The Problem

I’m a bit late to this particular party, since I didn’t blog over the weekend. But yes indeed, as Mark Kleiman notes at Ten Miles Square, the WaPo op-ed by DC think tank icons Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein concluding that “Republicans are the problem” with respect to partisan polarization and gridlock in U.S. politics.

It’s no clear if “courage” is the right word to describe the appearance of this op-ed, given the unassailable position of these two gents in the Washington commentariat (though I doubt Ornstein is going to get invited to many American Enterprise Institute social gatherings any time soon). But still, I’m sure every fiber in their beings resisted the conclusion they reached. Aside from considerations of “professional safety” (one of the motives they ascribe to the press in deploring the “balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon”), it’s very easy to elevate occasional evidence of Democratic overreaching or partisanship into a false equivalence posture, and also to confuse cause with effect, and polarization with counter-polarization.

I don’t know if the tipping point for Mann and Ornstein was the empirical evidence for “asymettrical” conservative polarization they cite, the long-standing nature of the asymmetry (which they appear to date to Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution”), or simply the smoking gun of someone like Allen West being treated as a respected figure in the GOP. For someone like Mann, in particular, who is interested in the history of relations between the executive and legislative branches, an alarm bell may have gone off when congressional Republicans radically escalated the use of the filibuster and other procedural obstacles to governing, and the media promptly treated the new dispensation (as the op-ed notes) as un-newsworthy.

In any event, the less-than-optimistic tone of the piece is sobering:

Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.

Only voters, they suggest, can rein in an “insurgent outlier party” like today’s GOP. And even then, it may take time. Mann and Ornstein do not observe that two straight landslide election defeats immediately preceded the GOP’s most emphatic lurch to the Right. But I’m sure that counter-intuitive development was as surprising to them as it was to, say, Jon Hunstman, who returned from China after a brief absence to run for president and discovered he couldn’t even recognize his own party.

Mann and Ornstein seem unable to recognize anything quite like this situation, either. And I can certainly relate. I don’t really enjoy fulminating every day against most of the champions of one of America’s two great political parties as though they represent not just fellow-citizens with misguided views or a different vision of the national interest, but people inhabitating a fever swamp of extremism, mendacity and venality. But we are where we are, and there’s not much non-Republicans can do about it other than to do our small part to ensure that their delusions don’t become our waking reality.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.