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Everyone knows there’s gridlock in Washington and that it’s probably worse than it’s ever been. But the common explanation for it may be wrong.
Asked to explain, most people would render a “well, both parties, liberals and conservatives alike, share the blame” Or, nothing gets done in Washington because all politicians are alike, and they’re only out for themselves.
Luckily, many of us, of all political persuasions, just won’t descend to that level of cynicism and lack of faith in our democratic institutions.
But according to two political scientists who have studied the ideological trends in both parties for decades, the cause for the gridlock is the massive shift rightward in the national GOP.
Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, in their April 28 Washington Post article, offered this title: “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.”
These two aren’t liberal activists or party functionaries. Mann is Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution; Ornstein is Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The Post article comes from a larger work, a book titled “It’s Worse than You Think: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.”
The best way to make their case here is to quote directly from some of the passages in the article. Such as, “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
The authors cite two people as the main instigators of today’s gridlock: Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist. “…The forces Gingrich unleashed destroyed whatever comity existed across party lines, activated an extreme and virulently anti-Washington base — most recently represented by tea party activists — and helped drive moderate Republicans out of Congress. (Some of his progeny, elected in the early 1990s, moved to the Senate and polarized its culture in the same way.)”
Norquist rolled out his so-called Taxpayer Protection Pledge in the 1980s. Signing it means you are bound to never support a tax increase for any reason. That’s extremist, in and of itself, but most Republicans in Congress have signed it.
The authors: “The Norquist tax pledge has led to other pledges, on issues such as climate change, that create additional litmus tests that box in moderates and make cross-party coalitions nearly impossible. For Republicans concerned about a primary challenge from the right, the failure to sign such pledges is simply too risky.”
This year alone, such GOP Senate stalwarts as Orrin Hatch in Utah, and one of the last Republican statesmen left, Richard Lugar, have had to justify their years of service to a “tea party” challenge. Hatch barely survived; Lugar may not.
President Obama has met this extreme tide in the GOP with repeated attempts at bipartisanship, something the authors also noted: “In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations.”
This is the political climate we face in 2012. The Democrats are basically the same center-left party they’ve been since FDR, but Republicans have morphed into something we’ve never seen before. Compromise is how we get things done in America, but it’s pretty clear that’s not possible anymore.
This won’t change until the worst elements of the conservative virus are eradicated. Defeat the extremists, and maybe one day the larger party will figure this out.
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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com.