Kevin Drum - May 2012

It's Even Worse Than It Looks

| Tue May 1, 2012 8:13 AM EDT

Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, two of Washington's premier Congress watchers, have written a new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. Robert Kaiser reviews it in the Washington Post today, and it turns out that the wonky piece of their diagnosis is one of my favorite hobbyhorses:

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.”

Quite so. We've developed parliamentary-style party discipline within the context of a presidential political system, and that just doesn't work. Parliamentary systems have a particular set of rules and traditions that allow them to function with tight party discipline — chief among them a dedication to scrupulous majority rule. Presidential systems don't. If you try to marry the two, the political system seizes up.

Anyway, that's the wonky part. Here's the more entertaining part:

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 rightly blame the news media for doing a mediocre job covering the most important political story of the last three decades: the transformation of the Republican Party. They are critical of the conventions of mainstream journalism that lead to the evenhandedness they have now abandoned themselves. They see a “reflexive tendency of many in the mainstream press to use false equivalence to explain outcomes,”when Republican obstructionism and Republican rejection of science and basic facts have no Democratic equivalents. It’s much easier to write stories “that convey an impression that the two sides are equally implicated.”

Quite so. An op-ed summary of their book is here. It's worth a read.