash against dysfunction causes a broader public reaction against all incumbents, with a much bigger impact in the Senate—so Republicans barely hold on to the House, but Democrats lose the Senate. And with that, the crazies say, ‘That worked like a charm.’ And [they] double down on obstruction and hostage-taking. It would only get worse from there.”

Sweet dreams….

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