New York Times Book Review - - It's Even Worse Than It Looks

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New York Times Book Review - - It's Even Worse Than It Looks

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NY Times – 7/20/2012

A House Divided: Books About The Tea Party Class of 2010

By Michael Crowley -- a senior correspondent and deputy Washington bureau chief for Time magazine.

Reading Liberally Editorial Note = This Book Review comprises 13 paragraphs of which paragraphs 7-13 focus on “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”

Last summer, as a vote neared on the incendiary question of whether to raise the national debt limit, Jo Ann Emerson, a moderate Republican representative from Missouri, argued with a freshman House colleague about the potential consequences of a failure to act. A Republican vote against extending the nation’s borrowing authority would risk a financial-market meltdown, she insisted; her colleague replied that the risks were justified. “We’ve spent way too much money,” he told her. Arriving home that night, Emerson asked her husband to pour her a big glass of wine, declaring: “I cannot believe that I had this conversation with somebody who was elected to Congress.”

Emerson’s amazement vividly illustrates how radical the freshman class of 2010 seemed, even to many members of their own party. Those freshmen, many elected under the Tea Party banner, came to Washington with little interest in the advice of experts or the way things had been done before. They were there to shock the system.

The debt vote showdown is the focal point of “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” Robert Draper’s engaging and often funny chronicle of the year in the House of Representatives following the Tea-Party-powered 2010 elections. A skilled magazine writer and a biographer of George W. Bush, Draper reports mainly from the perspective of freshmen like the unnamed representative who left Emerson agog. He draws colorful portraits of members like Jeff Duncan, an evangelical Christian from rural South Carolina who said he sensed “the presence of evil” during a trip to Guantánamo Bay in a way that had last struck him after he had blundered into a black-magic shop. And there’s Blake Farenthold, a conservative talk radio host from Corpus Christi who ran for Congress hardly expecting to win; when he prevailed after a recount, he was plagued by anxiety dreams. (Draper also sketches a few Democrats, including the notorious Anthony Weiner, cast as an obnoxious showboat and abusive boss whose sexual humiliation is little mourned by his colleagues.)

The ferocious Republican opposition to Obama’s agenda, Draper says, inflicted real damage to his presidency. At the same time, Draper shows the startling speed with which these conservative revolutionaries grew frustrated and disillusioned. Almost immediately upon arrival, they learned that their own party’s leaders thought the huge budget cuts on which they campaigned were unrealistic. At one point the House majority whip, Kevin McCarthy, explained to them that politics is like baseball. You can’t always swing for the fences, he said. “Sometimes you bunt.” But the freshmen considered themselves sluggers. They pressed the Speaker of the House John Boehner to leverage the debt vote into a demand for spending cuts on a scale that Obama and the Democrats considered unthinkable.

The debt limit crisis was ultimately resolved in a way that satisfied no one. Boehner and Obama briefly tried to negotiate a “grand bargain” to address long-term debt reduction. But Boehner’s House caucus adamantly opposed any deal that would raise taxes, and the president refused to accept a deal that only cut spending. So the hard questions got punted to a deficit supercommittee that failed to reach an agreement, and the whole drama, sorry to say, is soon to be replayed.

Some of Draper’s freshmen are startled to discover their impotence. Farenthold lamented that he felt like Fred Flintstone, trying to slow down a speeding car by sticking out his heel. Impatient Tea Party activists, despite their reverence for the Constitution, don’t always grasp that Congress is divided into two equal chambers, one of which remains in Democratic hands.

Freshman year may have left the Republican class of 2010 feeling stymied. But Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein contend that they’ve already changed Washington — disastrously so. “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” argues that the debt limit fight revealed a crisis-level dysfunction in our political culture that has left Washington paralyzed and unable to address America’s urgent problems.

Mind you, Mann and Ornstein are hardly partisan polemicists. They have studied the federal government for decades from perches at starchy Washington research organizations (the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, respectively) and are considered straight shooters. So their key argument is striking: the Republican Party is mainly to blame for what’s wrong with Washington. It has lurched several degrees right of the political center, they say, while Democrats hew closer to the mainstream.

One result, Mann and Ornstein explain, is that Republicans are more likely to reject consensus economic and scientific opinion on issues from fiscal policy to climate change, especially if it clashes with their ideological or partisan goals. In the case of the debt fight, they write, Republicans put “political expedience above the national interest,” encouraging a subsequent downgrade in America’s credit rating.

Mann and Ornstein do allow that some big systemic problems have bipartisan fingerprints, including the abuse of Senate filibusters and anonymous “holds” on nominations and legislation to thwart majority rule. But these problems would be less severe, they write, if Republicans weren’t so unabashedly ruthless about leveraging every tool for partisan gain, even if that means leaving crucial federal jobs unfilled or picking fights rather than making legislative compromises.

Mann and Ornstein offer an imaginative list of possible reforms, including making voting easier to reduce the disproportionate influence of hypermotivated partisans. They even float the idea of mandatory voting, or possible financial incentives, like an interesting (if far-fetched) “lottery ticket” scheme. They support incentives for candidates to raise small-dollar campaign contributions as a way to limit the corrupting influence of big money.

More than anything, they want the news media to referee our politics more aggressively, blowing a louder whistle on Republican actions like abuse of the Senate filibuster that depart from recent political norms. “Both sides in politics are no more necessarily equally responsible than a hit-and-run driver and a victim,” they argue. Yet it’s not clear that journalists can solve the problems they describe, especially as increasing numbers of voters consume partisan “news” that affirms their pre-existing beliefs.

Nor is it clear that more nuanced reporting would restrain the powerful passions that have been ignited by America’s long-running economic trauma. Washington’s failings, and now an extended recession, have led voters to send radical outsiders charging at a broken system. Those outsiders, in turn, have further paralyzed the system with extreme demands. It’s entirely possible that voters will grow even more alienated, perpetuating the cycle. Things may not only be worse than they look; the worst may be yet to come.

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