The epic GOP meltdown of 2015 should not come as a surprise.
The modern Republican Party had been careening toward this kind of wheels-off-the-track moment for a long time. Its knee-jerk rejectionism, high-stakes brinksmanship, strict demands for ideological purity, and willingness to take hostages had been on display in one form or another in a series of political clashes since the 1990s.
But you knew that already if you read the 2012 book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.” While not predicting the current GOP leadership crisis, it sounded the alarm that the party was on a dangerous course and taking the country with it. The book argued that responsible governance had been severely crippled by the Republican Party’s push to the right and its adoption of take-no-prisoners politicking.
TPM asked one of the co-authors if he was feeling any vindication.
“Damn straight I do,” Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview with TPM late last week. “But I would have rather been proven wrong — honest to God — because we’re talking about the fucking country that is at stake here.”
The dysfunction of the Republican Party became the central story in Washington last week, as conservative hardliners claimed their third scalp — in the form of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) withdrawing from the speaker’s race — having already pushed House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to announce his resignation earlier this month and two years ago, dethroning previous Leader Eric Cantor in a primary.
Central to his and his co-author Thomas Mann’s examination of Washington dysfunction is that Republicans were more to blame for the gridlock than Democrats — an idea that is anathema to Beltway centrists and many political reporters. Reviewing the last few decades of American politics, the two experts identified a sea change for the GOP during which lawmakers decided they were willing and even eager to risk harm to the country in pursuit of their ideological goals.
In recent weeks, conservative hardliners have redirected the scorn they had previously reserved for threatening crises upon Obama and the Democrats, and aimed it inward towards their own leaders.
“You create a monster and you think the monster will respond to your commands, and suddenly find that the monster doesn’t treat you any differently than he does your other enemies, and you’ve got a problem,” Ornstein said.
But this moment was a long time coming. Ornstein traces the current revolt to the playbook forged by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (who ironically now is being called upon to reclaim his old role), with which he built a Republican House majority for the first time in 40 years. Gingrich pioneered an approach that viewed Washington as a cesspool and government institutions as the enemy.
The problem with that playbook, however, is that once you build a majority on the distaste for government, it’s hard to get that majority to govern.
Conservative distrust of the establishment continued after Gingrich himself was deposed, according to Ornstein, and grew worse while President George W. Bush pushed through an entitlement package and two wars without paying for them, giving rise to the Tea Party movement.
The Obama era ushered in a new class of Republican hardliners known as the Young Guns — namely McCarthy, Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan — who sold brinkmanship tactics as a way to win elections. They promised their recruits an immediate $100 billion cut to spending and to use the debt ceiling as leverage to gain concessions from Democrats. However the former proved logistically unworkable and the latter prompted a downgrade of the U.S.’s credit, giving conservatives the notion that their leaders had sold them a bill of goods they couldn’t deliver.
Two of the three of those young guns have now become victims of the very uncompromising political culture they championed and the third does not seem eager to stick his own neck out on the chopping block, as Republicans now call on Ryan to step up to become speaker.
“These guys thought they could channel this populist anger into election victories and then co-opt the people they recruited and are finding that they’re the ones that have been co-opted,” Ornstein said.
His and Mann’s book was warmly received in some quarters, while many conservatives — and even some residing in Washington’s “centrist” corridors — rejected their premise. The Weekly Standard called the book “relentlessly one-sided.” Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wondered if Mann and Ornstein’s analysis was “parody.” The National Review said, “Their argument bears all of the characteristics, and the subtlety, of a rant.”
Since the 2011 debt ceiling scare that served as a jumping off point in the book, Boehner has proved unable to rein in the hardliners’ antics — culminating in him giving up his speakership to avoid a shutdown last month — and the problem has only gotten worse.
After dropping out of the speaker’s race last week, McCarthy suggested the House would have to “to hit rock bottom” before functioning again, a moment Ornstein is not sure has actually arrived.
“One of the things that we have discovered is you can hit rock bottom and then you can dig into the rock,” he said. “This is so clearly a debacle for them — and now being reported everywhere as a debacle for them — that it might create enough of a sense of urgency that they find a way or two to at least dig out a little bit.”
Ornstein doesn’t see a fresh face at the top — Ryan’s or otherwise — changing the underlying dynamics of the situation. Rather, he believes the best case scenario in the short term is for Boehner to ram through a debt ceiling raise and maybe even a broader budget package before he steps down, and for moderate Republicans to band with Democrats to outmaneuver the hardliners on other bipartisan priorities.
“The fact is, [establishment Republicans] don’t have the same intense willingness to go to the mat that the radical insurgents have,” Ornstein said. “And so the question is how far will they go to preserve or protect their party and can they, at this point, prevail?