What to Do About U.S. Political Dysfunction
Robert G. Kaiser and Norman J. Ornstein explore the roots of the recent government shutdown, the consequences for U.S. foreign policy, and ways to adjust the political process to improve upon the current system.
The Renewing America series examines how policies at home directly influence the economic and military strength of the United States and its ability to act in the world.
WHITAKER: Good morning, everybody. It's great to see such a full house for this cheery topic that we have this morning. I'm Mark Whitaker. I'm the former managing editor of CNN and editor of Newsweek and various other jobs in the world of journalism.
I'm pleased to welcome you to the latest installment of the Council's "Renewing America" series. And as you all know, the topic this morning is going to be "What to Do About U.S. Political Dysfunction."
Our two speakers, I think, you know, couldn't be better positioned to address the topic. First, Norm Ornstein on my left, who, as you all know, is one of our leading—for decades one of the leading analysts of American politics, currently scholar-in-residence at the American Enterprise Institute, author of many books over the years, but his latest sort of says it all in terms of the topic today. The title is It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.
We were talking yesterday. Norm told me that it's coming out in paperback, and he said he thought that perhaps a title for the paperback should be It's Ever Worse Than It Was, when the first hardback came out.
ORNSTEIN: The next one is, Run for Your Lives.
WHITAKER: And to Norm's left, Robert Kaiser, currently senior correspondent for the Washington Post, but as you all know, the former managing editor of the paper, correspondent in Moscow, Saigon, London. Bob in recent years has also been focusing on studying the American political system. His latest book is called Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn't, which I thought was a pretty good title, although not as good as his last one, which was So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government.
So we're going to have a little discussion up here for 20 minutes or so, and then we'll open it up to questions. And as you heard, all of this will be on the record.
So I've already heard from a number of you this morning that you don't want to just hear analysis. You know how bad it is. You want to hear whether there are solutions, a little bit of prescription. But I think, before we get to that, we do have to, I think, get a perspective on what's wrong and why.
So, you know, I'll start just by kind of examining the premise, which is—you know, I think it's become commonplace, we hear it all the time, that our system of government has never been more dysfunctional. So, first of all, in historic terms, is that, in fact, true? And if it is, what has changed? Norm?
ORNSTEIN: OK, let me start—I do want to say happy Halloween to everybody. I was tempted to come in my Ted Cruz costume, but I didn't want to—didn't want to start the morning scaring the crap out of everybody, so...
I wrote a piece in Foreign Policy a couple of years ago reflecting on the 111th Congress, that they titled "Worst. Congress. Ever." And I had a lot of people telling me, "Oh, come on. Worst ever? What about the period right before the Civil War?" And I would say, "You're absolutely right. Isn't it comforting to be compared to the period right before the Civil War?
And you're always—I think Bob and I have been doing this long enough that you're always testing yourself whether you just think—you live in the moment, and you look back at rosier periods. But I would say flatly a couple of things. One is, it's worse than I have seen in 44 years of being immersed in this process in Washington at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and in between.
KAISER: Only 44?
ORNSTEIN: Only 44. You preceded me by just a touch—and worse in our lifetimes than what we've seen—that we've had other periods with sharp dysfunction and the country's come out of them. Usually it takes about 15 years or so. You could go back to the turn of the 20th century—never mind the Civil War—when the Democratic Party went off the rails with William Jennings Bryan and it took a long time to come back to Woodrow Wilson, really. You can almost look at the Democrats in the late '60s, '70s, and into the '80s.
But this is different in part because I think the stakes are so high and we don't have 15 years. And it's different than when I first arrived, when we went from the Vietnam War through the impeachment of Richard Nixon and thought that the country couldn't survive, but we actually had bipartisan leadership consensus that developed that got us through that smoothly.
The tribalism that exists now is just different than what we've seen, and I fear it's going to get worse before it gets better.
KAISER: I agree with all that. You know, you mentioned Wilson. Wilson only won because of the civil war in the Republican Party.
KAISER: It's—this is bad. Let me say something preemptively about prescriptions. And one of the many dysfunctions of the modern American society, in my view, is a desire for a quick, snappy solution to every problem that comes along. This problem does not lend itself to quick and snappy.
And my argument is—and I tried to make it in this book—the culture of the Congress is profoundly different. Norm and Tom Mann, his coauthor, it really got me thinking about this. I reviewed this book of Norm's in the Washington Post...
ORNSTEIN: Thank you.
KAISER: ... very favorably. But we now have—because of the money problem, particularly—such a mess, we attract the wrong people to this way of life. People that have to spend a day, two days, even three days a week on the telephone begging for money from strangers for their next campaign are not the people, I would argue, with a few wonderful exceptions, that any of us in this room would willingly choose to be our leaders or our members of Congress. But that's what we got now.
We have an extraordinary number of no-nothings. We'll read about these people from the Tea Party faction. There's a wonderful former large animal veterinarian from north Florida—what's his name, Ohno?
ORNSTEIN: Ted Yoho.
KAISER: Yoho, aptly named...
ORNSTEIN: Pronounced "Yahoo."
KAISER: ... who goes around telling everyone that a default would be fine, it would stabilize the markets, he says, let the United States default. But we have—and if you look carefully at the Tea Party biographies, almost none of them had any political or governmental experience before they became members of Congress. It's quite extraordinary.
So we have a cultural problem, and cultures don't change quickly. We have got to attract different kind of people. There's got to be a different level of citizen involvement, in my view, in this country, to deal with this cultural problem. It's really big. We could talk about details. But I think—you know, whether this is the worst ever is really irrelevant. It's awful. It's really bad. And this is our time. Some grandfathers or great-grandfathers of ours had to put up with something worse, abi gezunt. This is our problem now.
And we got to deal with it, or we're going to really go down. We are going to go down.
WHITAKER: How much of the problem, do you think—and I say this as a moment of recovering journalist—is the way the problem is covered in the media, in the sense that, obviously, you know, you watch cable television, my old bailiwick. You see mostly people on each side, from each party, blaming the other in very short-term ways. You see a focus on personalities more than anything else, you know, what was Ted Cruz's role, what, you know, Boehner as speaker, the president, whether he's effective or not.
But you don't see much coverage of some of the things that both of you have written about in your books, you know, the role of money in politics, lobbying, gerrymandering, and so forth. So, you know, to what degree, I think, if we're going to move forward and address this, do we have to even understand the problem a little bit better?
ORNSTEIN: I would say you've got two types of problems. One certainly is the rise of the tribal media and the fact that the business models work best for them. When you live in a world where Fox News, with an audience at any given time of 2.5 million people, can have more in net profits than all three network news divisions combined with an audience of 30 million, it tells you that the world has changed. And increasingly, we're getting people cocooning in to a small number of sources of media that reinforce what they know and have that amplified by a social media where you get these e-mails from your friends and relatives that usually have the headline, "Can you believe this?", which I would just issue a word of caution. That's good warning not to believe it.
But that's tribalizing at the public level in a way that's very frightening. Then you've got the so-called mainstream media. And I've been—Tom and I have been very harshly critical for some time, because the fact is, if you've got people who are creating a large share of a problem, if they're not held accountable, they have every reason to keep doing what they've been doing.
And we have had a problem that—I think Jim Fallows of The Atlantic may have been the first to call it false equivalence, but this tendency in journalism—partly because you just hate to be accused of bias and you have all these forces mobilizing to jump all over you—to say it's everybody's fault or to present "both sides" of a story. Sometimes there are two sides to a story. Often there's one side; it's called the truth. And other times, there might be multiple sides.
But I think that's created a good part of this problem. And it's helped to reinforce a notion that they're all awful, it's terrible, and partly what happens is, anybody who pops up and says, "I'm not like the rest of them," gets traction and gets elected.
So we keep making it worse, because we're leeching the politicians who are the problem-solvers out of the system and bringing in the Yohos of the world who think that it's very simple. And usually what that means is they're ready to take us right down the rat hole.
KAISER: This is a really big problem. We have—when Norm and Tom published their—an excerpt of their book, which is where it began in the Outlook section of the Post, and they started to say, you know, this really isn't equivalent, there's one side at fault here, this was taken amiss even in the newsroom at the Post. "Can we say that? Can you do that?" Other people in the paper thought, sure, why not? It's the truth.
I often think of Pat Moynihan's wonderful remark, "Everybody's entitled to their opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts." Well, we've left that era behind. We now have fact invention on a gargantuan scale. People come into the arena with their own version of reality, insist that it's true.
Look carefully, if you're interested in macroeconomics and the markets, look carefully at the analysis of the Republican leadership in both houses. The only thing wrong is excessive government spending. There's no other problem that we face, if you take literally their rhetoric. That's just one example.
But we—this is a—this is a really hard problem for the New York Times and the Washington Post to deal with, because calling people out bluntly, as Norm says, is very difficult for the culture.
There was a very interesting exchange—I recommend it if you haven't read it—between Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald, which is—Greenwald is the fervent true believer who knows what's right beyond any doubt, and Keller is a good representative of the culture I grew up in, where you try to be fair and evenhanded, not objective. None of us accepts the word "objective," because objective is a subjective category. But to be fair and evenhanded is something anybody can recognize and know is right. It's what we've always tried to do in my world. But it has very little cultural value now. Evenhandedness implies calm, moderation, fact-based analysis, none of which are fashionable.
ORNSTEIN: I want to add one other element to this, which is, I think we have a real problem with a culture that's become so totally coarsened. Lying used to bring some sense of approbation or shame. Now, if you lie, and you get caught in a lie, the lesson you learn is double-down on it, you'll get your own talk radio or cable television show or you'll become a political celebrity.
I really flinched—I think it was yesterday—the Post had in its Style section two pages from the front page on of profile of Ann Coulter, which as actually quite a benign profile. She to me represents—and what's happened with media, news media—some of the worst elements of where we are and—which makes it so hard to get out of, because she's an awful human being in terms of the way she engages in the culture.
And the perfect example of it came maybe a month ago or a little bit more, when we were in the midst of the Syria debacle, Ann Coulter went on Sean Hannity's show and called President Obama a "monkey" for Vladimir Putin. Even Sean Hannity sort of sat back. And she repeated it multiple times.
Now, you know, a couple of years ago, what would have happened is they would have taken her off the air for like six weeks and waited until the—and then snuck her back. She was on the next day. And now she's profiled, didn't even get mentioned.
I mean, a blatantly awful, racist comment—there's just no doubt about what the meaning of that was—and now we live in a culture where that doesn't even get you booted off television. And that's—you know, when we segue in to talking about what we can do about it, we can change the structures, and we need to. That's not an easy thing to do. Changing the culture is tougher.
And part of our task—I think everybody in this room—is we have to start to create some sense of shame for behavior that just goes beyond the bounds, because if you don't, if you can get away with calling Barack Obama a "monkey," you de-legitimize a president in some ways that makes it far harder to actually make policy and even create some sense of broader agreement when you're doing things that shake up the society. And that's—we have a media culpability here...
WHITAKER: I'll just add something. We can move on from the media. But—but one of the things that, you know, I've observed is, you know, people say, well, you know, this stuff is allowed because it drives ratings, but now on social media you have a phenomenon where someone like Ann Coulter is actually not even playing to the Fox audience. She's playing to all of her Twitter followers.
WHITAKER: You know, and even if they try to—I mean, we had this experience sometimes with a few people at CNN—where we thought they had been out of bounds, we took them off the air, but the fact is, they—you know, they carried on, because they have their own constituency now in social media. So it's just in some ways...
KAISER: Can I add one point about the coarsening of the culture? Perhaps more relevant, in a way, to our discussion, when I was a young reporter in the '70s on Capitol Hill, the idea that a member of Congress would become a lobbyist was unheard of. Jim O'Hara, a member of Michigan, went to work for Tommy Boggs, good liberal Democrat, interesting character, had a huge family, had run for Senate and lost, needed money, decided—I'm sure with difficulty—to become a lobbyist. And it was a scandal. People said, wow, did you see what Jim O'Hara did?
Now how many? I can't keep the number in my head, 140, 150 former senators and congressmen are registered lobbyists. This whole idea...
ORNSTEIN: And twice that many are lobbying, but not registered.
KAISER: Of course. Of course. But turning public service into private gain is a totally acceptable thing to do in America, Bill Clinton leading the way. This used to be something that people didn't want to think was a good idea.
WHITAKER: So I think we should talk a little bit about some of the practical impact of the gridlock and the dysfunction in Washington right now. And I think, you know, because we're at the Council on Foreign Relations, let's talk about the impact on foreign policy and, you know, our—America's position in the world.
So, you know, obviously, the shutdown is over. It could be back. You know, both the threat of shutdown and the debt limit issue were only pushed off until the beginning of next year with this latest deal. But even with that, we've now been living under sequestration for a year now, and, you know, perhaps for much longer. And part of that, obviously, has to do—has, you know, had a big impact on the Defense Department, defense budget.
So, Norm, just—why don't we start by talking about the effect that it's already had on our current posture and our planning going forward?
ORNSTEIN: Well, it's had an effect, I think, in two big ways. One is, the image of America in the world and to the world and our influence in other fashions—I was talking with a friend from Australia who was at the APEC summit when the word came that President Obama had to cancel his trip because of the craziness in Washington. And, you know, it was just deeply embarrassing. And, of course, the Chinese were dancing a jig at the vacuum in American leadership. And it's worrisome, in part, because if people think that we're dysfunction, they respond, they behave in a fashion that may make it more difficult.
But I do think the bigger problem right now is the sequester, the budget cuts, the mindless cuts that we're doing. If you have a dysfunctional political process, you often come up with dysfunctional ways to try and work around it. And that's what the sequester was. It was the—the whole idea was, we've got to force agreement on people who are tribalized and won't—are dug in, so we are going to come up with an alternative that if they don't reach an agreement, would be so horrific that it's just impossible to contemplate. And we ended up with it.
ORNSTEIN: And if you look at the impact of the sequester, in so many areas, this is going to damage America in so many ways. I did a program two weeks ago with Francis Collins, the head of NIH. The first wave of sequester, before the second tranche and others appear, has required NIH to basically keep 640 grants that were in the top 17 percent of the peer-reviewed process, which in the past would automatically be approved, from going through. And he said, very powerfully, I don't which among those grants would be the breakthrough in Alzheimer's or diabetes or cancer, but I can tell you with certainty that there were breakthroughs there. So we're cutting out our big advantage in the global economy, which is our basic research. DARPA, devastated, the energy equivalent really in big trouble.
Then you look at smart power. Just when we were beginning to build a consensus in the country around the importance, with military leaders and a lot of others, saying the best way to avoid wars is to have a stronger American presence in the world, through development, diplomacy, and the like, and we're just cutting the heart out of it.
You know, it went almost mentioned with Benghazi, but the cuts in embassy security that required tradeoffs, done very badly, but that was a significant part of what was going on. And if we continue to move in that direction, the only modestly heartening thing I see out of the initial stages of the conference, the budget conference, is now at least a willingness on the part of some Republican leaders to acknowledge that the sequester's not a great thing. But you had lots of others embrace it.
And one of the real problems we have, frankly, is that the dispute within the Republican Party is not between moderates and conservatives. It's between conservatives and radicals. Conservatives believe in a leaner and meaner government, but the part of government that you want and need—which includes diplomacy, foreign policy, defense, and basic research and many other things—should be done well and effectively. Radicals want to blow the whole damn thing up.
And right now, the center of gravity is with the radicals, and it's not clear to me that we're going to work our way out of this in the short or medium run. And if we don't, one of the things that's happening now in the research field is scientists are leaving. They're going to other countries where they can find opportunities.
But even beyond that—and I talked to Collins afterwards. He said, you know, the scientists that we have who need grants—and they're not going to get them from NIH—they're now spending three-quarters of their time writing grant proposals desperately to everybody else instead of doing science.
So this has so many repercussions. And, you know, I hate to bash the media even more, but these are stories that...
KAISER: No, you don't.
ORNSTEIN: ... we never see. Well, OK, I don't hate it.
We don't see those stories. And, frankly, I also—I told some friends at the White House, I don't know why you don't have every single day a scientist, somebody protecting the borders, a citizen affected by this stuff talking about the stupidity of this, because most Americans have no clue. When the FDA is cut back and it can't do inspections of food and other supplements and things in China and other places, we're going to lead—it's going to lead to epidemics. And then you turn to the Centers for Disease Control, and it's been cut back, as well. It's just stupid.
KAISER: Let me add one point to Norm's very good analysis. The Economist's leader had a wonderful line a couple weeks ago: "When the Republican Party in America is a small government party, we're very sympathetic to them. When it's a no government party, we've taken our last ride in their cab," is the way The Economist put it.
But that is the essence of this civil war in the Republican Party. There's a government faction, and there's a no government faction. And I think, to the Republicans in the room who've been writing checks to Republicans, thinking that it's more or less the way it's always been, I say: Please wake up. This is a serious change. This party's been taken over effectively by a radical faction that just doesn't care about what you care about.
And this is—until this is changed somehow, we're going to be in a terrible mess. I think it will change, I should say. I think Norm does, too. Some discontinuity is in our near- to medium-term future. It's just this is an un-American situation to behave—to be behaving as stupidly as Norm just described.
WHITAKER: OK, well, that's a good segue. I want to answer your question, so I'll just ask one more, and I'll do what I'm going to ask you not to do, which is to ask a two-part question, in terms of looking forward. One is, do either of you see any prospect in the upcoming midterm elections that things will change, you know, if not in terms of the overall balance of power in Washington, the power of the Tea Party, other forces? And then, beyond that, getting back to some of these process issues, is there anything realistic that can be done, that if somebody were to sort of take up the crusade—you know, I think about things like the filibuster, the whole issue of the majority of the majority within the Republican Party, you know, campaign finance, other sort of things that might make a difference here?
ORNSTEIN: Well, first, on the elections, it's a year away, and who knows? You know, all of the things that happened in the last couple of months may well happen again. The day after the resolution of the shutdown and default issue, I gave a talk and I started by saying, "Our long national nightmare is over for two months."
So we don't know what'll happen or what other things will happen. What we do know is that you have a public anger and discontent that itself is sharper than we have seen before, but it's aimed at everybody at this point. I'd say more Republicans, but if you saw the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll this morning, President Obama's—not just his approval rating as president, but his personal approval is significantly down. Republicans are way, way down.
But you can imagine an election in which voters basically say, "Screw 'em all," and that will probably keep Republicans in the majority in the House by a narrow margin, and it could jeopardize the Democrats in the Senate, because they have far more incumbents up. The best thing going for Democrats in the Senate right now is that many of their opponents, incumbents, are House members. So they're a little tarnished to begin with. But we're probably not going to see the kind of election that would provide a wake-up call—even more of a wake-up call for a party.
And I should add, just as a footnote, you know, we used to have the rule of three, and it still pretty much applies, that it takes three consecutive presidential losses for a party to realize that it's not just candidates, but it's something deeper. What I fear with the Republican Party is you've got House members, the vast majority of whom are in homogeneous, echo chamber districts that are safe for them, and they don't much care about a presidential election compared to the crusade that they're on.
And then you've got the fact that the driving force in the party now is the South. It used to be the Democratic bastion; now it's the Republican bastion, and it's insulated from the rest of the country. Those are districts that are lily-white now, partly because of the way the Voting Rights Act played out over several decades, and partly by design.
You know, the notion that the country is changing, that every year it becomes 2 percent less white and more brown and black, they don't see it, they don't care, or if anything, they feel that you've got to fight back. They're insulated on social issues. And presidential politics, again, doesn't matter to them. So I'm not sure that we'll see an election mattering.
We do have to make some changes in the system. And I'm entirely with Bob. And there is no better book describing the culture of Washington in the last 50 years than "So Damn Much Money." It really describes where we are and how we've been driven. But until we get a different Supreme Court, we're only going to be able to affect that at the margins.
And partly what has to change is precisely what he said. People are going to have to change their giving patterns, and they're going to have to punish miscreants and reward problem-solvers. Then we're going to have to find other ways to change the recruitment process, because who would want to run in this world where, if you win, you come to Washington to do nothing except spend most of your time raising money so that you can come back to do nothing? And you've got to raise money not just for yourself now, but for your team and to guard against some alien predator force anonymously coming in behind your lines with two weeks to go in the campaign when you can't raise any more money and sliming you with millions of dollars.
And if we don't find a way to counter the Club for Growth and other forces that basically say anybody who wants to solve a problem will get $1 million target on their backs in a primary, and begin to change—you know, the redistricting process is always the first question that I get, and it's a real problem. But the bigger problem is that we have been going through a big sort. We are moving increasingly into areas where we're surrounded by like-minded people, and the homogeneity there makes it very difficult. Redistricting is not going to solve this problem. We've got to do more than that. We've got to make some changes in the culture.
Just finally, on the filibuster, we may see some change coming in the next couple of weeks. It's going to be very interesting, because we've got three more nominees for the D.C. Circuit coming forward. And they're all extraordinarily well qualified. None of them is some radical leftist. If you get concerted filibusters used against all three of them on the erroneous charge that they're packing the court because they're filling vacancies in the court, I think the temptation for Harry Reid to make a much more significant change in filibusters and nominations will be very, very strong. So that may happen.
But, you know, those things are important changes. They're changes at the margins. They're necessary to do, because I don't think we can begin to change the culture or turn things around without some of these structural changes taking place. But it's a long slog before we get something better.
KAISER: Slightly different take on the elections. I think—I do think that the mistake of the shutdown was catastrophic and that every intelligent Republican knows that, and there are quite a few intelligent Republicans, mercifully, and that I—we're in the beginning of something that's going to be quite dramatic.
I do not think there will be another shutdown. McConnell has been very outspoken, no more shutdowns. He understands what happened. Boehner understands what happened. I think they will do everything they can to avoid it.
We're going to have an interesting Virginia governor's election on Tuesday, where a very unappealing Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, is going to win a very big victory against a very—even less attractive Republican. But Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican, is the exemplar of the right-wing faction on social issues and other issues. And his thumping defeat in Virginia, not a radical bastion, will be another reminder to those intelligent Republicans of how serious their problem is.
I think my young colleague, Ezra Klein, who's one of the smartest young (inaudible) journalists now in Washington, wrote a wonderful piece a month ago during the shutdown crisis, saying, please understand what we're watching here is a civil war in the Republican Party. I think that's exactly right.
And I think Norm's a little too pessimistic about the inevitability of the wrong side winning. It's going to be a really dramatic, interesting confrontation that will go on now for a while. But I'm a little more hopeful.
WHITAKER: Let's go to questions. We have microphones. Wait for the microphones to come, and one question at a time. Ma'am? Then you can...
QUESTION: Ronnie Heyman, GAF Industries. You talk quite a bit about the radicalism in the Republican Party, but you don't say much, either of you, about extremism in the Democratic Party, because I think that there is that reaction, and I think we see a lot of elections where it's quite different than it was 20 years ago and—and there is a very radical arm of the Democratic Party.
When we talk about changing the culture, do we perhaps want to talk about changing the primary system, which really has contributed to this on both—in both parties?
KAISER: What do you have in mind?
QUESTION: What do I have in mind?
KAISER: As radicalism of the Democrats.
QUESTION: Of the Democrats? Well, I'm—I'm thinking of our mayoral candidate in New York, who's going to win the most—with the most historic margin in history. And he was elected in September in a primary where very few people voted. I think the primary system may be a problem.
ORNSTEIN: Well, I—you know your mayoral candidate a lot better than I do, so I'm not going to talk about that. I would say, if you look at the broader national Democratic Party—and we have lots of quantitative evidence—you look at the two parties, they've become more homogeneous and moved apart. But if we use the familiar football field analogy, the Democrats moved from center of gravity around the 45-yard-line or so when I first came to Washington probably to about a 25- to 30-yard line and the Republicans have moved behind their own goalpost. So there's a sharp difference.
The head of Deloitte last week actually made a very interesting comment on this front. He said, you know, there are 50 or more Republicans who are hard-core Tea Party members. He said, I don't see one who's an Occupy Wall Street member.
And even those who would fit over on the left-wing the spectrum, with just a couple of exceptions, you know, a Bernie Sanders ended up voting a health care plan that was not a single-payer system and didn't even have a public option. So there's a pragmatism still there.
But I would say, I do fear that the Ted Cruzes of the world encourage the other party to move further to the left. And I've had plenty of Democrats say to me, we keep compromising, we keep compromising, and look what happens. Why should we compromise any more?
And a second-term president always faces a problem from his own base. So I think you're going to see a hardening. Some of it will be on environmental issues. If you watched the president up in Boston yesterday at a rally on the health care plan, there was—you know, a disruption over Keystone. I mean, it seems to me it's really a stupid flag to plant if you're an environmentalist, but that's a whole other story. And we'll see it on Social Security and Medicare to a degree. But it's still a vast difference between the parties.
But I agree with you on the primaries. And we need to enlarge the electorate. We need to move away from an overweening influence of a smaller group who are the more radical forces. What I would do in practical terms is push for open primaries.
ORNSTEIN: California-style, but with preference voting. And I think the two need to go together. You can end up, if you have an open primary, without preference voting, where a fringe candidate can win a fraction of the vote and still win, or you can end up, as we had with one California congressional district the last time, a heavily Democratic district. Fifteen Democrats ran and two Republicans in the open primary, and the 15 Democrats split all their votes and the two Republicans were the winners. So in the fall, voters had a choice of two Republicans in a district that really didn't—that didn't represent. That could happen the other way, as well.
With preference voting, you tend to push towards—and that means, you know, you can vote for your first and second and third choices, and then you aggregate them, so you end up with a majority. You're going to end up in a better setting.
And I would just say, it's not that you're going to suddenly have a bunch of wonderful, problem-solving people emerge to run. All those other problems are there. But if you're an incumbent and now, when you look at the fiscal cliff resolution or you look at this last agreement, people who were going to stand up and say, "I'm going to vote for a compromise," and were threatened with a primary challenge, and then took their heads below the foxhole again, if you know you've got an open primary with preference voting, it's like having a Kevlar vest against that target on your back. You're going to have more of an incentive to vote for something that's a little bit controversial because you can more easily withstand an attack from the extreme forces.
And that, I think, is—you know, if I had my druthers, I would go for the Australian system, a mandatory attendance at the polls. But we're not going to do that, so that's the way I would go.
KAISER: About radicalism, I would urge you to count your blessings. We've had—we've got a society here in which everyone's standard of living, except the wealthy, has gone down in the last 20 years. We have a real collapse of upward mobility in this society. We have all sorts of conditions which theoretically should welcome some real radicals into the process, and I'm amazed that we haven't had them. And if de Blasio is the most radical anxiety you can come up with, you're in pretty good shape.
This is—seriously. This is—I fully expect in the next 15, 20 years that we'll see a real radical alternative starting to materialize, because this is an un-American situation. We've got—we've got a rotten economic condition now, which badly affects the overwhelming majority of Americans. And that's just not tenable. It's not going to continue.
QUESTION: Yeah (OFF-MIKE) thank you. I want to pick up on Bob's last point about civil war in the Republican Party, because, Norm, when you were here last, touting your book, I asked you whether you thought the Republican Party might split, because I happen to believe it's inevitable, and you said, blah, blah, blah, and you didn't think so.
ORNSTEIN: I say that a lot, Rita.
QUESTION: But what I—I would like to postulate a radical idea. What is wrong with the Republican Party actually breaking open under the pressure of these young Tea Party types who revile what they call the old bulls? And I have some sympathy for that little last remark. You know, parties don't last forever. Things change. They break open. There will be some new realignment. Why do we keep urging back to the good, old days of harmony and bipartisanship, which I don't, frankly, think is going to be in our future? And I really want you to answer that, not go blah, blah, blah.
KAISER: Well, I'll be your agent here.
ORNSTEIN: Well, certainly, if you look at American history, we have had periods where parties have dissembled and disappeared. The Whig Party was replaced by the modern Republican Party.
Here's the difficulty. The first difficulty is, we are built, institutionally and legally and a whole host of ways, around a two-party system. It's extremely difficult for a third party to emerge in a fashion other than as a spoiler.
So, you know, if I had my preference, we would have a civil war that ended with one side winning. And, you know, it's not going to be a moderate side. It's going to be a conservative side. But a conservative, vibrant, problem-solving side, that's great, that's the way the system is supposed to operate.
It may not work that way for just the reasons that you suggest. And culturally, the difference between the Tea Party types and the mainstream conservatives is strong, although admittedly...
KAISER: Not to mention the Hauser Republicans.
ORNSTEIN: Yes, well, the Hauser Republicans are a dwindling force, I'm afraid. But, you know, some of these disputes go back 60, 70, 80 years. This has been a longstanding tension. It goes back to Robert Taft and the Main Streeters against Wendell Willkie and Tom Dewey and the Wall Streeters. So that plays out in a different fashion.
But, you know, what worries me is, here's a real nightmare scenario for you on Halloween. Imagine that a Ted Cruz wins the Republican nomination. And believe me, that is not a far-fetched thing at this point. And imagine that Hillary Clinton doesn't run and Democrats nominate somebody who is significantly over on the left of the Democratic Party. The temptation for a Bloomberg or somebody else to run under those circumstances as an independent would be very, very strong.
But if you look at the nature of the Electoral College and the nature of votes, and you have a deeper disaffection, although it's a disaffection that has to fit within a framework of 90 percent of Americans still identifying with a party and having very great difficulty leaving that, but imagine it. Imagine they split the electoral votes and you don't get a winner. And then you go into the House of Representatives, where they vote by state. So you could elect a Ted Cruz under those circumstances.
So a breakup of this sort could actually end up with the worst of all possible worlds. And I'd much rather see the mainstream conservative and Hauser wings of the Republican Party fight back in a big way now. And that means, as Bob said, putting your money where your mouths are and should be. That means not giving money to people who are not problem-solvers. It means creating primary challenges—if we have to live within this campaign finance system—against the crazies.
We're seeing one, Justin Amash in Michigan. It's a locally generated business community, you know, coming forward with a more mainstream candidate in a primary against him. It means putting up a lot of money to combat the Club for Growth and the like. And it means speaking out in a much more forceful way against bad behavior and against radicalism.
KAISER: I'm more...
ORNSTEIN: Blah, blah, blah.
KAISER: I'm more with Rita on this. I think it's an untenable coalition, very much like the Democratic coalition when the Southerners were still in charge in the early '60s. The Democratic coalition collapsed. And as Norm pointed out, the South went to the Republicans, as Johnson predicted it would the day he signed the Voting Rights Act. And this Republican coalition cannot survive. I don't know how it breaks up or what the consequences are, but it cannot survive.
QUESTION: Carter Bales from NewWorld Capital Group. It seems to me that a lot of this is a condition that's not likely to be solved without the blessing of a crisis. And there might be something under the theory of small progress that could be solved, which gets back to the wisdom of Senator Moynihan. What if we lifted the Congressional Budget Office out of Congress and set it up as an independent agency to do not just cost analysis, but outcome analysis, where there would be an independent point of view on the implications of different policies that were being debated? Because there's so much fuzziness, incrementalism, self-interest at work today, and it's just a fundamental lack of the size and scale and solvability of the problems of what different approaches might actually mean. Can we make some progress under the theory of small wins there?
ORNSTEIN: You know, I actually think that one of the big problems—the beginning of it was when Newt Gingrich abolished the Office of Technology Assessment in Congress, which gave kind of independent scientific advice, and that was the beginning of the end of reliance on science or of people trashing science and data because it didn't fit their preconceived notions.
The Congressional Budget Office has generally been quite independent, although it's shackled because they have to operate under assumptions that Congress sets. So having an independent voice that could move beyond that would be nice.
But it's not going to solve the problem, because it's going to be attacked by everybody and undermined in the same way—you know, if you live in a world where 99.5 percent of the scientific community believes there's serious human-generated climate change and 0.5 percent of the scientific community doesn't, and whenever you turn on television, you get somebody representing the 0.5 percent and somebody representing the 99.5 percent, as if they're equal, and you've got a lot of political forces, Ken Cuccinelli, the gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, leading the way, trying to trash and even criminalize the scientists who believe the contrary, creating an independent CBO is just going to have some of those similar problems, at least by taking CBO out.
Now, what I would think would be a good idea would be to have a private-sector foundation and other involvement to set up some group that would have the prestige and the firepower of a CBO outside to try and provide some independent analysis, but I'm afraid that's as far as we could go on that front.
I would say, you know, it usually takes a crisis. I'm afraid now, just given the fanatical level that we have out there that's reinforced by all of the media and business models—you know, when you end up after this last crisis that got us very close to the edge, and the damage was considerable, $24 billion cost to the economy in the shutdown of the government, plus the costs that emerge whenever you threaten default seriously and, you know, you could see the interest rates changing as a consequence, and the day after Rush Limbaugh is saying and then Ted Cruz is saying and then Sean Hannity is saying, our spineless, weak-kneed leaders caved just when we were on the verge of victory, and Ted Yoho was, right, you know, default, what's the big deal? We would have shown those doom-and-gloomers that they were wrong and that, you know, it would be just fine and even maybe good, and now we've got to hold firm again. Obama would have caved, and if only we came through.
If that's the world we're dealing with, we may need more than one significant crisis to jolt us back to reality, because there are too many forces out there that will deny any reality and create their own.
WHITAKER: We'll go over to this side of the room.
QUESTION: Arthur Rubin with Nomura Securities. I agree with your point that putting an end to gerrymandering isn't a magic bullet that's going to solve all problems, but I wonder to what extent the 20-plus-year experiment in gerrymandering districts has created a self-reinforcing mechanism, where the problems you identify in the culture, the coarsening of the culture in the media to some extent are a reflection of the echo chambers we've created electorally and whether, in order to address those broader cultural problems, you do need to go to the—maybe one of the roots of that problem, which is creating these gerrymandered districts.
ORNSTEIN: I would say—I'm all for changing the redistricting process. And I've been very much engaged in the last couple of cycles in trying to do that. One of the difficulties you have, though, is, you know, some of the—you look at these weirdly shaped districts, and the idea is always, we've got to move back to compact districts that respect communities of interest and boundaries of cities and counties and the like. If you do that now, you're going to create more homogeneity. That's—what you need is weirdly shaped districts, but ones that actually promote heterogeneity and competitiveness.
And if we can get to a system that would do that, that would be great. You know, the way the—and you're right. It should be "gerrymandering," because it was Elbridge Gerry—the way it works is in two fashions. One is, you get the partisan side, where you tilt a system, so in Pennsylvania, you know, you have a completely distorted process based on the voting preferences of the electorate as a whole that gave Republicans a half-dozen more seats than they would have gotten otherwise. Illinois, you get the same thing on the other side. But then you get the bipartisan process, where it's—we'll protect our incumbents, you protect yours.
Both of those have their pernicious elements. It's just that when you really sit down and look in a cold, hard way at how you get around it, moving to even independent commissions that would draw lines that do take into account those compactness and the other forces, you're not going to move us away from this problem. It's a bigger problem. So let's do it, absolutely.
But people who think that that's the magic bullet—and that includes a lot of very sophisticated people. I mean, I was really surprised when I heard President Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative talking about the dysfunction and focusing on this. If you take it to the second and third level, you realize that we've got to go far beyond that.
QUESTION: Judy Goldstein (ph). How much is race a factor in driving extremism?
KAISER: Plenty. Immeasurable, but plenty. There's Alan Abramowitz—is that his name?
KAISER: Yeah, at Emory, has published about this recently. There's no question. Ann Coulter's "monkey" is good evidence. There's a very powerful racist element in this and in the Tea Party generally. But to identify how much and to—you know, assign a percentage or a number, impossible. But let's not kid ourselves. This is big. I think it's a very important factor.
WHITAKER: The one thing I would say about that is, I think it's important, when we look at that, to not just look at this issue going backwards. I think there's been a lot of focus on, well, we now have a black president and, you know, there's kind of—you know, still, you know, a faction out there that doesn't view him as legitimate simply because of his race.
I actually think this is as much about the future and what's happening demographically in this country.
KAISER: Of course.
WHITAKER: I think a lot of the debate or the view about the size of government on the part of a lot of people who think it should be a lot smaller is the feeling that, as the country becomes browner and, really, what's going to be driving the, you know, demographic wave is much more growth in the Hispanic population than the black population, that the resources of government are going to be coming—just numerically increasingly, you know, are going to flow to—you know, to the browner population and, you know, a lot of them immigrants, you know, here legally or illegally and so forth.
So I think this is a sort of—I think, you know, we sort of have two divides in this country now. We have a red-blue, this kind of traditional ideological divide, but I think there's almost a second divide, which is kind of the divide of people who are either a part of or don't—or think that we can survive the demographic changes that are happening, and I think the sector of the society that views it, you know, as a real threat. But, you know...
ORNSTEIN: Well, just a slightly different take on this and a couple of things to think about. You know, the Republican Party is basically becoming the party of middle-aged and older white guys. And as my wife tells me every day, that's not a group you want to depend on for much of anything.
But it's a party that now has a shrinking base, but an ardent base. Now, they're going to have a challenge with that base, because the more you focus on entitlements, the more you're going to have your one remaining base saying, "What the hell are you doing?"
I mean, I was really struck by a comment—somebody who's writing in the magazine American Conservative said he was talking to a Tea Party advocate who said, "We've got to slash government. We've got to destroy government. Don't you dare touch Medicare or Social Security. And we need a strong defense." And he said, "I just threw up my hands and walked away."
But the fact is, this is a group of people who don't know what's in government, but what they think is, it's a bunch of stuff going to the "takers," and the "takers" happen to be those black and brown people, basically. And yet if you're going to shift your focus to how you want to make these dramatic changes in Medicare and Social Security, you've got a problem, which is why they keep saying, "We want President Obama to do this, and then, of course, we'll criticize him for doing it." But that's a problem.
The second problem is, how do you move beyond a narrow and ardent base that will scream bloody murder if you begin to appeal to a wider group? And you might lose them. And can you take the short-term pain of doing that? And it's not just some of these issues that we've been talking about. The other divide is among women.
If you look at what's happening in Virginia, as the Washington Post poll tells us, Terry McAuliffe will win on the basis of the most dramatic gender gap that we have seen in a very long time, because this is now a party dominated by radicals, not just who want to destroy government, but who want to dramatically change social policy.
And, you know, in Virginia, where they've had some of the most draconian and difficult laws on abortion that we see anywhere, it's really getting a tremendous push-back. And unless you can find a way to expand your electorate by moving beyond a set of issues that really are threatening people, unless you can move beyond even just doing an immigration bill and thinking you've turned that switch and now we can compete for votes of minorities.
Mitt Romney thought, immigration bill, that's not terribly important, but we're going to get a lot of Asian American votes, and that's where we can make up for it, because they're a vibrant share of the electorate, because these are entrepreneurial people and they're highly educated and they're upwardly mobile, and they should resonate to our message. And they got stomped by Asian Americans, because these are people who came to this country with help from government. And when they got here, government gave them the safety net so that they could begin to accumulate some capital to create a business, help to put their kids through school so that they could become professionals and excel in the society.
Unless you can change a message where you can say, "Some government is good and we've got to focus on those things," you're screwed, ultimately. But in the process, and along the way, they keep turning back to activating that base. And that, I think, is the problem, and that may be where it all falls apart. But until you make that leap where you're going to change not just one little thing on immigration, but change the way you approach women, change the way you approach all minorities, change the way you approach middle-class—or lower-middle-class and working-class whites outside the South, where they're not doing terribly well, it's not going to work.
WHITAKER: We got time for one more question.
KAISER: Over here. One more.
WHITAKER: Hang on.
QUESTION: Hi. Dan Loeb with Third Point. Thank you very much for your comments today. And I agree with you wholeheartedly on the dysfunction of the Republican Party. But, you know, I think we need to be a little bit more bipartisan—well, first of all, I think we're seeing a little bit of tribalism up here on this stage here. Just a couple things.
I think, first of all, I think we have to remember the conditions that were set to make possible this invasion of the Tea Party. And I think it really goes back to the Obamacare and the way it was enacted, very unpopular legislation that was forced through at the 11th hour. And I think that is what energized the Republican Party.
And, secondly, one thing you've mentioned—you've obviously gone over correctly this dysfunction in the Republican Party and these radicals that are pretty clueless, low levels of education, and, you know, really a problem. But I think you're also missing the other side of the story, which is a failure of leadership by the president.
And if you go back to—you know, Erskine Bowles will go on and on about his disappointment in the proposal that was made way ahead of this problem that we had. And it basically was—it was never really taken up by the president. We had this opportunity, and I think it was—I think that our—at least personally, my disappointment really falls pretty evenly across both parties. And—well, I have other stuff to say, but I think that's...
WHITAKER: No, I think that's a good place to end. Let's talk about the president.
ORNSTEIN: Well, let me give you a somewhat different perspective. On Obamacare, I'm just stunned by the—what I think is almost a collective insanity here, I'm sorry to say it. But you call it Obamacare. We could call it Grassleycare. We could call it Hatchcare. The fact is, this is fundamentally the Republican alternative to the Clinton health care plan in 1993-'94, which was crafted by John Chafee, Dave Durenberger, Orrin Hatch, and Chuck Grassley.
As recently as January of 2009, Grassley said, "Well, I think we can develop a consensus around the individual mandate." In late 2008, Orrin Hatch was defending the mandate, exchanges. These were the core of that particular program. Never mind Mitt Romney; this started much, much earlier.
So we can start with that. Now, I would take you to a different place. In—on January 20, 2009, inauguration eve, a group of Republican leaders—journalist Robert Draper has reported this in his book on the Tea Party freshmen, and it's been corroborated by all of those who were there—Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, Jon Kyl, Newt Gingrich, and others gather for dinner at the Caucus Room in Washington.
They went in, demoralized, depressed, disillusioned. They've just been stomped from one end of the country to the other. And they came out of the dinner, as the rest of the town had been celebrating, the Democrats had been celebrating, they came out exhilarated, because they decided they had an approach that could work for them, which was: We're going to be a parliamentary minority party and we're going to vote against everything. No matter what's out there, if he's for it, we're against it.
If you look at the negotiations in the Senate, which went on for seven months, involving Grassley and Mike Enzi and Olympia Snowe and Max Baucus and other Democrats, the Gang of Six, we know that after two months, when it looked like they were going to come to an agreement, because they started with the Grassley framework—that's what Baucus started with—Grassley and Enzi were called into Mitch McConnell's office and told that their careers were over if they created a deal on this. So there was never any intention for cooperation on health care, no matter what came forward.
And on the deficit and debt reduction, the early part of January 2009, we saw a commendable bipartisan effort. Judd Gregg, a conservative Republican from New Hampshire, and Kent Conrad, a moderate Democrat from North Dakota, put in a proposal for a congressionally mandated commission to deal with deficits and debt.
It would have to be signed by the president at imprimatur, majority vote, expedited up-or-down votes in both houses, and there wasn't a day in 2009 and into 2010 when Mitch McConnell didn't get on the floor of the Senate or give a speech or go on television saying, "If we only had the Gregg-Conrad commission, we could solve this problem, if the president would endorse it." So Obama endorsed it in early 2010. And about three weeks later, we had a vote in the Senate, 53 votes for it. Seven original Republican co-sponsors and Mitch McConnell filibustered it and then voted against it. If he's for it, we're against it.
So I will not say that the president has risen above these forces. He took way too long to come to some of these areas of stepping out, but he did. And when he did, what Mitch McConnell had said in 2010, "My number-one goal is to make Barack Obama a one-term president," is what governed this process.
And we could have had a much better health care plan if, in fact, we'd had a normal process of problem-solving with give-and-take. And we didn't. And that's a tragedy for the country. But it's a tragedy that wasn't caused by a president who came in saying, "Screw you, I'm going to jam through a health care bill, whether you like it or not." It was one where it took him a long time to realize it, longer than he should have, there wasn't going to be cooperation.
So it's a very different order of problem right now, I believe.
WHITAKER: Bob, last word about—if you would, I'd like to hear your views on—I mean, you've seen presidents come and go. This was yet another president who came in saying that he was going to change the culture of Washington. It hasn't happened. It's gotten worse, certainly by the analysis here today. How much does he have to take account and responsibility for that?
KAISER: Two points. That'll be the last one. I just want to talk about the origins of the Tea Party. In my view, the Tea Party is a quite healthy and predictable response to the demographic changes we talked about earlier. Members of the Tea Party, by and large—all the reporting I've read, all the interviews I've read, tend to confirm this—are people who understand quite accurately that what they think of as "their country" is disappearing, and they don't like it. And we're lucky that they chose the political process to express this dislike; I think it could have been worse.
But this is—this is a cultural phenomenon as a consequence of the changes that we talked about. We are a different country. We have a black president, for goodness' sake. I mean, we got a lot of things that the white-haired people in this room never dreamed would be possible, and we got them. We got gay marriage. A lot of things happening that are very upsetting to this core element of relatively unsuccessful and—often, not always, but white people in isolated regions of the country who do not participate in the main consensus process (ph).
I think the real lesson of Obama is the lesson that I tried to say at the very beginning of the meeting. Cultures don't change easily. And presidents don't have half as much power as they wish they did. And this is just—I mean, he's done quite a lot to change the culture in some ways, and nothing at all in others.
And one of the saddest spectacles for me was to see the Obama White House abandon the effort to actually beat (ph) the lobbyists. They began by saying, "We're not hiring any lobbyists. We don't want any money from any lobbyists." The whole thing has completely eroded. They've succumbed on all fronts because lobbyists are a hugely important part of the culture of Washington because of the money. And this is—and he couldn't fight it.
So I think the real lesson here is that he was a somewhat naive law professor who had spent, you know, a few years in politics, but doesn't really have politics in his blood. I think we see this all the time, his remoteness, his inability to schmooze, his inability to put his arms around people and, you know, to play that game. I don't know. I'm sympathetic. It would be hard for me, too. But if you're the president of the United States and you can't do it...
ORNSTEIN: Come on. You're a teddy bear.
KAISER: ... you pay a price. And he's paid a big price. So I think, you know, he's a remarkable figure in many ways. Read David Maraniss' book, is my advice. It's a remarkable book and really explains the guy beautifully. But he is a law professor. That's what he is. And so we get some benefits from that, and we get some limitations from that.
But we don't—you know, knights on white steeds charging into town to solve the problem ain't going to happen. He didn't do it, and the next one isn't going to do it, either. We've got a cultural problem.
WHITAKER: Bob, Norm, you've been great. Thank you.
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