Norman Ornstein is a close observer of U.S. politics and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He has written several best-selling books on the faults and failings of the political system, most recently, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, co-authored with Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution.
In the aftermath of the latest showdown that partially shut down the U.S. government and took the nation – again – to the brink of a fiscal cliff, Mr. Ornstein offered his insights on the struggle inside the Republican Party and what lies ahead.
If Washington is broken, what are the first steps needed to “fix” it?
There’s no easy structural solution. The problem we have now is as much cultural as anything else. It’s now tribal, and tribalism is where people say: “If you’re for it, then I’m against it, even if I was for it yesterday.” That’s the absurdity of this monomaniacal hatred of and obsession about Obamacare, essentially a Republican health-reform plan.
The [political] culture has been coarsened. There are no restraints any more. Lying is not viewed with any sense of shame. How do we deal with the new tribal media and social media that allows people to cocoon themselves and hear only the things that they want to hear and believe things that are patently untrue?
There’s no easy fix, but you have to start somewhere. The first [solution] is, we have to hope that what emerges from this most recent farce is that it begins to generate a counter-reaction: putting up moderate candidates in some districts against extreme ones, fighting fire with fire, against the groups like Club for Growth that are attacking moderates in primaries.
There are also structural changes that could help; namely, enlarging the electorate so that small groups of activist ideologues cannot have such an overweening influence over what’s going on. That’s true in primaries and general elections. I’d like to see a system of open primaries in as many states as possible so it’s not just one party’s partisans voting.
Combine that with preference voting so you won’t have the situation where a plurality of votes can nominate an extreme candidate. Then we need campaign finance reform that tilts the system away from these anonymous huge donors to encourage small donors, with multiple matching funds for candidates.
With serious fault lines evident in the Republican Party, do you expect moderate incumbents to survive Tea Party challenges in the 2014 nomination cycle?
Matt Kibbe, who heads up FreedomWorks, the biggest organized Tea Party group, predicted there would be even more primary challengers. On the Republican side, there are about 40 [Congressmen] who genuinely believe every one of these extreme ideas, another 40 who believe most of them and 100 who are scared to death of challenges to their re-nominations. If more of them do survive [Tea Party challenges], perhaps they will provide some more protection after the 2014 elections.
Is the Tea Party a more radical wing than previous Republican Party factions? If so, does that mean the party will need to find a new equilibrium before the 2016 election?
We’re seeing what some have called a Republican civil war right now. That’s a bit of an overstatement. But the struggle within the Republican Party between a more pragmatic wing and a more radical wing, between a populist group that has distrust for elites and leaders at all levels and those who are leaders, is nothing new.
This goes back many decades, certainly at least to the 1940s. There have been times when the more populist wing prevailed – Barry Goldwater won a presidential nomination in 1964 even if he got trounced in the general election. You could argue that Ronald Reagan represented that wing but then governed as a pragmatist.
The underlying struggle has been there for 60 or 70 years. The difference this time is that a group of people who are truly extreme and would have been viewed as on the fringes 50 years ago now are the ones driving the process. And they are prevailing and intimidating their own leaders.
Another presidential loss, especially if it comes with a nominee that represents that wing, might make a real difference. But they have the money, they have the momentum and even after this embarrassment, notice that all of the putative presidential candidates in the Senate – Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio – all voted “No” on this deal that would get them out of the box canyon. [In the House,] Paul Ryan voted “No.”
What that tells you is that these people who are pretty savvy are looking at the Zeitgeist of their party and they are not saying the radical wing has been defeated or humiliated and “now we can recapture control” of the party. Instead, they are continuing to pander to that wing and that suggests this is not going away before 2014 and certainly 2016. It may not go away for a significant amount of time after that.
It will be interesting to see if Chris Christie can break this pattern or if Jeb Bush is now compelled to step forward and whether they could prevail over those [from the right wing.] One very sobering element to this … Three losses in a row usually jolt the party [to the centre.] But I am not sure the extremists, all in safe seats that reinforce their radical views, will be jolted all that much by another presidential defeat.
Do you expect the January and February deadlines on government funding and debt ceiling will exacerbate the splits in the Republican Party?
I fear we are in a cycle that is kind of like the Friday the 13th horror movies and we have just been through Friday the 13th Part 2 and Part 3 is coming up. [I expect there will be many on the Republican right who will have a new] meme for the party: that “our spineless leaders caved when we were just on the verge of a big victory. If only they had held out. If only we had breached the debt ceiling and then all the gloom and doomers and those who had preached catastrophe would have been proven wrong. Obama would have caved and we could have gotten it done and the American people would have seen that we were resolute.” That all suggests that the January-February period is not going to be a picnic.