Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, are savvy political scientists who know Washington politics well. They have been regarded as centrists for a number of years. Their new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, argues that the core of Washington’s political dysfunction lies with the Republican Party. As they put it in The Washington Post:
“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Ornstein and Mann also had some harsh words for the press. Columbia Journalism Review's Trudy Lieberman sat down with Mann to explore these ideas. Here are excerpts. For the full interview, go to CJR's website via http://bit.ly/QxAqQT.
Why is the GOP to blame for the political stalemate you describe in your book?
At the very beginning of the Obama administration, they made an explicit decision – now well documented – to eschew any policy negotiations with the newly elected president and Democrats in Congress. It’s a strategy of total political opposition – to avoid sharing any responsibility for the performance of the economy and to do nothing that might improve its performance, because that would boost the electoral prospects of President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Their motivation goes beyond differences on the issues. It’s an aggressive, non-negotiable stance, that makes any real constructive policy making impossible.
Is this driven by ideology or the goal to control government?
Both. The ultimate objective is ideological, but the means to achieve that objective are very strategic.
Explain more about the strategy.
It involves abandoning and denigrating policy proposals you once supported as soon as the other party embraces them; denying the efficacy of governmental actions to deal with the economic crisis; threatening a public default, by holding the need to raise the debt ceiling hostage to non-negotiable demands to cut domestic spending, in the midst of a weak economy; using the Senate filibuster routinely and ruthlessly to deny sizeable majorities an opportunity to put its program into place; delaying or denying the confirmation of presidential nominations even when you approve of the nominee. The list goes on. You do everything you can to inflict political damage on your political adversary.
Are you saying the Republican Party has changed?
The result of all this is the transformation of the Republican Party into a radical party – not really a conservative party – that no Republican president in the modern era would have felt comfortable being a part of.
Where do the media go wrong, in this scenario?
There is a strong tendency on the part of the mainstream media to avoid taking sides – in other words, to avoid reaching conclusions that put the onus of our dysfunctional politics on one party or another or on one candidate or another. This can be strength in an era in which the partisan and ideological media have grown in size and importance. But it can also be a trap that does a disservice to the citizenry.
Can you explain a bit more?
Reporters admirably embody professional norms favoring fairness and nonpartisanship. But too often even the most talented and dedicated reporters, especially in these partisan times with media watchdogs on the constant lookout for bias, retreat to a formulaic “he says/she says” or “both parties are to blame” that imposes a false equivalence on the underlying reality. Reporters don’t want to be charged with partisan bias, and their editors and producers have strong professional and economic incentives to avoid such charges. The safe response is to insist on “balance,” even if the phenomenon is clearly unbalanced. In their quest to be fair and balanced, they misinform and disarm a public trying to fix our dysfunctional politics.
Did this dynamic of media balance play out in the healthcare debate?
Obama’s healthcare proposals were designed to avoid the pitfalls of past failures by negotiating with many of the healthcare stakeholders and embracing ideas that had been the centerpiece of past Republican proposals. These included state exchanges to foster competition in private insurance, subsidies for low income households, significant insurance reforms including guaranteed issue and affordability for those with pre-existing conditions, and an individual mandate to encourage universal coverage. But once Obama was for them, Republicans turned against them.
Is the press innately defensive?
Yes. It’s getting harder and harder to take risks. That’s part of the argument we’re making. In the face of these partisan wars, the press has become even more defensive and looks for safe harbors. One of these is to treat both sides as equally implicated. It was probably easier to cover things when both parties were operating in the mainstream of American politics. When one party has moved off track in such a breathtaking fashion, he said/she said serves to obscure the underlying reality rather than expose it.
What are the consequences for democracy if this does not change?
They are enormous. It’s concern for the wellbeing of our democracy that motivated us to write this book. The war between the parties is being waged in a way that does serious damage to the country. It’s not the reporters’ fault but it’s their job to clarify for the public what is happening in our public life – who is responsible, and how we might overcome these problems. They are constrained by professional norms and by the expectations and demands of their supervisors. I want to be clear we’re not attacking reporters.