That was the headline to a Washington Post op-ed written by Norman J. Ornstein, a conservative think tanker, and Thomas E. Mann, a liberal scholar. They wrote the column to drum up publicity for their latest book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.
Mann and Ornstein contend that the Republican Party “has become an insurgent outlier –ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of fact, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of it’s political opposition.”
Mann and Ornstein cede that the Democrats in Congress have become more liberal, but “to cling to a false equivalence between the parties and blame them equally for policy failure” focuses on the fire and ignores the guys holding the matches. Norm and Ornstein place the blame for gridlock not on the president but on a Republican Party that wants to burn down the village but doesn’t seem all that interested in saving it.
What has drawn less attention is Mann and Ornstein’s undressing of one popular solution espoused by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and the Washington Post‘s Matt Miller: the centrist savior. What those D.C. “big feet” say is that politics has all gone to Hell on the extremes, alienating the “radical center” that they imagine is dying to deal responsibly with our crumbling infrastructure, global warming, and budget deficits.
Mann and Ornstein highlight a few problems with this: There is no vast center of high-minded Americans yearning to make painful choices. Most voters are as polarized as their parties. In fact, most independents are closet partisans, leaving only 10 percent of the electorate up for grabs, “and their presumed centrism or pragmatism in most cases reflects political disengagement and a lack of knowledge about the parties, candidates, or policy choices, rather than a considered position in the center,” write Norm and Ornstein. Basically, we’re talking about a relatively small number of determinedly know-nothing voters and Beltway insiders.
Into this breach leaps Americans Elect, a group fronted by veterans from the partisan political wars, some of whom I count as friends and will not name here because their idea is so gobsmackingly wrongheaded. To be fair, Americans Elect only has a few things wrong with it: They can’t win, they can’t govern, and the way they’re going about their business is making our problems worse.
“Those advocating a third-party or independent presidential candidate fail to offer any plausible scenario of how such a successful candidate could govern effectively, given the state of the parties in Congress and the supermajority hurdles in the Senate,” write Mann and Ornstein.
Americans Elect promises to hold an online primary to find a man — or woman — of the people, not the parties, but so few people are joining their movement that they recently had to cancel their May 8 primary. Apparently there aren’t a lot of people searching for, in Mann and Ornstein’s phrase, a “chimerical knight on a white horse.”
But even if the Americans Elect nominee figured out how to defeat Obama and Mitt Romney, the centrist president would still have the same Congress stymied by a Republican Party that values purity of essence more than progress. To those who predict that a Ross Perot-style candidate could force the Republicans to hew to a more Earth-bound legislative strategy, Mann and Ornstein answer, “Perot’s persuasiveness in the campaign did not convince a single Republican in either house of Congress to vote for Bill Clinton’s economic plan.”
And if you think money is the root of all evil in our post Citizens United political world, Americans Elect has a surprise for you. Americans Elect is a 501(c)4 whose donors will only see sunshine if they go outside. “A deliberate move to hide the identity of donors is not a commendable path for a ‘reformist’ organization,” write Mann and Ornstein.
As a solution to what ails our body politic, Americans Elect is about as smart as treating cancer with cotton candy. When it comes to dealing with Republican problems, the solution might be as simple as voting for the other guys.