Cage Match After Action Report

Paul gives a pretty good outside assessment of last night’s long awaited epic throwdown between me and Norm Ornstein.  I’ll just add that from my own experience of arguing with Norm repeatedly in the AEI lunchroom that he’s like wrestling with an octopus: just as the wildly waving tentacles of an octopus distract you from focusing on the head and the mouth, Norm distracts you with a lot of particular complaints about Republican abuses of process, or ideological obstinacy without context, all shrouded with a blast of octopus ink.

Here’s a few excerpts from my prepared opening statement:

I admire much of Norm’s work, seeing that his interest in our unloved Congress stems from a genuine affection for the first branch.  His grief at thinking it broken is sincere; his worry about its future well-founded.  His work here at AEI, for example, on the continuity of government project, asking us to prepare prospective remedies against a worst-case terrorist strike, is of the highest value.

In contrast to his continuity of government project, I am less impressed with his implicit continuity of liberalism project that emerges in his new book and recent Washington Post features.  I am dismayed that he would willy-nilly lend his formidable gifts and justly earned prestige on behalf of a Democratic Party talking point.  And about his book I can say that it is indeed even worse than it looks.

There is no doubt that we live at a time of heighted polarization, making the task of governing more difficult.  Observing this unstable equilibrium and the high stakes involved in our ideological divisions, a distinguished political scientist has made the following observation:

“Democrats and Republicans are at the same time swaggering and uncertain, secure and paranoid.  Each side is confident in its own hegemonic domain, but thrown off stride by its abject failure to extend its popularity and control to the other’s turf.  Each party is fearful that it will make a mistake and lose its own empire—not just for one term, but for decades.  And each side is hopeful that it can finally capture its rightful, complete majority, by forcing the other to make the fatal mistake.  The result is passive-aggressive politics, the politics of avoiding blame.  Each side is so concerned about avoiding a mistake, and so intent on tarring the opposition, that taking risks to make better policy is increasingly uncommon.”

That’s a pretty good analytical description of the scene today, correctly perceiving the fearful symmetry of the two parties, and rightly assigning responsibility to both parties.  And this assessment comes from . . . Norm Ornstein!—writing in 1990.  What happened to that guy?  I miss him.  Was his body snatched by pod people from Planet Mann?  By the way, the 1990 article where those words appeared bears the revealing title, “The Permanent Democratic Congress.” Ah.  Perhaps it’s nostalgia; no doubt that seems like a golden age, when, as Norm described it then, the Republican Party could be relied upon to be the Chicago Cubs of American politics. . .

Now, it is passing strange to call one of the political parties an “outlier” when it happens to be at its highest point in the number of elected officials on all levels of government in 70 years, unless you are prepared to take the next step and suggest the American people have taken leave of their senses. That argument is conspicuously absent from the Mannstein Hypothesis.  One of the odd things about the book is that you’d never guess that the election of 2010 ever took place.  Moreover, it has to be inconvenient for the Mannstein Hypothesis that Republicans didn’t start winning majorities until it began the self-conscious turn to “extremism” that Mannstein deplore.  Some people have just never got over the 1994 election apparently. . .

In contrast to the claim that Republicans have become extremist, take in the Mannstein view that the Democratic Party is “more ideologically centered and diverse,” and is a “status quo” party, “protective of the government’s role as it has developed over the course of the last century.”

It doesn’t take an extremist to say: that’s precisely the problem. Let’s see, the Democratic Party is the status quo party—until they get the opportunity to ratchet up the state in a big way, which has been the story of the last century, after which they sit back and protect the new status quo.  And Republicans are supposed to be just fine with this?  This is base stealing that would astound Rickey Henderson.

Mannstein argue that “the culture and ideological center of the Republican Party must change if U.S. democracy is to regain its health.”

What this amounts to is saying the Republican Party should return to its historic role of the last century of playing the Washington Generals to the Democratic Party’s spectacular Harlem Reformtrotters, or a return to that kind of accommodating moderation that prompted the great Eugene McCarthy to quip that the principal use of moderate Republicans was to shoot the wounded after the battle is over.  I begin to suspect that the Mannstein ideal of good government would be . . . President David Gergen.

So, to the question, “is the Republican party extreme”, I can only answer: I certainly hope so.  Let us recall that the Republican Party began its life as an “extremist” party, dedicated to the purpose of abolishing the twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery.  Barely within a year of its birth, the Supreme Court declared the Republican Party platform to be unconstitutional.  The Republican Party Mannstein wishes we had would have said, “Oh well, I guess we should accommodate ourselves to the status quo.”

Likewise today there is little reason or purpose for the Republican Party unless it acts with a new determination to call a decisive halt to the endless ratcheting expansion of centralized government power and reckless spending.

I’ll try to pass along alerts when it’s going to be rebroadcast on C-SPAN.

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