Ornstein’s Conclusion

Since he’s been writing for Roll Call for twenty years, and not that long ago was frequently called “the most quoted person in Washington” because of his reliable newsworthiness, it’s probably worth paying attention to Norman Ornstein’s final column for that venue, particularly since it offers his summing-up of what he’s observed in all that time.

His conclusions won’t be too surprising to anyone who read the startling comments (“Let’s just say it: the Republicans are the problem”) that he and another sturdy middle-of-the-road Washington-watcher, Tom Mann, made last year in conjunction with the release of their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, but has anything (e.g., the current “breeze of bipartisanship” in Congress) made him rethink his position? Nope:

Both parties have changed; Democrats have grown less heterogeneous as the contingent of Blue Dogs has declined. Yet the most significant changes have come from, and been driven by, Republicans.

Some of the more important changes really took off around 1993. As Tom Mann and I have written in our books “The Broken Branch” and “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Newt Gingrich was a catalyst. From Bill Clinton’s first day in the White House, House Republicans and their Senate counterparts behaved like a parliamentary minority party, opposing in unison his signature priority in his first year, an economic plan. There were comfortable majorities of Democrats in both chambers, but Clinton could not command anywhere close to the unity he needed to overcome GOP intransigence — for seven-plus long months. (The plan ultimately passed both the House and Senate with no Republican votes.)

The pattern repeated itself with health care in 1994, and it led to Gingrich’s triumph in the 1994 elections; to the first Republican majority in the House in 40 years; to the era since, where close divisions make the majority in each chamber vulnerable to change in virtually every election; and finally to the dominance of the permanent campaign, where gaining traction for campaign purposes trumps working together to solve problems.

And then it just got worse:

The House in 1993-94 had a significant contingent of moderate and even liberal Republicans, all of whom joined in the party strategy to oppose en bloc — one reason being that Democratic insensitivity and arrogance, bred by decades of hegemony, radicalized many of them.

But on many other lower-profile issues, Republicans were able and willing to work with Democrats to find bipartisan solutions to problems. That is lost in the mists of history.

There are no more moderate or liberal Republicans — the Sherwood Boehlerts, John Porters, Amo Houghtons and Michael N. Castles are long gone. What now passes for a moderate would have been considered a bedrock conservative in the early 1990s.

The House GOP has veered sharply, even drastically, to the right from what already was a pretty rightist center of gravity.

He goes on to talk about the unparalleled use of the filibuster in the Senate over the last seven years (which happens to coincide with the latest period of Republican minority status in that chamber):

The use or threat of filibuster as a routine weapon of obstruction is new, and it has changed the character of the Senate and distorted democracy.

This is a guy, mind you, with a long-term affiliation with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, not some Democratic hack.

So when I say, as I do now and then, that the radicalization of the Republican Party and the conservative movement is the preeminent political development of our era, there’s some nonpartisan authority behind that statement, aside from facts and logic.

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.