Anticipating this response, the authors acknowledge that “readers might be struck by a lack of balance in our treatment of the two major parties.” In reply, they fall back on bare assertion: “Democrats are hardly blameless and have their own extreme wing and their own predilection to hardball politics. But . . . those tendencies have not generally veered outside the normal boundaries of robust politics. At the same time, Republicans in office have driven both the widening of the ideological gap between the parties and the strategic hyperpartisanship on such crucial issues as financial stabilization, economic recovery, deficits and debt, health-care reform, and climate change.” In other words, Democrats use hardball politics, but they do so within “the normal boundaries of robust politics”; Republicans do so in pursuit of a radical, ideological, hyperpartisan agenda.
In the end, then, Mann and Ornstein seem to oppose not hardball politics, but hardball politics in the pursuit of certain ends. The tactics aren’t the problem. The Democrats can be nasty, because they are right. The Republicans cannot be nasty, because they are wrong. If the Republicans weren’t so damn conservative, there wouldn’t be so much partisanship. The implicit premise is that Republicans are radical and partisan because they are conservative, and we’d be much better off if we returned to the days when Republicans were content to go in the direction of progressive liberalism, albeit a little bit more slowly.
To restate the argument in this manner is to demonstrate the problem with it. The authors provide very little argument that the Republicans have crossed an ideological Rubicon in any substantive way. There are a few quotes from Republican dissenters Chuck Hagel and Mike Lofgren, but that is all they offer.
They do note that a couple of prominent commentators (Ramesh Ponnuru and Steven Hayward) have warned against taking a position of avoiding, at all costs, accommodation and compromise. But these statements are not the smoking gun Mann and Ornstein are looking for. They are simply a friendly reminder that opposition is most effective when it offers feasible alternatives — something that the Republicans have arguably been doing, with Paul Ryan’s Roadmap on the budget and the repeal-and-replace approach on Obamacare. The book never acknowledges the existence of these alternative ideas.
In tracing the causes of our present discontent back to the 1960s, Mann and Ornstein ultimately miss the bigger picture and fail to address the larger questions. Perhaps Congress was designed as a party-based institution in which conflict was resolved through confrontation. In grappling with this question, William F. Connelly Jr.’s 2010 book James Madison Rules America is far more helpful and nuanced.
Furthermore, perhaps the specific source of today’s partisan conflict is found earlier than Mann and Ornstein think: in the mass democracy introduced during the Progressive Era. With the rise of mass democracy, problems of campaign finance, demagoguery, and media influence inevitably became more acute. Sidney Milkis’s Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy (2009) provides a good discussion of these issues.
In the end, some of Mann and Ornstein’s proposals are interesting and defensible. Some of them are obvious (the media should be more responsible in reporting the truth about Washington politics and policy). Others ought to be given serious consideration (reforming the cloture rule in the Senate).
Their closing proposals aim to direct voters in an especially helpful way: “Punish a party for ideological extremism by voting against it. (Today, that means the GOP.) . . . Consider carefully which presidential ticket (the candidates, party, and platform) you prefer to lead the country. Then entrust that party with the majority in the House and Senate. It makes more sense than divided government in these times of partisan polarization.” The solution for partisan polarization turns out to be quite simple: Give the Democrats control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Voilà! No more partisan opposition!
Mann and Ornstein acknowledge that the idea for It’s Even Worse Than It Looks was hatched in the wake of the debt-ceiling debate last August, a mere nine months before it hit bookstores. Unfortunately, the haste with which the book was written explains, but does not excuse, the final product.
– Mr. Postell is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. He is a co-editor of Rediscovering Political Economy.