TOPICS > Politics

Is Washington’s Partisanship ‘Even Worse Than it Looks?’

May 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Judy Woodruff discusses the dysfunctional behavior in the nation's capital and what can be done to fix the polarization problems with Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, authors of the new book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism."

RAY SUAREZ: Next, Washington’s extreme partisanship, is it deeply rooted in our political culture, or is it a new phenomenon? And what can be done to restore a sense of common purpose?

Judy Woodruff talks with two authors who offer answers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Veteran Congress-watchers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein say the legislative branch has turned to political hostage-taking instead of negotiation, and the practice is driving the country to dysfunction, from last year’s debt ceiling showdown to the art of the filibuster.

The pair looked to history to analyze today’s most-used political tactics and to recommend ways to reform. Those insights come in a new book called, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”

Thomas Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Norman Ornstein is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. And they both join me now.

And it’s good to have both of you with us.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: Great to be. . .

THOMAS MANN, Brookings Institution: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it’s even worse than it looks? That’s about the most foreboding title you could have chosen.

Norm Ornstein, is it really that bad?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Tom and I have been here immersed in the politics of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for more than 42 years, and we have never seen it this dysfunctional. So, unfortunately, the title may be alarmist, but it’s true.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom, you put in the book much of the blame for what’s going on, on the Republican Party. Why?

THOMAS MANN: We do believe there are two profound drivers of our dysfunctional politics.

The first is the mismatch between our political parties that are parliamentary-like, ideologically polarized, internally unified, and set on destroying the other. But the second factor, which is, frankly, overlooked in the press among pundits, by scholars and almost everyone else, is that one of our political parties, namely the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier.

They are ideologically extreme, contemptuous of centuries worth of policy, economics and social, scornful of compromise, no use much for facts, evidence, and science, and really not accepting of the political legitimacy of the other party. That makes a big difference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Norm Ornstein, if a Republican were sitting here today who believes in what they’re doing, they would say, but it’s really — it’s really about policy. We disagree with the president and the Democrats on the size of the deficit, on spending. We don’t think the tax cuts should end.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There have been serious differences between the parties and their world views and their outlooks for a long time.

But just to pick a couple of quick examples, Judy, the Affordable Care Act, the health care bill that passed without a single Republican vote, was basically the Republican alternative that had been written to oppose the Clinton health care plan in 1993 by several people, including Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch, current senators who now denounce those same ideas as socialistic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republicans.


It’s a different culture than we saw 20 years ago or 30 years ago. And it’s why people like Chuck Hagel, a very conservative Republican former senator, has decried what’s gone on in own party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — but you’re not saying Democrats are blameless, though, are you? And, by the way, you also write about the role of the media, the role of money in all of this.

THOMAS MANN: Oh, absolutely. There are many factors involved.

No, the Democratic Party is not a perfect party. It just so happens that their periods of being outliers go back to the ’60s and ’70s. And now it’s been the Republican Party that’s moved in this direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to pick up on the role of the media, the new media, how has that changed what’s going on, Norm?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Well, it really is — in a way, it’s back to the future.

We had partisan media in the 19th century. We have it now with FOX, with MSNBC, and with a lot of others, with talk radio. But this is different. We don’t share a common set of facts. And we live in worlds that amplify those differences and, in fact, help to create the hype that we’re in a tribal world and you’ve got to oppose the other side because they’re evil.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You do write about solutions and how do you fix it.

Tom Mann, one of the things you talk about is expanding the vote.

THOMAS MANN: Yes. There are three ways to fix it.

One is to change the parties, so they aren’t so parliamentary-like, that is, ideologically polarized. One of the ways of doing that over time is to enlarge the electorate, so that you don’t have those most highly motivated to show up being at the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum.

So we embrace all kinds of efforts to increase the electorate, including something as daring as what the Australians do, which is to have mandatory attendance at the polls. You don’t show up at the polls, you pay a fine. It’s not a big fine, but, you know, Australians get 95 percent turnout, and the parties don’t have an incentive to play to their bases, but rather to talk — talk to the swing voters. It does make a difference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whereas the turnout here is about 50 percent.

What else, Norman, do you — Ornstein — do you talk about needs to be done in terms of changing the institution of Congress, changing our political system?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We really do believe that some structural reforms are necessary and important, although a part of the problem is, with a cultural divide we have now, there’s no panacea here in that arena.

The filibuster has become a major part of the problem. The rule is the same as it’s been since 1975. It’s the culture that’s made it the impediment that it is now. But there are ways to keep a filibuster, but make it something that is only applied as it used to be in very few and extreme cases.

There are ways of expediting a process so that you can actually have majorities act in Congress. And then there are other things that we might do that. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying the minority has gotten too much power?


At least, in a parliamentary system, a majority can act, and then they’re held accountable. Here, you can’t act if you don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, which is simply not what any — the framers had in mind or the way most of our practice worked over a very long period of time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tom Mann, you look at this book and you — one despairs of thinking this is ever going to get fixed, that the two parties will be able to work together, compromise.

How optimistic are you that it can be fixed?

THOMAS MANN: We wanted to say it’s even better than it looks. Like Mark Twain said about Richard Wagner’s music, it’s better than it sounds.


THOMAS MANN: But, in fact, we have to level with people. We have a real problem now.

And unless we deal with those problems through electoral reform, institutional reform and properly informing the voters, so they can act strategically — we need to empower a party. Now, what are they actually going do in office, not what are they saying in this campaign?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So in a few words, Norman, what is the ordinary citizen to take away from this? Should they despair and go slash their wrists?


JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, what — what do we do?

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: We’ll come out of this, Judy, although it may take a while.

But I think a part of the message is, voters are to blame here, too. And one message to send to them is, just because somebody pops up and says, I’m not a politician, I’m not like the rest of them, don’t listen to that siren song. Elect people who are politicians, which means they respect their institutions and they are looking to solve problems.

If we could just get some more of that, we’d come out of this more quickly than we will otherwise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Norman Ornstein, Tom Mann, the book is “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”

But it’s good to have the two of you here to talk about it, the book.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Thanks so much, Judy.


THOMAS MANN: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: We have another view coming soon from Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who;s written a book called “The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting America.”