The Republicans Are Burning Down the House of Democracy

Ornstein and Mann's belated recognition of reality could have been written years ago, and rung true.

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Remind me to send a thank you note to Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann for their heralded Outlook piece sounding a fire alarm about the Republican party burning down the house of democracy in the Washington Post Sunday. Here is its essence:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier.....ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by....facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Washington's leading experts have spoken. The word has come down from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution. This is a nice way to say Republicans in Congress—every single one—have done everything they can to make Barack Obama's presidency a failure, from day one. In historical retrospect, I am sure Obama will receive some long-delayed credit for bearing the burden of  their slights and cuts gracefully and succeeding in spite of their spite. 

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

But there's something else long delayed here, and that's a profound indictment of the Republican Party. The messengers are absolutely right, the elephant emperor has no clothes. But Ornstein and Mann's belated recognition of reality could have been written years ago, and rung true.

Does the impeachment trial of William J. Clinton ring a bell? That Democratic president, too, was relentlessly hunted as prey, even though the country was doing well in times of peace and prosperity. The House Republicans led by Newt Gingrich didn't give a damn, driven by partisan zeal—since we're being real, partisan hatred. The difference is Clinton fought back against his enemies. Obama has chosen to act as if they're not there, or that he can, with time, win them over. In fact, that strategy has been the worst flaw of his governing style.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Newt Gingrich.]

As the co-authors acknowledge, outrages against the traditions of congressional conduct and engagement took off in once Newt Gingrich decided to become speaker by any means possible. He became speaker in 1995—a good 17 years ago. They also blame Grover Norquist, the antitax fiend, for taking the "Grand" out of the GOP. They left out the third man: Rush Limbaugh, whom Gingrich made the class mascot for the 1994 Republican takeover of the House. Limbaugh has poisoned the well of public "dis-coarse" better than anyone I know. He delivers the House Republicans huge doses of partisan ardor from his angry white middle-class male constituency.

Mann and Ornstein observe, "Divided government has produced something closer to complete gridlock than we have ever seen." Yes, and please pass the potatoes. Republicans are acting the same way they ever did (late in the last century) in opposition to a Democratic president. It's just that they took a half-time break, easing up during the long years of the George W. Bush presidency and its wars. The Mann-Ornstein analysis (published in a new book available this week) is sound and welcome. At last an "official" acknowledgement that there is no center in national politics, so therefore it cannot hold. To wit, Obama waited for snow to melt all summer, so anxious was he for one Senate Republican vote for healthcare reform. And no, the moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe did not melt his first summer as president.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

Climate change is perhaps the most urgent issue where Congress has fallen down on the job because Republicans refuse to face the evidence all around us: The earth is warming and changing. Give them this, they are good team players.

But party discipline goes only so far in a hurting country, Mann and Ornstein could have helped us more by speaking out sooner. They take the liberty of scolding the press for trying to achieve false balance by presenting two sides of a story as equally legitimate. They also say the press should take arms against the 60-vote trend in the Senate—meaning 60 votes is necessary to cut off invisible "filibusters." They rightly note, "The framers certainly didn't intend it to be [routine]."

We've all been watching the elephant emperor with no clothes and we all let the parade go on too long. By golly, I'll write that thank you note, and hope Ornstein and Mann will understand if it's a little late.