On Monday night, AEI hosted the latest round of its Debates and Election Watch series. The topic of the debate was “Is the Republican Party too extreme?” and featured two AEI heavyweights: Norm Ornstein, co-author of the book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, and Steve Hayward, a Reagan biographer and frequent powerline blog contributor. Norm made the claim that the GOP has indeed become too extreme, while Steve defended Republican actions. For those interested in viewing the debate for themselves, you can see video here.
Norm opened his arguments by calling attention to Jeb Bush’s recent claim that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t be able to win a GOP primary today. According to Norm, Bush’s quote is the latest in a long line of examples of moderate Republicans bemoaning the sharp rightward turn their party has taken. However, Norm was careful to say that, “It is not conservatism that is extreme,” pointing to several eminently conservative legislators who were willing to compromise on key issues—most notably Reagan himself. Norm also said, “I will not say one party is good and the other is evil; there are no angels here.” Yet on balance, he claimed, it’s clear that one political party is worse than the other: the GOP.
He discussed three types of Republican extremism: tactics, ideology, and rhetoric, but he ran out of time and only got through the first two. In terms of tactics, Norm claimed that the GOP has adopted parliamentary tactics in a non-parliamentary system, becoming purely obstructionist and disdaining problem solving. Partisan rivals have become “enemies,” and any trick of parliamentary procedure is acceptable in order to stop them. That’s why we’ve seen a massive increase in the use of filibusters, as well as what Norm called the “new nullification,” in which legislators block fully qualified executive appointees simply because they dislikes the laws that enacted the new departments. Norm also pointed out that these new tactics are being used not just in Washington, DC, but throughout the nation.
In terms of ideology, Norm claimed that vote records and public opinion surveys clearly show that a) the partisan divide in Congress is increasing dramatically and b) that this increase is primarily—almost wholly—due to the rightward movement of the GOP. He used the chart below to prove this point (see here and here for some additional context on this chart).
In his opening statement, Steve Hayward said that over the last few decades we have experienced the “politics of avoiding blame,” in which both parties shied away from confronting real challenges and reforms because it was dangerous politically to do so. Now that the GOP is willing to confront the realities of our current policy mess, they are labeled as “extreme,” which is unfair. He also said that, nationwide, the GOP currently controls more elected posts than at any time in the last 70 years—how can a party be extreme when the American people have elected them to power so decisively, from Capitol Hill to the local school board?
Hayward also claimed that while the GOP may be using the tactics mentioned by Norm more frequently than in the past, they are using them in fundamentally the same manner as Democrats had, citing the example of Tip O’Neil forbidding House Democrats to negotiate with Republicans on Social Security during Reagan’s first term.
In the crux of his argument, Hayward said that viewing the Democrats as a moderate, status quo party is fundamentally unfair and a mistake. Democrats only defend the status quo until they see a chance to ratchet up the size of the state, then they sit back and defend this new “status quo” all over again. Is the GOP supposed to simply sit by and let this happen? In the end, he said, there is little point to even having a Republican party unless it acts decisively to combat the expansion of the state.
In Norm’s rebuttal, he said that the extremist difference when it comes to tactics is a matter of degree, not kind. The number of blocked nominations is massively larger than before, as are the number of filibusters in the Senate (see the chart below). Moreover, he pointed to a general, decisive difference between the Democrats and Republicans during their years in opposition: When Bush won the 2000 election, Democrats cooperated with him on No Child Left Behind despite his weak mandate, which gave the new president increased legitimacy and helped him politically. In contrast, when Obama won the 2008 election, Republican leaders gathered together to plan how they could undermine him politically by opposing everything he did.
Norm attacked Hayward’s argument that the popularity of the GOP means it can’t be extremist by pointing to historical examples of extremists gaining power through the ballot box, most notably the Nazis. In Norm’s view, elections are referendums, and a bad economy can result in massive wave elections even though the public doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace the policies of the party they elected: it’s a protest against the bad economy, not a mandate for the new party. He claimed that this is a lesson the Republicans learned well; they know that if they can convince the public that things are awful, they can win elections because people will rebel against the party in power.
In Steve’s rebuttal, he claimed a) that Democrats believe they deserve to be the permanent ruling party in America and b) that Democrats have undermined Republican efforts to compromise over the past thirty years.
In regards to the first assertion, he cited several examples of Democrats misspeaking as though they were in the majority when in fact they had been a minority party for many years, showing that they view the default in our political system as one in which Democrats are in charge. This presumption, and the accompanying presumption that it is “unnatural” to have a GOP majority, help explain some of the Republican desire to be aggressive in pursuing their goals. They wish to be taken seriously as an equal opponent, not as the Robin to the Democrats’ Batman.
As for Hayward’s second assertion, he cited the now-infamous moment in the GOP primary debate when all the GOP candidates refused to accept a hypothetical tax deal which incorporated a 10:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. He said that none of the candidates accepted this deal because, over the past 30 years, these deals never work out for Republicans. The tax increases always go through, but the spending cuts never materialize. Hayward asked, “How many times does the Republican Charlie Brown have to fall for Lucy’s football trick?”
After their rebuttals, both debaters answered several e-mail and twitter questions. In the interest of brevity, I won’t describe all the questions here and will move on to their final statements.
In closing, Steve Hayward asked why it’s “extreme” every time the Republicans try to roll back the state, but “moderate” and “sensible” every time the Democrats propose to expand it. He directed listeners to read “The Fourth Revolution” by James Piereson. In it, the author claims that we are on the cusp of a fourth great political revolution in America which will bring a whole new order—similarly to the Great Depression and New Deal—to our governance. The “blue” model of how our society is organized is irretrievably broken and our whole system is going to collapse unless we fundamentally change it. President Obama and the ideology he represents are the last gasp of a dying political order. The Republicans have simply recognized this new reality whereas the Democrats have not, and until both parties are on the same page about this reality, minor process reforms for how the Senate uses filibusters are not going to solve the problem. In Hayward’s view, “It is not impossible that six months from now, Greece could be governed by a military government, or that Spain could ask for help from NATO to maintain order in the streets.”
In his closing statement, Norm Ornstein said that, “A large part of the problem is not structural, it’s cultural,” and that we need to move beyond tribal loyalties. In the end, the problem comes down to a decline in problem solving. We need to get back to a culture of problem solving or the whole country may end up looking like California squared.
Again, you can watch the full debate—including the audience questions that I skipped over in this summary—here.