Getting Serious about Fixing Washington

Demonstrating once again that it’s nothing if not the voice of the capital’s establishment, the Washington Post this morning opened its Sunday “Outlook” section with yet another major piece by establishment apologists Norman Ornstein (AEI) and Thomas Mann (Brookings), lamenting our “dysfunctional” politics and blaming it mostly on “extremist” Republicans who oppose “almost everything put forward by the Democrats.” Only three weeks ago the Post splashed a companion piece by the two across that Sunday section, “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.” And in the interim, Post associate editor Robert Kaiser wrote a glowing review of their new book on “the new politics of extremism” while several Post bloggers were pushing their thesis in their own posts. It must be an election year. (For a legal analogue of the Ornstein/Mann political thesis, see my “When All Is Politics, Nothing Is Law,” posted late Friday by the Daily Caller.)

Having set forth their critique three weeks ago, Ornstein and Mann today list five things that “won’t fix Washington” and four things that will. Four of the five that “will never work,” they say, are a third party, term limits, a balanced-budget amendment, and public financing of elections to restrain special interests. Read and judge for yourself whether their arguments are sound. They begin that fourth point, for example, by noting that “in the post-Citizens United world, the financing of political campaigns is a nightmare.” True, but the constitutional principles upheld by Citizens United aside, it seems not to have occurred to them that the welter of restrictions that they and others of their persuasion have promoted over the years go far toward explaining that nightmare.

The four things Ornstein and Mann believe will work begin, no surprise, with “realistic” campaign finance reform, including more disclosure and stricter enforcement of current law. From there they move on to redistricting reforms, restricting the Senate filibuster rules, and expanding the electorate by, among other things, fining or rewarding citizens so more will go to the polls, the idea being that “boosting overall turnout would help tilt the balance back toward where most Americans actually are: closer to the middle.” The upwards of half of all Americans who don’t vote are “closer to the middle”? If you’ve ever seen Jay Leno’s “man-on-the-street” interviews, you may want to question that—and question too whether encouraging such people to vote will solve many problems.

Here too, judge for yourself concerning all of those essentially structural proposals that Ornstein and Mann believe won’t and will work to correct our dysfunctional politics. I’ve saved for last the fifth of the things they say will never work because, in truth, it’s not really a structural proposal, like the others, but rather a perspective—and it leads to substantive issues that establishment people like Ornstein and Mann seem not to want to address. Their suggestive heading for this fifth thing that won’t work is “Stay calm—things will get back to normal eventually.” Those of this view argue that “acrimony and gridlock are built-in features of our political system” that wax and wane, Ornstein and Mann write; thus the 111th Congress “was extremely productive, passing health-care reform, financial regulation and an economic stimulus package.” They counter, however,

that an examination of the Obama presidency suggests that we are experiencing neither politics as usual nor an odd blip. We are witnessing unprecedented and unbalanced polarization of the parties, with Republicans acting like a parliamentary minority party opposing almost everything put forward by the Democrats; the near-disappearance of the regular order in Congress; the misuse of the filibuster as a weapon not of dissent but of obstruction; and the relentless delegitimization of the president and policies enacted into law.

Indeed, they contend that with “the defeat of problem-solvers such as Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and the emergence of take-no-prisoners partisans such as Richard Mourdock, there is no reason to think the system will correct itself anytime soon.”

The thing to note in all of this is just what Ornstein and Mann count as “normal”—it’s government as “problem solver,” Congress as “extremely productive.” But that’s precisely the vision of government that is under assault today—and has been at least since Barry Goldwater challenged the “get-along, go-along” Republican establishment in 1964. Yet in truth that post-New Deal world that the establishment so longs to return to was the anomaly. We have “gridlock” today because the post-Goldwater challenge has finally reached critical mass. And that’s what the Washington establishment has yet to grant—witness its dismissal of Goldwater, its initial dismissal of Ronald Reagan, and its dismissal today of the Tea Party.

Still, it’s not problem solving as such that these anti-establishment “obstructionists” oppose—indeed, there’s no shortage of problems to be solved. Rather, it’s doing so through the big-government “solutions” that have given us those problems to begin with. Whatever the merits of the structural reforms establishment types like Ornstein and Mann are offering, their critique hardly explains our dysfunctional politics. Now that the opposition has reached critical mass, it’s increasingly clear that we have gridlock because the nation is deeply divided not over structure but over substance—over the very role of government. The establishment’s faith in government—in what are essentially public “solutions” to private problems, the core of progressivism—is under assault as never before, because that faith has come up dry. It’s long past time for the establishment to grasp that, because the reality that so animates the opposition—the ever growing deficits and debt the progressive faith has produced—is fast closing in upon us. And the inability of the Washington establishment to deal with it, except through more of the same government schemes that produced it, is the dysfunction that should most concern us all.