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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Scot Lehigh

The fallout of US extremism

There’s a tendency among voters disgusted by the discord in Washington to declare a pox on both parties, blaming them equally for the partisan rancor and gridlock. Because both sides offer up periodic examples of stubbornness and stupidity, it can be difficult for a casual observer to sort out who is most blameworthy.

And that’s why a new book by Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the center-left Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, is an important contribution to understanding today’s politics. Mann and Ornstein are widely respected, even-keeled, non-polemical observers who have studied the ways of Washington for decades, so their observations should carry significant weight with serious people.

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And in “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism,” the two conclude that the Republican Party bears most of the responsibility for today’s political dysfunction.

Mind you, that hardly means the Democrats are faultless. The two political scientists note that they have previously scolded Democrats for, among other things, having been arrogant to the GOP opposition during their long post-war reign in the congressional majority, for their over-the-top rhetoric in opposing Robert Bork’s nomination to the US Supreme Court, and for abuse of the filibuster in blocking some qualified conservative jurists such as Miguel Estrada.

But the principal problem, they say, lies with the GOP, which under pressure from movement conservatives and Tea Party types, has shifted sharply to the right.

“Today’s Republican Party ... has become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromises; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government,” they write. They add: “On issues from health reform to climate change to energy production, Republicans in Congress opposed, obstructed and tried to nullify policies proposed by President Obama that many of them had recently embraced, and repeatedly took hostages and made non-negotiable demands in lieu of real give-and-take.”

In examples that will resonate locally, Mann and Ornstein cite Senate Republicans’ thwarting of a full term for Donald Berwick at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, their filibuster threat if Elizabeth Warren were named to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and their refusal to hold a confirmation vote on former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray for that agency as examples of “the new nullification”: blocking well-qualified nominees as a way to obstruct laws they disagree with.

It’s a stark break with the Republicanism of decades past. “Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon and congressional leaders such as Senators Everett Dirksen, Hugh Scott, Howard Baker, and Bob Dole, and Representatives Gerald Ford, John Rhodes, and Bob Michel, pragmatic institutional figures who found ways to work within the system and focused on solving problems, are unimaginable in the present context,” they write.

This is an important book and, I think, a particularly courageous one on the part of Ornstein, who makes his professional home at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Ornstein has long had a well-deserved reputation as a clear-eyed, non-partisan centrist who arrives at careful analytical conclusions, and it’s one he values.

“It has always been one of my great pleasures when I give a speech and people come up afterward and say, ‘we don’t really know what side you are on,’ ” he told me yesterday. “Doing this is going to make it hard to maintain that, but I came to the conclusion that you build that capital to use it when you need it. The situation is alarming enough and troubling enough that I had to call it as I saw it.”

The reaction? He’s heard nothing directly from sitting members of Congress, Ornstein says, “but I have heard from lots of former members, many of them saying, ‘thanks for doing this, we are alarmed at what is happening to our party.’ ”

Ornstein and Mann offer a number of thoughtful and interesting suggestions for fixing the system. That said, the view here is that change won’t come unless and until there’s a public recognition and rejection of the tactics the GOP has employed. But in their careful chronicling and evaluation of those tactics, the two have done us all a real service.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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