When baseless name-calling masquerades as an argument

I attended today’s “cage match” at AEI – a debate between Norm Ornstein and our own Steve Hayward on the question of whether the Republican Party is extreme. Steve did a great job, especially considering the constraints of the format and the importance of collegiality among fellow AEI scholars.

I’ll leave it to Steve to give an account of the debate, if he wants to. Here’s my take on the issue:

Ornstein accuses Republicans of being extreme in tactics, rhetoric, and ideology. With respect to tactics and rhetoric, he’s really talking about stridency, not extremism. Republicans aren’t assassinating anyone or calling for the overthrow of the government. Ornstein is moaning about inside baseball stuff like too many filibusters, too much time to confirm nominees, and such. Only to a liberal Washington think tank type would this sort of thing pass as extremism.

It is true that right now the Republican Party is quite strident. But I doubt Ornstein can show that, in terms of tactics and rhetoric, they are more so than the Democrats have been. When it comes to filibusters and delayed confirmations, for example, the Dems set a new standard for obstruction of a non-lame duck president during the early Bush years. When it comes to rhetoric, when did a top-ranking Republican Senator match the odiousness of Dick Durbin’s comparison of U.S. troops to those of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Khmer Rouge? Indeed, when did Republicans collectively indulge in the rhetorical excesses and cynicism of Democrats, including then-Senator Obama, in attacking Bush administration policy in the war on terror – nearly all of which has been retained by President Obama?

The real test for extremism is ideology. And the best way to determine whether a political party’s ideology is extreme is by reference to the views of the public. Extremism is, after all, usually understood in a relational sense. Generally speaking, views are extreme if they are outside of the mainstream. If a party’s views command broad public support then, at least as a matter of presumption, they are not extreme.

Judged in this manner, Republican ideology is not extreme. Its main tenets command significant and often majority support.

Ornstein didn’t dispute this reality during the debate. Instead, he pooh-poohed the relevance of elections and public opinion as an indicator of extremism. He did this by pointing to “certain elections during the 1930s.” I assume, Ornstein was referring to Nazi Germany.

By suggesting that American public opinion today bears any resemblance to public opinion in Germany during the 1930s, Ornstein loses credibility and forfeits standing to judge rhetoric “extreme.” The key Republican Party beliefs that Ornstein considers beyond the pale are propositions like the following: the budget urgently needs to be balanced; the size of the government should be substantially reduced; entitlement programs should be significantly reformed; immigration laws should be strictly enforced. These positions, which of course have nothing to do with Germany in the 1930s, aren’t extreme in themselves. They can be extreme only if they fall well outside of the mainstream.

They don’t. Moreover, even if they did – as perhaps some did when Ronald Reagan first espoused them – it would still be proper for Republicans to advocate them.

Ornstein kept talking about how Republicans are “crossing a line.” But who decides where the line is and when it has been crossed? Ornstein clearly doesn’t consider the American voting public suitable for this role. As far as I can tell, Ornstein believes that he and like-minded Washington liberals, using their particular sense of where the line has been drawn in the past, are entrusted with that role.

This view, I would argue, is extreme.

UPDATE: The title I selected for this post seems too harsh. I don’t want to give the impression that Ornstein made no valid points today or that he has no argument to make. I just believe that his main argument is wrong, for the reasons stated above.

A better title would have been something like: “An argument that’s wide of the mark.”

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