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Ornstein: Political ‘Tribalism’ Led to Lack of Compromise in Washington


President Obama addressed the press on April 30 about his first 100 days in office, which have led to questions over whether GOP and White House refusal to compromise is bigger than any political agenda. Photo by PBS NewsHour.

Congress expert Norm Ornstein has been resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute for many years. But after he co-wrote a book last year arguing the Republican Party has been taken over by its extreme right wing and refuses to compromise with President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Ornstein an “ultra, ultra liberal” on the Senate floor.

“Of course that’s going to be the sort of thing that would be said,” Ornstein said, “but I’m looking at this from a perspective of history.”

Ornstein long has said polarization now afflicts both major political parties, but he believes it is most pronounced among Republicans.

“What has been obvious for a long time is this is not just partisanship or partisan polarization. It’s tribalism: if he’s for it, we’re against it,” Ornstein told PBS NewsHour from his office six blocks from the White House.

It’s a theme Mr. Obama often cites, as well.

“They’re worried about their politics,” the president said of Congressional Republicans during his news conference Tuesday. “Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries.”

Last month, the president suffered his biggest legislative loss of the new term when all but three Senate Republicans voted down his call for expanded background checks for gun purchases.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey — a Republican who sponsored the measure — told newspaper editors in his state, “In the end it didn’t pass because we’re so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.”

Some pundits and politicians say the polarized atmosphere means the Republican-controlled House will block any of Mr. Obama’s major second-term initiatives.

Ornstein doesn’t necessarily disagree. But he does dismiss those who say the answer for Mr. Obama — or any president – is to twist arms to get his way with members of Congress or to schmooze them with trips aboard Air Force One or movies at the White House.

“The building of the relationships is secondary to having people who are willing to communicate and ultimately deal with you,” Ornstein said. “If you don’t have that then I don’t care how many times you have them over for drinks or dinner or ball games or movies or take them on Air Force One or whatever — you get nowhere.”

The president has held two dinners with GOP senators who he apparently believes he can communicate with. Ornstein says after the first one, senators reported they learned from him that he’d be willing to lower the cost of living adjustment for Social Security payments — using so-called chained CPI — as a concession to the GOP in budget negotiations.

“This was something he had said publicly numerous times, had written before, and you had several of those senators saying, well, we didn’t know that,” Ornstein said.

“They didn’t know it because the things they read and the shows that they listen to had radio silence on it. So having this dinner where he could tell them directly something that they in effect had been censored from hearing – not from any overt way but just because of what they pay attention to — has value. And it may be that building those relationships could make a difference.”

And that could result in successes for the president in this term.

“I’m actually confident that there are a range of things that we’re going to be able to get done,” Mr. Obama said at the news conference.

Ornstein says the route to that success is the one the president seems to be taking — through the Senate.

“I see a number of Republicans in the Senate, including some who voted against him on the gun bill, [who have] a general desire to do something about the longer term problems of Medicare and Social Security and a willingness to give up some [tax] revenues in return,” Ornstein said.

“The only strategy he could pursue that’s a reasonable one is pick out Republicans in the Senate who fancy themselves as not just soldiers in the GOP army but as problem-solvers and let them know he really is ready to take some risky steps and move on things they care about. I think there’s a chance you could get 60 votes in the Senate for something that might involve up to another trillion dollars — half of that in [new tax] revenues broadly defined and half of it from Social Security and Medicare. If you could get 60 votes — maybe even 70 votes — at some point you’re going to put pressure on the House to bring it up for a vote.”

Ornstein concluded that it’s not done yet: “If he managed to get some of those things and even saved the prospect of some kind of tax reform emerging out of it, that’s a heck of a record for a second term.”


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