After tossing the pose of nonpartisanship aside and casting the Republicans as the root of all that is wrong in American politics (has the American Enterprise Institute checked with its tax lawyers?) Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann received more attention than they have in their entire careers. (Never let it be said that attacking Republicans isn’t a good career move.)
Now they propose their favored solutions to “gridlock.” These cures are, unsurprisingly, trite and ineffective (and in that sense reflective of their prior work). Such puny solutions they have come up with for a crisis they paint in gargantuan terms. (“We are witnessing unprecedented and unbalanced polarization of the parties, with Republicans acting like a parliamentary minority party opposing almost everything put forward by the Democrats; the near-disappearance of the regular order in Congress; the misuse of the filibuster as a weapon not of dissent but of obstruction; and the relentless delegitimization of the president and policies enacted into law.”)
First they trot out , you guessed it, campaign finance reform. But the measures are trivial (“sharply tighten the anti-coordination provisions ” and “timely identification of all significant donors to independent campaign ads”). Really, that’s going to stop hyper-partisanship and filibuster abuse? The dirty little secret is that campaign finance reform, by limiting the amounts given to candidates, has pushed money outside the political parties, allowing the extreme and marginal figures to survive primaries and to cater to narrow interests. If they really wanted to restore mush-moderates they’d do away with campaign finance limits and reinvigorate political parties. (Hey, do away with primaries and bring back the smoke-filled rooms!)
Then they push redistricting reform. For a variety of reasons, most particularly the penchant for Americans to self-segregate geographically (liberals to the coasts and big cities), even redistricting reform is ineffective. (For more on the California experience take a look at “California Crack-up: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.”)
They also suggest “instant runoff voting, where voters can rank their candidate preferences. Such a system produces majority winners, eliminates the spoiler role and reduces the ‘wasted vote’ calculation for minor-party candidates, allowing them to participate more fully in the election process. Building more legitimate majorities in this fashion could extend the electoral reach of the major parties and thereby reduce their polarization.” But ultimately the problem, as they define it, is not one of minority parties (as in Israel), so this logically will only produce big majorities for those horrible partisan candidates.
Then there is their plan to fine people for not voting. No, seriously. How forcing the uninterested and uninformed to vote would give us a better political system is beyond me.
And finally there is the old hobby-horse — filibuster reform! Well, good luck trying to get either party to buy into that one.
It might not surprise you that I don’t buy the authors’ analysis of the problem (the current president who won't talk to the speaker of the House about entitlement reform is a Democrat, as is the leader of the Senate, which hasn’t passed a budget in three years) or the extent of the supposed problem. Our system is built to resist sweeping, speedy change. That is intentional and in fact essential to limited government and protection of minority rights. Not getting Obamacare passed would have been a success; passing a monstrous bill along strict party lines without understanding what was in it was the calamity. (That, and its disregard of Commerce Clause limits).
Partisanship is not a political disease stopping us from all getting along. It is a reflection of real differences in policies and values that are becoming more rooted in geography as people select neighborhoods and states where they feel comfortable.
A far more insightful take on what ails us comes from David Brooks today, who writes:
Western democratic systems were based on a balance between self-doubt and self-confidence. They worked because there were structures that protected the voters from themselves and the rulers from themselves. Once people lost a sense of their own weakness, the self-doubt went away and the chastening structures were overwhelmed. It became madness to restrain your own desires because surely your rivals over yonder would not be restraining theirs. . . . Neither the United States nor the European model will work again until we rediscover and acknowledge our own natural weaknesses and learn to police rather than lionize our impulses.
Democracy, in short, will not work without a virtuous citizenry. All the gimmicks and finger-pointing in the world won’t substitute for voters who decline to be bribed or bamboozled.
The real “solution” is not to disguise differences, but make them apparent, run on issues and let the voters decide, hoping they are mature and responsible in their preferences. We have one presidential candidate (with congressional allies) ready to indulge the public’s worst impulses and give them lots of “free stuff,” while the other has ambitions to stop the hemorrhaging of debt and restore essential public values (e.g. delayed gratification). Let the voters pick. In the end, we get the leaders we deserve.