It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism
One of the sadder passages in Jodi Kantor’s The Obamas relates what happened when, on February 13, only twenty-four days after taking office, “the Obamas turned around and went back to Chicago.” The idea was to recapture a week- end of normalcy amid the chaos and strangeness of Washington, D.C. President Obama, Kantor says, hoped these getaways would be relatively frequent. His early ambition was to take his family home every four to six weeks.
But in Chicago the first family quickly learned that their house was no longer their home. The Secret Service had erected concrete barricades at both ends of the block. Black curtains were dropped to disrupt would-be snipers. Three bus stops were moved. Police officers stood outside on constant vigil. Pedestrians were rerouted. Neighbors had to clear their visitors with the president’s security detail. The every-four-to-six-weeks plan was dead. “We live in the White House now,” Michelle Obama said, perhaps with a touch of regret.
Obama’s predecessors were arguably more prepared for the public responsibilities that come with the Oval Office. George W. Bush’s father was president, and he was governor of Texas for almost six years before winning the White House. Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, with a brief interruption, for thirteen years. George H.W. Bush had been vice-president. Ronald Reagan had been governor of the largest state in the union and a famous actor. Barack Obama had been a well-known US senator for two years when he began running for president in earnest, and four years when he was inaugurated. His family wasn’t used to the Secret Service or motorcades. “His still-unknown wife,” Kantor writes,
bought her size-ten shoes on the Nordstrom sale rack, knew her way around a McDonald’s drive-thru menu, and expressed little desire to live in Washington. Back then, they seemed like the rare political couple who were residents of our world, not a universe of green rooms, briefing books, and sycophantic handlers.
When Kantor’s book was published, the White House reacted with unusual fury. Michelle Obama, in a rare public comment, told CBS This Morning that Kantor portrayed her as “some angry black woman.” For the life of me, I can’t figure out what about this book provoked such a harsh response. Kantor doesn’t portray either of the Obamas as angry in the least. Rather, she portrays them as normal people trying to come to terms with a very abnormal situation.
Again and again, what comes through in Kantor’s book is that the Obamas’ marriage, and the Obama White House, works like most any other marriage, and most any other White House. The conventionality of their relationship is something they are proud of, and strive to sustain—some of the most grimly entertaining vignettes in the book come when the Obamas try to keep their tradition of date nights alive (presidents: they’re just like us!), but find that going out for dinner and a show means they have to let the Secret Service shut down a large swath of whatever city they happen to be in. Conversely, the normalcy of their White House is something that seems to puzzle and frustrate both of them, as it represents, in essence, their failure to fulfill their promise to change Washington.
This is the welcome surprise of Kantor’s reporting. The selling point of The Obamas is that it’s the first book about the First Couple. In the hands of a lesser writer, that would have led to a lengthy Us Weekly profile of Mr. and Mrs. Obama, with chapters on Bo the dog and Mrs. Obama’s entertaining tips. But Kantor, a New York Times reporter, does not make the mistake of divorcing the couple from their work. When you’re president and first lady of the United States of America, the personal is the political. Despite the book’s focus on the first couple, long periods go by in which they rarely appear, and we instead watch staffers from both the West and East Wing argue over policy and try to advance the administration’s interests. That is as it should be. That is what actually happens in the White House. And Kantor’s book is one of the best portraits yet of the arguments in this particular White House.
Like most entries into this genre, Kantor is particularly interested in the tensions and fissures that run through the West Wing. A scene of staff members arguing with each other, or being berated by an exasperated president, makes for good reading. Scenes of them agreeing to reconvene in a week to see whether the situation in Europe has deteriorated further do not. And so the part of her book that’s gotten the most attention recounts an angry confrontation between Valerie Jarrett and then Press Secretary Robert Gibbs over whether Gibbs dealt with a potentially negative story about the First Lady quickly enough. Gibbs, furious at Jarrett’s interrogation, reacts angrily. Jarrett cooly rejoins that she is simply relaying Michelle Obama’s displeasure. A disbelieving Gibbs mutters an expletive and stalks off.
To Kantor, this episode spoke to at least three flashpoints running through the White House. The first was Jarrett’s privileged relationship with the First Couple, and her occasionally tense relationship with other staffers. Gibbs tells Kantor, on the record, that he now believes Jarrett was lying when she claimed to be echoing the First Lady’s anger. Another was the role Gibbs played as a promoter of the First Couple’s public image, which naturally led to friction with Michelle Obama, who wanted some semblance of a normal life for her children. And a third is the general exhaustion and stress that afflicted the president’s top staffers in late 2010.
And yet, what’s perhaps most striking about Kantor’s reporting is how much all of that—the frayed nerves, the conflicts between the hometown friends such as Jarrett and the hired professionals—looks like every other presidency. The Obama team got an enormous amount done in the first few years—a partial list would include the stimulus bill, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, a reimagining of America’s strategy in Afghanistan, an official end to the Iraq war, and much more—but they didn’t get it done in, as Sarah Palin might have said, a particularly hopey-changey way.
Obama campaigned as the ultimate “outside” candidate—a charismatic newcomer who could change the way Washington worked by involving Americans who had long since given up on politics. His race, name, and international upbringing made his candidacy that much unlikelier, and thus his claim to being able to mount an unusual presidency that much more credible. But he has governed as the consummate insider, staffing his White House with veterans of the Clinton administration like Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers and spending his time working to achieve the maximum amount of legislative progress out of the political process as it exists today. Rather than changing how Washington worked, the Obama administration has done everything in its power to work with Washington.
But the conventional nature of Obama’s center-left presidency isn’t just in tension with the Obama of the 2008 campaign. It’s at war with the Obama of the modern right’s fevered fantasies. “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Newt Gingrich asked in September 2010.
Somehow, a president whose platform consists of Mitt Romney’s health care bill, Newt Gingrich’s environmental policies, John McCain’s deficit-financed payroll tax cuts, George W. Bush’s bailouts of failing banks and corporations, and a mixture of the Bush and Clinton tax rates has been recast as the greatest threat to capitalism since Karl Marx sat down for a beer with Friedrich Engels. As Kantor’s book shows, the most “accurate, predictive model” for Obama’s White House is something like “what is the most that can get through Congress that is consistent with center-left values and policy positions?” Answer that question, and you can usually predict where Obama and his team will end up. A deep knowledge of Kenyan anti-colonialism simply isn’t required.
Yet over the past three years, Republicans have attempted to portray an entirely conventional Democratic presidency as something alien and unusual and un-American. That’s been the explicit argument of the “birthers,” but it’s also the subtext to Mitt Romney saying that “this president doesn’t understand freedom,” and Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO) saying that “in his heart,…[Obama]’s just not an American,” and Rush Limbaugh saying, “I think it can now be said, without equivocation—without equivocation—that this man hates this country. He is trying—Barack Obama is trying—to dismantle, brick-by-brick, the American dream.”
The irony is that there has been something unusual and radical happening in American politics over this time. But for all the high hopes of Obama’s supporters and dark fears of his detractors, it’s not been in the White House. It’s been in Congress.
On January 26, 2010, the Senate voted on a proposal by Senators Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Judd Gregg (R-NH)—the chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee—to form an eighteen-member commission dedicated to deficit reduction. If fourteen of the members could agree on a plan, it would be put on a congressional “fast track,” where it would be immune to amendments, procedural delays, and, most importantly of all, the filibuster.
Conrad-Gregg appeared to have broad bipartisan support. In May 2009, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said:
The best way to address the crisis is the Conrad-Gregg proposal, which would provide an expedited pathway for fixing these profound long-term challenges. This plan would force us to get debt and spending under control. It deserves support from both sides of the aisle. The administration has expressed a desire to take up entitlement reform, and given the debt that its budget would run up, the need for reform has never been greater. So I urge the administration, once again, to support the Conrad-Gregg proposal.
As part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling in 2010, the administration did as McConnell had asked and threw its support behind Conrad-Gregg. So was McConnell pleased? Not quite. After the president endorsed the plan, conservative groups mounted a campaign against Conrad-Gregg. Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and Dick Armey’s Americans for Prosperity, for instance, cosigned a letter saying that “the Conrad/Gregg proposal would lead to a guaranteed tax increase” because “every Democrat on the commission would insist on tax increases to ‘balance’ spending cuts in the recommendation.” In other words, a bipartisan commission charged with drawing up a compromise proposal to reduce the deficit might lead to…a compromise proposal to reduce the deficit.
It is difficult to understand how McConnell, an inarguably brilliant political tactician, had missed this possibility. But once informed of the dangers, he executed a full flip-flop on the idea, and stuck the landing perfectly: McConnell voted against the bill, as did seven Senate Republicans who were cosponsors of Conrad-Gregg. But that alone wouldn’t have been enough to defeat Conrad-Gregg. So McConnell and the seven Republican cosponsors joined the filibuster against Conrad-Gregg. In the end, the proposal had fifty-three votes—a majority—but it fell short of the sixty required to defeat a filibuster.
“Never before have cosponsors of a major bill conspired to kill their own idea, in an almost Alice-in-Wonderland fashion,” write Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein in the introduction to It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.
In Washington, Mann and Ornstein are a brand. They’re the town’s most respected—and oft-quoted—scholars of Congress. They’ve tutored generations of legislators in the ways and history of the legislative branch, written or edited dozens of books on the subject (including multiple editions of the invaluable Vital Statistics on Congress), and generally proven, through unflagging devotion, their commitment to the institution. They’ve even got bipartisan credentials: Mann is at the center-left Brookings Institution, while Ornstein works at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. And at this point, it’s fair to say they’re scared.
Congress, Mann and Ornstein routinely remind readers, comes first in the Constitution, and is given far more power than the other branches of government. But over the last decade, they’ve come to worry that “the First Branch” is not living up to its responsibilities. In 2006, they published The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, which criticized a variety of worrying trends in Congress, including the decline in real floor debate, the outsourcing of authority—particularly on foreign policy—to the executive branch, the dizzying rise in partisanship, the rampant corruption, and much more.
But Mann and Ornstein believed the problems, severe as they were, would abate in the face of a major national crisis that forced Congress to come together. They were wrong. “America got the crisis,” they write. “What the country didn’t get was any semblance of a well-functioning democracy.”
In order to underscore the irony of the current moment, political scientists will sometimes bring up the American Political Science Association’s 1950 report “Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System.” Back then, the concern was that the two parties were insufficiently polarized and that the absence of clear and distinct political coalitions would permit the majority party to grow lazy and entrenched:
The fundamental requirement of accountability is a two-party system in which the opposition party acts as the critic of the party in power, developing defining and presenting the policy alternatives which are necessary for a true choice in reaching public decisions.
The report was published alongside a number of commentaries, including a prescient dissent from from Austin Ranney of the University of Illinois, who wrote:
No matter how much the President and Congress may wish to “cooperate,” a responsible party system can hardly flourish in a constitutional system where a small bloc of senators can filibuster to death any part of the winning party’s program, where it is impossible, because of the staggered calendar of elections, to replace the entire government at any one election, and where, most important of all, a Supreme Court elected for life and largely beyond the reach of any popular majority can, for all practical purposes, declare any of the majority party’s leading measures null and void.
As Mann and Ornstein write, “Time has proven Ranney dead right—we now have the kinds of parties the report desired, and it is disastrous.”
The 2011 debt ceiling debate is but one example. As Mann and Ornstein note, between 1960 and August 2011, Congress had raised the debt ceiling seventy-eight times, forty-nine times with Republican presidents and twenty-nine times with Democratic presidents. The ceiling is raised regularly because to do otherwise would be absurd. Increasing the debt ceiling simply permits the Treasury to pay for spending Congress has previously voted for. It’s the equivalent of deciding to pay your bills. And the consequences of saying, in public, that America will not pay its bills are almost unimaginably awful. A failure to raise the debt ceiling would spark a global financial crisis as investors reevaluated whether US Treasuries, the bedrock safe asset that much of global finance rests upon, are really so safe. And even once that crisis abated, America’s borrowing costs would likely be permanently higher.
And yet, in 2011, Republicans in Congress held the debt ceiling hostage. Worse, they did so at a moment of extreme economic fragility, and the best data we have suggest the consequences were severe. As the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers noted in Bloomberg View, the economy, which had been adding an average of more than 175,000 jobs a month, decelerated to an average of 88,000 jobs a month for the duration of the battle, and Gallup’s consumer confidence measure registered a larger drop than after the fall of Lehman Brothers. The aftermath of the debt ceiling battle delivered one further humiliation. Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating, explaining that “The downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges.”
Given all this, you might expect congressional Republicans to be chagrined. Perhaps a letter of apology to the country would be in order. The reality is quite the opposite: they see the debt ceiling debate as a policy success that deserves to be repeated. “Whoever the new president is, is probably going to be asking us to raise the debt ceiling again,” said Mitch McConnell. “Then we will go through the process again.” Speaker of the House John Boehner was even more direct. ”We shouldn’t dread the debt limit. We should welcome it.”
This is, to be fair, not a failure of Congress as an institution. It’s a strategy of one of the two parties inside the institution. And Mann and Ornstein don’t shy away from stating that fact. The truth, they say, is not that Congress is broken so much as that one of the two major political parties is broken:
We believe a fundamental problem is the mismatch between parliamentary-style political parties—ideologically polarized, in- ternally unified, vehemently oppositional, and politically strategic—that has emerged in recent years and a separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will.
Students of comparative politics have demonstrated that the American policy-making system of checks and balances and separation of powers has more structural impediments to action than any other major democracy. Now there are additional incentives for obstruction in that policy-making process.
Witness the Republicans’ immense electoral success in 2010 after voting in unison against virtually every Obama initiative and priority, and making each vote and enactment contentious and excruciating, followed by major efforts to delegitimize the result. And because of the partisan nature of much of the media and the reflexive tendency of many in the mainstream press to use false equivalence to explain outcomes, it becomes much easier for a minority, in this case the Republicans, to use filibusters, holds, and other techniques to obstruct. The status quo bias of the constitutional system becomes magnified under dysfunction.
Mann and Ornstein argue, convincingly, that while both the Democratic and Republican parties are moving toward their respective poles, the Republicans are moving much further and faster—a phenomenon political scientists call “asymmetric polarization.” But what has made this condition doubly dangerous is that the key political institutions and actors have had trouble adapting to the change, or even describing it clearly. “It is, of course, awkward and uncomfortable, even seemingly unprofessional, to attribute a disproportionate share of the blame for dysfunctional politics to one party or the other,” Mann and Ornstein write.
Reporters and editors seek safe ground by giving equal time to opposing groups and arguments and crafting news stories that convey an impression that the two sides are equally implicated. Scholars often operate at a level of analytic generality and normative neutrality that leads most treatments of partisan polarization to avoid any discussion of party asymmetry. Many self-styled nonpartisan and bipartisan groups seeking to advance policy and process reforms are heavily invested in a search for common ground between the parties, a strategy made difficult if not untenable when one is a clear outlier.
The problem is compounded by the rules of the Senate, which are built to encourage consensus, and so have proven particularly ill-suited to the modern Republican Party, which mounted more filibusters during Obama’s first term than there were in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s combined. As Mann and Ornstein put it:
The minority party in the Senate has an effective veto over a president and his majority party. Senators’ overuse of the filibuster has created a routine supermajority hurdle that the framers never anticipated and that has not occurred before in American history. No other democratically elected leader around the world faces such a hurdle.
All of this confuses the members of the broader public, as they’re not following the ins and outs of congressional procedure very closely and no one they trust is doing a very good job telling them what’s going on. And so they end up punishing whoever is in charge—which in turn rewards the Republican Party for these tactics and convinces them to keep using them, as evidenced by Boehner and McConnell’s embrace of future brinksmanship over the debt ceiling.
In a refreshing change of pace from other books in this genre, Mann and Ornstein spend considerable time debunking the pat solutions that have traction in the public debate but little chance of actually working—and could, in many cases, make things worse—like third parties and term limits. The pity is that they don’t have particularly plausible reforms that can work. As they say, the “the most powerful potential leverage in any democracy is the ability of the citizenry to ‘throw the bums out,’” but the reality is that “during difficult times such as the present, [voters] tend to broadly condemn Washington or Congress, which is more likely to reinforce the structural dynamics that produce gridlock than to generate a constructive call to action.”
Nevertheless, they have done the public a great service—and have been much braver than many in the media, the think tanks, or Congress—in using their personal credibility to clearly describe what has happened to American politics in recent years, and who is primarily to blame.