LITTLE ROCK The politician’s words captured the moment. “This is a historic time . . . and one side simply has to win out over the other.” It wasn’t Roosevelt describing the need to vanquish the Germans or George W. Bush echoing his call for a “war on terror.” It was Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party favorite who this week ended the career of moderate Senator Richard Lugar in the Indiana Republican primary.
Lugar was the most recent moderate legislator to be shown the exit. But moderates of both parties are disappearing from the Senate and House at a rapid clip.
In their new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein offer both an insightful diagnosis of the problem of a broken Washington and a set of proposed solutions. Their diagnosis is mostly right-there’s a mismatch between our form of government and our new, fiercely ideological political parties. But their proposed solutions won’t get us very far, thanks to the very pathologies they identify. Washington is broken. But it’s even worse than Mann and Ornstein say: It can’t be fixed.
Think of the most pressing domestic problem facing the country today. Whether you choose persistent unemployment, the struggling economic recovery, the housing market, health care, the Social Security fund crisis, or the ballooning national debt, chances are good that there is consensus that the problem is real and that the president, a blue ribbon commission, or someone in Congress already has proposed some solution. And chances are even better that the proposed solution has no realistic chance of being enacted into law.
The problem, Mann and Ornstein tell us, is that we have increasingly ideological parties working in a constitutional system premised on the need for continued compromise to get things done. Thanks to our Constitution and the rules of the House and Senate, any piece of legislation must run through a series of “veto gates” to get passed, from congressional committees to the Senate filibuster.
Partisan competition is so intense these days that the minority party does what it can to block even the good ideas of the other party to gain electoral advantage in the next election. And just wait for the next Supreme Court nomination.
Mann and Ornstein have gained the most attention for their claim that Republicans are more to blame than Democrats, a charge which seems unfair. As the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza explained, many of the extreme ideological Republicans in the House are doing exactly what other members of the House are doing: representing the interests of the constituents who elected them.
Mann and Ornstein have done a great public service in opening a dialogue on how to fix the mismatch between our political and constitutional systems of government. But we need to go back to the drawing board on how to fix Washington. And if no-compromise candidates like Richard Mourdock are our future, things will have to get much worse before they get better.
Richard L. Hasen is a professor of law and political science at the University of California at Irvine School of Law.