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Norman Ornstein Joins Erich Prince: “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”

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“It’s harder to demonize somebody if your kids are playing on the soccer field together, and you’re out there on a weekend afternoon.”

Dr. Norman J. Ornstein has worked in Washington, D.C. for 50 years. In that time, he has studied the U.S. Congress, elections, and our political system. He is currently a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. Dr. Ornstein has co-authored several books about the U.S. Congress with Thomas E. Mann, including The New CongressThe Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track and It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. He joined Merion West editor Erich Prince to discuss his long career studying politics, why he and Thomas Mann decided to write It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, the role Newt Gingrich played in re-shaping Washington, and why he ultimately believes third party candidates are not a viable solution to fixing American democracy.

Dr. Ornstein, good afternoon. Getting started, you’ve written a lot—from Congress in Change: Evolution and Reform all the way back in the 1970’s to your book One Nation After Trump in 2017. To set the stage, can you talk about where you see It’s Even Worse Than It Looks (co-authored with Thomas E. Mann) in the context of your career writing about politics?

I got started directly when I came to Washington in 1969 as a congressional fellow to the American Political Science Association. I worked on the Hill for a year, and a lot of what I focused on was the beginning effort of major reform in both the House and the Senate. I’ve been engaged in those kinds of efforts ever since.

So, I saw Congress up close, and I saw it during eras of real turmoil and plenty of tension. I often say to people just as a kind of marker that when I first came to Washington, I was living with a couple of roommates—two fellow congressional fellows—right up near Dupont Circle. My roommates had a dog, and I took the dog out for a walk on a balmy Fall evening, and we didn’t get very far before the dog started yelping and tugging furiously at the leash. I looked around and didn’t see much of anything, and then I realized what had happened: there was a tear gas canister rolling toward us. Followed by others. Followed by a crowd of people running very rapidly in our direction, and behind them were riot police in full riot gear.

It was a demonstration at the South Vietnamese Embassy, which was on the other side of Dupont Circle, that had gone awry. The dog and I choked and coughed and crawled our way back to the house, went inside, and put wet towels under the doorframe.

You knew what to do with the tear gas?

It was instinctive, I guess! And then one of my roommates said, “Welcome to Washington.” And, of course, we had a political system that was deeply, deeply divided over Vietnam. But what was striking about that time was that the Vietnam issue, with Richard Nixon as president and a Congress of the other party, wasn’t a partisan issue. You didn’t have all of the Republicans on one side of the Vietnam issue and all of the Democrats on the other.

The strongest supporters of Nixon’s policy in Vietnam were Southern conservative Democrats who also happened to chair the Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee. Among the strongest opponents of the war were moderate, liberal Republicans, people like Charles Goodell of New York, and Jacob Javitz of New York, and Mark Hatfield of Oregon.

We had a different kind of political system. It was a system where so many issues—from civil rights on through many of the economic ones—were not simply divided along party lines. However, there have always been flaws in Congress: the Senate, which has been called the greatest deliberative body in the world, didn’t really have a whole lot of debate on the floor; and when it did happen, it was more the exception than the rule. There always were tensions, and the reforms I was focused on early on were because of a seniority system that had gone to an extreme. People could stay as chairs as long as they were there—some of whom were long past their capacity, and they were given enormous power to control the agenda, and much had been done in secret. There was a need for change.

But, at the same time, you had a sense of institutional loyalty by a large share of the members. They wanted to make sure that the place ran on the up-and-up, what we nerds would call the “regular order”—that you work through subcommittees and do hearings, then go through committees and try to achieve a consensus, and then have some debate on the floor. And when you had some different measures with differences passed by the House and Senate, you would go to a conference committee and try to work things out. All of those things were the reality of it.

Gradually, that began to change. When my colleague, Tom Mann and I wrote The Broken Branch in 2006, there was a sense that, in both parties, the ability to use that regular order had gone by the boards. There were more basic ways of getting around the fundamental rules. There were more abuses taking place. There was some corruption that had been built in, and Democrats had the majority in the House from 1954 all the way through 1994, and 40 years does breed some bad things.

So, a healthy sense of turnover can be somewhat effective?

Yes. Tom and I were very concerned about what had happened. But by 2012—not that far down the road—things had changed much for the worse. There were seeds of this in 2006, when Dennis Hastert was the Speaker and we were beginning to see that he was operating as more of a lieutenant of President George W. Bush than as an independent Speaker.

When we wrote the book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, [the title was chosen] because it never looks good, but this was something different. The parties were polarizing—to be sure—but the polarization was morphing into tribalism, and the parties—especially the minority party, which were the Republicans at that time because they didn’t have the White House—were behaving in a more parliamentary sense. We can’t have that in our system, and it certainly can’t operate that way with a divided government.

And in the Senate, the supermajority of 60 votes to overcome a filibuster had been converted into a weapon of mass obstruction by Mitch McConnell. In the past, that higher hurdle used to operate when the norms were working as a way of bringing broad leadership consensus. The majority had real incentive to bring along a number of members of the minority.

We wrote It’s Even Worse Than It Looks in 2012, and then when we did the paperback version a little more than a year later, [the state of Washington] had deteriorated further. And that’s why we called it It’s Even Worse Than It Was. Now, with Trump, we’ve seen all of the abuses and problems taken to the max. We’re at a very difficult time for our politics, our government, and the legitimacy of our political system.

That’s a very good overview of your time in Washington, and this might be a good time to talk about the role of Newt Gingrich when he was a member of Congress and later the Speaker of the House. It’s interesting to read about some of the tactics he used in your book—for example, taking advantage of the placement of C-SPAN cameras to make it appear as though he was speaking to Democrats who were in the chamber. And since they often weren’t present, it appeared to television audiences that they weren’t responding to his charges against them. Could you talk a little bit about the role of Gingrich and his associates in these changes in Washington?

I met Newt Gingrich right after he came to Congress. He had run twice before from a district in Georgia as a history professor from a small college before he won in 1978, and he arrived in January 1979. Tom Mann and I had just created a relationship with the American Enterprise Institute, and one of the first projects that we did was to reach out to some of the incoming members right after they had arrived to get them to commit to doing fairly regular, small, off-the-record dinners about what their freshman term was like through their own lenses.

It was a midterm election, but it was quite a remarkable class; and we tried to choose a cross-section of people we had thought would be in leadership positions down the road, while getting something we felt was reasonably representative.

So, Gingrich jumped out early as someone who was going places?

So, we had Gingrich, Dick Cheney, and Geraldine Ferraro among them.

Very good foresight on your part.

Yes! And the one person who turned us down was Phil Gramm, who had his own major impact later on. But from the get-go, Newt—even among that group, and remember that Dick Cheney came into that group after being White House Chief of Staff—stood out. From the moment he arrived, Newt had a fully-formed sense of the strategy he wanted to use and the tactics that he would apply to achieve the goal of getting a Republican majority in the House.

Was he fairly open to speaking about some of these strategies to you?

Yes, he was.

So, his tactics were taking place in the light of day?

Yes. Now, some of the tricks that he used he didn’t quite talk about so much. At that point, the Democrats had been in the majority for 24 consecutive years in the House, and there were no signs of an election getting even close to one where the Republicans could see a majority emerging; fundamentally, members of Congress were so adept at making each of those elections about their own districts and themselves—and portraying themselves as part of the solution while everybody else was part of the problem. The Democratic incumbents who had the same name recognition as all the others had the additional advantage because they were in the majority. People were willing to give them more money for access.

So, Newt believed that to break that you had to nationalize the election and, at the same time, convince people that Congress, Washington, our politics, our federal government were so corrupt, so evil, so awful, that anything could be better than that and reach the right point where they would say, “Throw the ins out and the outs in.” It took him 16 years, but along the way, he consciously tribalized the politics. He provoked the majority, which, being arrogant and condescending and not a little corrupt after 24 years in the majority, overacted to a lot to his prodding. He got some of those Republicans, who had gone along because they could get a little bit of their own policy agenda accepted in the Congress, to realize that they were not equals.

He used a kind of language with candidates, with members, that he taught others about tribalizing. He criminalized the ethics process, using it as a wedge to go after his enemies. And as you mentioned, not long after C-SPAN had come in, in the House at the end of the day when they finished their official business, they’d stay in session and open it up, and any member could go onto the floor and, at that point, speak for as long as he or she wanted. The cameras for C-SPAN were fixed on the person who was speaking, and most members did nothing. They didn’t care, for example, if someone went on the floor and talked for ten minutes about a famous constituent or rewarding a graduating class of a high school or whatever it might be.

What Newt did was to understand that there would be at least a few million people watching. And if he went on the floor with a few of his colleagues and they did a colloquy, and there were no Democrats there, it would look like every accusation and charge that they made were powerful because nobody was countering them. They focused on, for example, the aid to the Contras in Nicaragua and our attempt to overthrow the dictatorial regime. They made the Democrats out to be communists. And that got enough of a reaction—and they mentioned some names—that then-Speaker Tip O’Neill went on the floor and excoriated Gingrich and said it was the lowest thing he’d seen as a member of Congress. And that is against the rules of the House: to impugn the integrity of another member directly, and his words got taken down and that was a huge story.

Was it something similar in tone to, say, Lindsey Graham’s comments during the Kavanaugh confirmation? That kind of emotional appeal he made?

Yes. If you watch the video of Tip O’Neill speaking, a part of it was because his dear friend and member of his own delegation Eddy Bolan was one of the people indirectly chastised by Newt on the floor, along with nuns from his district who had been active in Central America. That just touched all the buttons for O’Neill. Newt was very good at prodding the big monster into overreacting and then getting attention and legitimacy for himself as a junior member. And all of that meant that his Republican colleagues, many of whom just saw him as just a bomb-thrower, became more attuned to supporting him.

When you met Congressman Gingrich in 1979, what kind of personality did he convey? Was he charismatic? Was he brash?

He was brash, incredibly self-confident, extraordinarily articulate, and what we also saw was the kind of Newt that emerged later on when he became a leader and, ultimately, Speaker of the House. Newt would throw out ideas almost like a machine gun. Some of them were intriguing ideas; some of them were bizarre ideas, but he was an idea machine. Of course, we see many new members come in with brashness and enormous self-confidence, but what was especially striking back then was that that was not a typical thing.

Was there more of an ethos of, “Know your place as a freshman member”?

I wouldn’t even say it was, “Know your place.” Back then, we were past that sort of “wait your turn” moment. But, you know, if you had people who came in who had been in the leadership in their state legislatures, for example, knew very well how a legislature worked. There were people who had been major staffers on Capitol Hill. People like Trent Lott. They were very self-confident that they could operate immediately in that kind of setting.

But for somebody who had been a history professor and never served in public office to come in with that level of self-confidence and with the brashness that Newt had back then was unusual.

Are there any parallels to certain reports you hear of the sort of assertiveness that Lyndon Johnson came in with?

No, I would say Lyndon Johnson came in with an understanding of how power worked back then and with a willingness to work with mentors to achieve his goals.

Right, there was a kind of courtship with Sam Rayburn and later Richard Russell.

Yes, and Rayburn especially helped him get a leg up. But Johnson had this incredible capacity to understand how everybody else ticked and to figure out how you could use that in some cases with sweet talk—and in other cases with finely-veiled threats to build majorities. His stunning rise to Majority Leader in the Senate was a reflection of that.

Gingrich rose to become a leader but, unlike Johnson—where his colleagues understood his unique abilities—it took a long time for people to warm to [Gingrich]. He won his leadership post as Whip when Bob Michel was still the Republican Leader by the narrowest of margins, but he was able to secure that leadership.

What we learned from Johnson was that he could operate as a majority leader and make things happen. Newt, when he became speaker, centralized power, got a bunch of things through the House very, very quickly, but had no capacity to follow up. No ability to build those broad coalitions. Almost everything he wanted to do floundered in the Senate, and he ended up having a worse relationship with Bob Dole, his own Republican counterpart, than with Bill Clinton as president.

I discussed this with Saxby Chambliss when I interviewed him, but term limits were a point of discussion for Gingrich in 1994; however, many of those who were elected on that platform back then were still in Congress years later. 

It was the beginning of some other changes. Of course, it was the term limits movement, and some of his own members left after six years: Bob Inglis of South Carolina being one of them, but he came back six years later.

He’s very active in the climate situation.

Yes. I met Bob Inglis when he first came to Congress, and he was sort of a perfect Gingrich protégé. He believed that Washington was evil, that going there was like being in a leper colony, that the other party was filled with evil people, and that there were obvious answers, such as, “blow up government.” There was an arrogance there. When he left after six years, looked at himself in the mirror, he looked at what was happening in Washington, and he said, “This was awful.” He was still a very strong conservative. Initially, he was replaced by his own protégé from South Carolina: Jim DeMint.

When DeMint moved to the Senate six years later, Bob reclaimed his old seat. But he became somebody who looked for compromise. He believed that the science was firm, that climate change was taking place, and that we needed to do something. He also believed that we should do something that fits market principals, not government regulation or overreach. Six years later, of course, because he had taken this stance from the long tradition of American politics to look for broad leadership consensus, another one of his early protégés, Trey Gowdy, who was encouraged by Jim DeMint, ran against Bob in a primary, treated him very badly, and trounced him. Trey Gowdy more represents where our politics are now than what Bob Inglis evolved into.

Some [of the class of ’94] moved to the Senate. There’s a book called The Gingrich Senators: The Roots of Partisan Warfare by Sean Theriault that examines how they brought this set of tribalizing attitudes from the House to the Senate and began to transform that body too. What we also saw was that most of the new members coming into Congress in the Gingrich era left their families at home because they didn’t want them to be corrupted by Washington.

I’m glad you mentioned that. That’s an idea I wanted to touch on: this idea of the member goes to Washington and maybe their families stay home, and then the member comes back on the weekends—that sort of dynamic.

For a long time, I said, “If there was one thing that I could do, it would be to find a set of mechanisms that have people bring their families to Washington, stick around over the weekends, get to know each other.” That’s still high on my agenda.

My mantra now is, “I want Congress to do three weeks in Washington, one week off, every month.” The three weeks in Washington, they’d be there from 9AM Monday to 5PM Friday, so that we have no more of what had long been a Tuesday-Thursday class back in the era before regular jet travel. It mostly was built around people from the Pennsylvania-New Jersey area, those who could drive home for the weekend. But now Tuesday-Thursday has become, “Tuesday at the end of the day to Thursday at noon,” so they’re hardly around. And they go back home every weekend, and they don’t socialize with other members. It’s harder to demonize somebody if your kids are playing on the soccer field together and you’re out there on a weekend afternoon.

But what we’ve also seen is many members of the Senate do have their families in Washington, and because there’s only 100 of them, they do have some social interactions. But we still see plenty of tribalism now. But if we did the three weeks on and one week off, and provided some subsidy at least for members to maintain a second household, because they do have to keep one back home and it’s really expensive in Washington.

I’ve heard about some members rooming together, sleeping on office floors.

Yes. It’s ridiculous. But it also means that you are not going to interact with anybody except with people on your own committee. Even the trips abroad, which used to be consciously done to be pretty even in numbers for both parties, more of them are entirely partisan or have one or two token members from the other party.

I recall Senator Lieberman describing becoming friends with John McCain during a trip abroad and that being very important in forming these cross-party friendships. But they are increasingly becoming partisan exercises?

It’s becoming more and more difficult. And unfortunately, in the culture we have now, which is so coarse, demonizing somebody comes way too readily for some people.

I want to address this idea of a third party, which you discuss in the book. You describe how a third party candidate, even if he or she were to win, could end up with, “Little basis in an electoral mandate or support in Congress to lead the country forward.” With talk of folks like Howard Schultz, I think a lot of people tend to throw up their hands and say, “Okay, let’s point our finger at a possible solution and say we need a third party.” Could you respond to that sentiment in the book?

This has been a long-time element of the culture. There’s an anti-politics vibe which goes back to the beginning. There’s a sense that people who are politicians are a little seedy: they’re not acting out of the broader interests, they’re doing things transactionally, and that somebody can ride in on the white horse and save us. Even the romance of the citizen politician, the idea that we should run the government like a business—all of those things are out there. They’re mostly mythical.

The framers of the Constitution were mostly politicians, basically. They may have had their plantations, but they spent most of their adult lives doing things in politics and government. Politics is the essence of our political system and our democracy. That’s a part of it. I joke sometimes now that we are running the government like a business, but that business is Trump University. Government is not a business in a whole host of ways. But the problem that I have with a third party—and the allure of the third party—is that it doesn’t fit within our political system. If we were a parliamentary system, or if we were a system that had proportional representation in some form, then you could have third and fourth parties. There are plenty of drawbacks to that kind of system.

I look now, for example, at the number of moderate Republicans, the more traditional conservatives, who are institutionally-oriented and problem solving-oriented, the Rockefeller Republicans, even the Nixon Republicans, even some Reagan Republicans who don’t feel that they have a home anymore. [They feel] that the GOP has become Trump’s Party, and that the Democratic Party isn’t the place they want to be. In a parliamentary system, they could form a party of their own, and maybe even have some traction, and then you might have a different coalition developing within the government.

We don’t have that. If you look at the structure of our political system for presidential elections, you have to win electoral votes. If you are a third party candidate and you have tremendous success, the most you could possibly do is win some states and enough electoral votes that nobody would get the majority of 270 needed to be elected as president. Under our Constitution, that means that the top three in electoral votes would go to the House of Representatives, which would vote by state—50 votes to determine who the president would be.

So, it would be a majority of the members of Congress for each state?

Yes. The delegations would have to make their own rules. You would have to believe, in most cases, it would a majority support. But you could also imagine a state that would have a narrow majority of one party over the other that would try to tilt the rules to make sure that they could prevail. But, almost certainly, the state delegations would go in the direction of their party majority, and that’s going to mean a Republican president regardless of how the popular vote came out or what happened with the three candidates. And it would mean an illegitimate president as well, and then the vice president would be selected from the top two candidates by a simple majority in the Senate.

That’s not a great outcome to have. If the independent candidate didn’t win enough electoral votes to send the election to the House, then what you’re going to have is a distorting effect. Unless and until we get something like ranked choice voting, we know that that can mean an outcome that isn’t the outcome desired by the majority of Americans.

Just to pick an example, Jill Stein—who, by the way, just happened to be sitting by Vladimir Putin at that dinner that the president’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was at and got all kinds of support from Russia through ads and other ways—won enough votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin to make the difference. We know that Howard Schultz’s candidacy is likely to tilt the election in 2020. We know that Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan made a difference. And it’s not what you hope would happen in an election where you’re getting, even if it’s done through an electoral college, some sentiment of where voters want to be, and it doesn’t reflect the sentiments of the voters in those three states, for example, or the voters in Florida in 2000.

So, it’s a fool’s errand to imagine that we can be saved in this fashion. Of course, what we’ve seen with Donald Trump is the idea that somebody with no experience in national government is going to come in and somehow remake the entire way in which we do public policy is fanciful. We see this not just with Trump as the president—we see it in many cases with cabinet officers who’ve come in with no experience out of the business world, and they’ve floundered and failed.

Maybe a Ben Carson or Betsy DeVos?

Ben Carson is one good example. I would say we saw it with Rex Tillerson at State. We’re seeing it with Wilbur Ross at Commerce. Betsy DeVos would be one of the best examples—an inability to understand how the government works, how politics works, what history means, and how to run and organization like a federal agency or a federal government.

To finish up, in the book, you talk about the tension between John Boehner and some of the newly-elected, more ideological members of the Republican Party. Are there any parallels between some of these incoming new Democrats and any possible current tensions with Speaker Pelosi?

It’s going to be very interesting to see how Speaker Pelosi manages this incoming group. There was a telling comment from Steny Hoyer, the Majority Leader a while back, when he was asked about the high visibility and positions of Ocasio-Cortez and Omar and Tlaib, and he said, “We have a freshman class of 66, not three.” The reality of the incoming freshman class of the Democratic Party is that the majority of them are more moderate.

A lot of them are coming from districts that are R+2, R+3. For example, Andy Kim in New Jersey is coming out of a district that was held by Tom MacArthur, and it’s R+2. There’s certainly that dimension.

Right. And even in districts where the people elected are going to vote in a generally liberal way—Dean Phillips of Minnesota’s 3rd District, for example. Dean Phillips is more moderate in the way that he approaches politics and building coalitions. This is not in some senses—at least, not yet—like the Freedom Caucus and the role that it played with John Boehner.

Just to give you a sense of the evolution of the Republican Party, the Republicans had a study group created in the mid-1970’s that was supposed to reflect the right-wing caucus. At that time, it had maybe 10% of the members of the Republican Party. At this point, the Republican Study Committee has over 80% of the members of the Republican Party. The Freedom Caucus formed because the longtime Right-Wing Caucus wasn’t right-wing enough.

The Freedom Caucus had 50 members. They had a rule where if 70% or 80% of the members supported a particular position, everybody was bound to vote that way. They were a formidable block for Boehner to deal with, and ultimately, he couldn’t handle it and gave up.

Right now, Pelosi has a much greater ability to maintain control over her own conference. We saw that with the vote on H.R. 1, the big reform package. But the growing anger at Trump, the high level of visibility of a smaller number of members of the Democratic Party who really are more to the left in their views and their willingness to break some crockery along the way—and that’s partly because the press corps is so infatuated with them and giving them far more attention than many more senior members with power. There aren’t many freshman members that I’ve seen in the past that get a full episode of 60 Minutes, for example.

We have some media darlings.

Yes. And they’re good at it. What I would say is that for the one getting the most visibility, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: she’s had three opportunities to show her wares in committee hearings, and in each of those—the first one involving the campaign finance legislation that was part of H.R. 1, the last one on Wilbur Ross and the censorship question, and in between on some of the double-dealings and bad dealings in the Trump Administration—she used her five minutes brilliantly. Almost a master class in how to handle a committee hearing that some of her more senior members should look at.

So, we can’t ignore that there’s a significant amount of talent there. But clearly, if we’ve had an asymmetric polarization over the last 15 years or more, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to stay that way forever. There is a Newtonian dynamic to politics, that an action can often breed and equal and opposite reaction. Right now, we are seeing a reaction that isn’t equal, and isn’t quite opposite, but we could see that happening.

Thank you very much for your time today, Dr. Ornstein.

Thank you, Erich.

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