Their principal conclusion is unequivocal: Today’s Republicans in Congress behave like a parliamentary party in a British-style parliament, a winner-take-all system.
But a parliamentary party — “ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional” — doesn’t work in a “separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will.”
These Republicans “have become more loyal to party than to country,”
the authors write, so “the political system has become grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats. . . . The country is squandering its economic future and putting itself at risk because of an inability to govern effectively.”
Today’s Republican Party has little in common even with Ronald Reagan’s GOP
, or with earlier versions that believed in government. Instead it has become “an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition . . . all but declaring war on the government.”
Mann and Ornstein consider “the debt ceiling fiasco” of last summer proof of these accusations. The idea of deliberately jeopardizing the credit rating of the United States by toying with a purposeful default on the country’s debt was a carefully planned strategy, they note — the brainchild of Eric Cantor of Virginia, today’s majority leader of the House.
After Republicans elected 87 new members in 2010 and took control of the House, their nominal leader, John Boehner, clearly recognized that the debt ceiling would have to be raised to keep the government operating. Unlike Cantor and those new members, Boehner remembered the political damage done in 1995 when Gingrich forced a shutdown of the federal government in a spending dispute with Bill Clinton, probably assuring Clinton’s 1996 reelection.
Mann and Ornstein quote Boehner from late 2010: “We’re going to have to deal with [the debt ceiling] as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part.” Cantor disagreed. When the new Republican House majority convened at a Baltimore retreat in January, 2011, “Cantor implored them to use the coming debt limit vote as their golden opportunity.”
They quote Cantor in a story in The Post that revealed this episode: “I’m urging you [Republican House members] to look at a potential increase in the debt limit as a leverage moment when . . . President Obama will have to deal with us” and accept deep spending cuts.
The showdown soon arrived. After weeks of anxious uncertainty, Senate Republicans blinked. Their leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, acknowledged that deliberately putting the GOP in the position of being blamed for a national default was a bad idea — not because of the economic consequences, but the political ones. Allowing Obama to blame the Republicans for forcing the country into default, McConnell acknowledged, “is very bad positioning going into elections.”
Precariously, a deal was struck. President Obama agreed to make $38 billion in cuts to the current federal budget. In return Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling enough to put off another fight on the issue until after the 2012 elections. Well, some Republicans agreed. Sixty-six Republicans in the House voted no; only Democratic support saved the deal and prevented default.
Those of us who follow the Washington circus may have forgotten (I had) that McConnell has already promised to repeat this drama early next year,
when the debt ceiling will have to be raised again. Mann and Ornstein remind us that McConnell told Fox News, “We’ll be doing it all over” in 2013.
It is this willingness to put perceived political advantage ahead of good government that persuades the authors that we are living in a novel time that is “even worse than it looks.”
They acknowledge that many of its features are not new, but all of them — from partisan warfare to the impact of money on our politics — seem worse than at any time in a century or more. Well-established, negative trends in our politics have “passed a critical point, leading to something far more troubling than we have ever seen.”