Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein join Diane to talk about their new book and why they think Congress has become more partisan and dysfunctional than at any other time in history.


  • Thomas Mann Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks."
  • Norman Ornstein Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


  • 10:06:56

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. America is experiencing an unprecedented rise in political extremism. That's according to Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Their new book is titled "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism."

  • 10:07:29

    MS. DIANE REHMIn it, they detail what they think is wrong with the American political system and why they believe the Republican Party has been taken over by extreme and obstructionist elements. I hope you'll join us throughout the conversation. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to both of you. It's always good to see you.

  • 10:08:08

    MR. NORMAN ORNSTEINGood morning, Diane.

  • 10:08:09

    MR. THOMAS MANNGood morning.

  • 10:08:10

    REHMNice to have you both here. Before we talk about our own system, give me your take on what happened in Europe over the weekend, Norm.

  • 10:08:23

    ORNSTEINWell, you know, a number of things have been going on around the world, Diane. There is a kind of discomfort, even dyspepsia, I think, in lots of places. The dislocation of the global economy and the downturn caused by a financial crisis that takes a long time to get out of, combine that with the reality that we've had aging populations living longer and the welfare state is making adjustments that people don't like very much.

  • 10:08:48

    ORNSTEINAnd what you saw was a rejection of almost all status quo elements, was much more extreme in Greece, where the two parties that have dominated the process were basically rejected. And more extreme elements, the radical left, which now finished second, and an extreme right-wing group that used Nazi salutes and the like also has emerged in the parliament. But, of course, in France, which was the big news, it was Hollande, the socialist, beating Nicolas Sarkozy.

  • 10:09:19

    ORNSTEINAnd then we had what's likely to be a substantial and embarrassing setback to Angela Merkel in regional elections in Germany. So it's a wakeup call, but it also has consequences for policy, some of which may be more positive than negative in some ways.

  • 10:09:34

    REHMAnd, of course, it may have an impact on policies here in this country, and we're going to devote an entire hour to this tomorrow. But, Tom, how do you think it could, in some way, reflect on what's happening here in this country?

  • 10:09:56

    MANNI think there are really two ways, Diane. First of all, every Democratic government, save one, that's come up for re-election since the economic crisis has been defeated, thrown out of office. So certainly we understand why Mitt Romney is trying to make the election a referendum on the economy under President Barack Obama. So that's one element, but the other has to do with policy.

  • 10:10:27

    MANNEurope is in a mess. And by most intelligent accounts now, they have gone much too strongly for immediate austerity and are suffering as a consequence. Our growth here is modest, but it's growing. The economy is growing, and unemployment is declining. Just the opposite is happening in Europe. Mitt Romney and the Republican Party have been saying, we've got to cut spending immediately, that's the route to more jobs and economic prosperity. That issue will be drawn even more clearly as a consequence of the European elections.

  • 10:11:12

    REHMTom Mann and Norman Ornstein, they are co-authors of the new book. It's titled "It's Even Worse Than It Looks." You two use some pretty strong language in regard to Republicans. Why do you lay so much of the blame for where we find ourselves dyspeptic or otherwise, Norm, at their feet?

  • 10:11:42

    ORNSTEINThis was not an easy thing for us to do, Diane. You know, over many years we have been straightforward and even-handed and placed blame where we thought it lay. In this case, just watching the way things have evolved over the last 20 years or so, and particularly over the last three, we have come to the conclusion that we have a Republican Party that has really two elements you mentioned in your introduction.

  • 10:12:06

    ORNSTEINOne is an extreme element. You see that playing out in the presidential primaries, of course. When you have a Republican nominee who's taken a position on immigration that meets with the enthusiastic approval of Russell Pearce, who is the architect of the Arizona immigration bill and was the first Arizona legislator to be thrown out of office midterm for his extreme views, and Sheriff Arpaio and basically embracing the notion that climate change is a hoax, you can see that we've moved over to a level in a place that's a little bit outside the mainstream.

  • 10:12:40

    ORNSTEINYou see it inside Congress as well. And then you have elements that are, I would say, ruthlessly pragmatic in some ways -- Mitch McConnell embodying them -- that basically put blocking policies and embarrassing the party of the president ahead of solving problems that are immediate and deep in the country. And that's just outside the bounds. Democrats have been no angels here, but they've operated at least within the bounds of a raucous political process. And this is, we think, something that's different.

  • 10:13:11

    REHMToo much within the bounds, Tom?

  • 10:13:15

    MANNYes. Yes, indeed. I think it's fair to say that Norman and I have a reputation for balance, for fairness, for objectivity as best as anyone can pursue those. But over time we came to see that a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. It doesn't elucidate it. The parties are very different now. The evidence on the Republicans becoming the insurgent outlier is overwhelming, and it's documented, summarized in our book.

  • 10:13:54

    MANNYou can't deny it, and yet it's so difficult for people like us, who aspire to be nonpartisan, operating out of think tanks, for the press, the professional mainstream, essential press is so fearful of being charged with partisan bias that they say, well, they're both to blame. It's safer. You get one side and the other, each having their say and hoping that somehow truth will emerge from it, but, ironically, it doesn't.

  • 10:14:29

    MANNI mean, all of our jobs is to try to get the story right, to say what's happening. Bob Kaiser, in a review of our book said, the greatest uncovered story over the last three decades is the transformation of the Republican Party and that this is an effort, along with others, to try to get to that story.

  • 10:14:54

    REHMWell, when you talk about the politics in the UK, Canada and Australia, they seem to have politics that are not as gridlocked under parliamentary systems, as we are under a congressional, supposedly democratic, system, Norm.

  • 10:15:18

    ORNSTEINYou know, a core thesis of our book, Diane, is that over a couple of decades, indeed a little bit more, our parties have changed very dramatically, and they've become like parliamentary parties. They're internally consistent and cohesive. They vote together as parties. And now, as in a parliamentary system, we have a governing party defined as the president's party and a minority that votes against everything.

  • 10:15:43

    ORNSTEINThe problem we have in our system is, first, we don't have a parliamentary culture that embraces the idea that when a majority acts, it is legitimate in its actions, even if they're unpopular. In Britain, where there's even now a minority government and there's widespread dissatisfaction with the policies being pursued by the Cameron government, Brits accept the legitimacy of those decisions, and they know they're going to have an opportunity to hold the government accountable.

  • 10:16:10

    ORNSTEINHere, the first two years of the Obama administration, we had many important policies enacted, but, immediately, half the political process and now a substantial share of the country view them as illegitimate, try to repeal them and keep them from being implemented. Then you move to divided government. And if you have a minority party acting as a minority, you get the nightmare of gridlock and, of course, the debacle of the debt limit, which is what we had over the last year.

  • 10:16:35

    REHMAnd that's where I want to go. Tom, you argued that the Republican Party has stretched the rules and conventions of Congress to a breaking point. Give me an example.

  • 10:16:50

    MANNWell, perhaps the most important example was the debt ceiling crisis that we went through very painfully last year.

  • 10:17:01

    REHMAnd may have to go through again this year.

  • 10:17:04

    MANNWe may. In fact, we have in the book a quote from Mitch McConnell saying, we're going to do this again in 2013 when it expires again. Listen, the country's credit standing was threatened. In fact, there was a downgrading of U.S. treasuries. This was a hostage-taking episode. The Republicans figured that they had the Democrats and the president over the barrel.

  • 10:17:40

    MANNThey could say, we will not extend this debt ceiling, even though it's a routine move reflecting decisions made in the past, unless you agree to our immediate cuts and discretionary domestic spending and large ones indeed. It was that kind of determination to risk anything, the country's well-being, to have it my way.

  • 10:18:07

    REHMBut doesn't this come down to philosophical difference between the two parties, which we've always recognized was there? Isn't that fair play?

  • 10:18:20

    ORNSTEINIt's not fair play, Diane. You know, in the past, we've had significant philosophical differences between the parties. But if you look at how we've handled the debt limit, the plenty of politics played, but everybody knew that in the end you were going to do the right thing. This was different.

  • 10:18:35

    REHMNorm Ornstein and Tom Mann, their new book is titled "It's Even Worse Than It Looks." Short break and we'll be right back.

  • 10:20:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. Two people are with me: Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution, Norman Orenstein. He's resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. They have long been regarded as fair-minded and thoughtful. They wrote a book six years ago in which they talked about the unraveling of the American political system, placing responsibility at that time on both parties.

  • 10:20:43

    REHMNow, in a new book titled "It's Even Worse Than It Looks," they placed blame squarely on Republicans. Norm Ornstein, during the break, you were talking not only about the debt ceiling, but the health care fiasco.

  • 10:21:02

    ORNSTEINAnd it gets to the question of whether this is sharp philosophical differences, and there are sharp philosophical differences. But we looked at the way the health care debate played out.

  • 10:21:11

    ORNSTEINThe Affordable Care Act, as it evolved, was fundamentally the 1993 Republican plan, which was supported, by the way, not only by the late John Chafee and former Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger, but current Senators Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch, as the alternative to the Clinton plan melded with a little bit of the Romney plan. And you had now the same plan that Republicans had embraced 15 years ago rejected by all them, and not just rejected, but now it's called socialism.

  • 10:21:44

    REHMBut can't that be attributed to newer, younger, different kinds of thinking coming into the Congress?

  • 10:21:56

    ORNSTEINThere's a little bit of that, but I think, frankly, more than that, it was a strategic move. It was a decision that -- it's tribal politics now. If they're for it, we're against it.

  • 10:22:06

    REHMTribal politics, Tom?

  • 10:22:09

    MANNIt really is, Diane. There is a strategic hyper-partisanship now that goes well beyond philosophical differences. We believe the party should be different and provide alternatives to the electorate. But now, it's such that every position taken, every vote cast is geared toward the permanent campaign how you're going to defeat this party, get that president out of office, retain or regain majorities in the Congress, and you're prepared to do and say anything and take any positions if it will help.

  • 10:22:51

    REHMAnd that, I think, was what was so surprising to the American people to hear practically on President Obama's first day in office, Mitch McConnell say, we're going to do everything we can to make sure that Mr. Obama has one term in office.

  • 10:23:13

    MANNAnd what's stunning, Diane, is remember the conditions when President Obama took office. We were in the midst of economic collapse. The financial system had melted down. There was a great recession across the globe. George W. Bush as president had the guts and a sense of responsibility to give authority to Secretary Paulson and to support Fed Chairman Bernanke to take extraordinary steps, including TARP and other measures, to keep us from unraveling into a complete collapse and great depression.

  • 10:23:59

    MANNObama came on, and, immediately, the forecast became much more negative. It was a time of crisis. The G-20 were coordinating a rescue package, and yet, at that moment, there was no interest on the part of the Republican minority to work with the Democrats.

  • 10:24:19

    ORNSTEINYou know, there's another element to this, I think, that we're now engaged in a substantial amount of populism, and we have a lot of member of Congress -- and this even predates the 2010 rise of Tea Party Republicans -- who don't trust their own leadership. To some degree, leaders -- and John Boehner, I think, is in this category -- are in a box. But if you go back to the TARP vote before Obama became president, it was rejected in the House because the Republicans in the House wouldn't support their own president.

  • 10:24:49

    ORNSTEINThen you move forward, and you can see that you've got a group of people who are caught up with the anti-tax mantra and box and even those remaining problem solvers among Republicans. For Mitch McConnell, though, it goes beyond just saying, we -- my number one goal is Barack Obama being a one-term president.

  • 10:25:08

    ORNSTEINHe said, after the first two years, well, of course, we weren't going to cooperate with the president on any of those initiatives, get our fingerprints on them. If they were popular, he'd get credit for them. So it was a studied move to keep things from happening and to vote against everything. That's different.

  • 10:25:25

    REHMHere's an email from Jonathan, who says, "Is it really useful to use the terms extremism and extremist? Your guests are savvy enough to know that political opinions and policy solutions are on a continuous spectrum and that the best and truest ideas may be as yet unknown. It seems like a lazy way not to go into what people are really arguing and where people differ on facts and values."

  • 10:26:04

    MANNWe do. I mean, we spent a lot of time in the book going inside each of these issues, trying to see what the arguments are, what the basis of positions taken on these issues. So, yes, I -- Jonathan is right in that respect. So we have the word extremism in the title. We think it's important because what's missing is this: Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and really the architect -- and a very impressive one indeed -- of their economic program, has a broad package that would dramatically change over time our society and the role of government ink in it.

  • 10:26:58

    MANNOver decades, it would shrink the discretionary part of the budget to defense and almost nothing else, would dramatically lower taxes and really change and withdraw the government from assisting those with low incomes and facing very difficult times. It seems to me that ought to be front and center, and the reporting ought to be on what that alternative is. We have a pretty good idea what President Obama has in mind. We better figure out what the other side is up to.

  • 10:27:35

    REHMWell, on each and every program we've done on these policies, these plans, these programs, like health care, like tax reform, anything and everything, we try to have all sides represented. And what you all are saying here is the press is trying to give balance where there is no balance.

  • 10:28:05

    ORNSTEINThat's right, Diane. And, you know, we're not -- we don't want a political process where everybody agrees with each other on everything and where you really do have the cliché of sitting around the campfire, singing "Kumbaya." Politics is made up of conflict. It's war by peaceful means. Having honest differences and fighting them out in a partisan fashion, that's built in to our political system.

  • 10:28:28

    ORNSTEINThis has become something different. And some of those ideas are extreme, and you could see it playing out. You know, when you have a Republican primary audience that's told, well, what happens if somebody loses health insurance and they die, and a bunch of people cheer and applaud, they may not represent a majority. And it may be just a fringe, but it tells you something.

  • 10:28:50

    ORNSTEINWhen Allen West, a Republican congressman from Florida, says to an audience on videotape, between 79 and 81 members of the Democratic Party in Congress are members of the communist party and nobody steps up to say, that's outrageous in the party, that, to us, is extreme.

  • 10:29:09

    REHMBut who are you blaming more? Are you blaming people who are in office? What about the voters who put them there?

  • 10:29:19

    MANNOf course, ultimately, the voters provide the government that we have. Their decision in 2010 to reject the initial two years of the Obama administration by just voting no, put a Republican majority in the House that ensured gridlock, that made us less able to deal with the continuing difficulties of recovery in our economy, that intensified gridlock and made the voters unhappy.

  • 10:29:57

    REHMBut what...

  • 10:29:57

    MANNThey have to think through what they're doing here.

  • 10:30:01

    REHMWhat about the Democrats themselves? Have they been less forceful than they should have in combating the kinds of things that you've heard out of the mouths of some Republicans, Norm?

  • 10:30:17

    ORNSTEINCertainly that's true in a number of ways. And I think, you know, President Obama, when he came in, really did believe what he had said during the campaign and in his 2004 famous speech at the Democratic convention in Boston that we're not a red America and a blue America -- we're all Americans, we're all going to come together -- and believed that he could forge some common ground and, you know, stayed away from a lot of the combativeness that might, ironically, have helped because basically, in this process, you have to hold people accountable for actions.

  • 10:30:53

    ORNSTEINOne of the elements here that's changed is the filibuster. The same rule has been in effect since 1975, but it's only in the last few years that we've seen the filibuster used purely as a weapon of obstruction, used on bills and nominees that have gone through, in the end, unanimously or near unanimously just to stretch out time and take up more time. If you don't have that available for people to hold accountable, then you're going to see those tactics used.

  • 10:31:20

    ORNSTEINAnd now you see Democrats, I think, partly 'cause it's campaign mode, stepping up the rhetoric, and we did get at least an agreement on the -- extending the payroll tax cut. That's a consequence.

  • 10:31:28

    REHMDo you think that the conservative media has had a stronger role to play here?

  • 10:31:37

    ORNSTEINThe conservative media are organized and focused and relentless, I think, and they've gotten more traction and attention than their counterparts on the left. But, you know, as we started with -- and I think it's worth pointing out -- the big problem here has been, at least in the short run, the mainstream media that have not performed their role of telling the truth, instead just basically viewing everything as equal.

  • 10:32:04

    REHMOK. But didn't the mainstream media blame the Republican Party over the debt ceiling issue, Tom?

  • 10:32:13

    MANNActually, not entirely. As we went back and looked at that record of reading all of the press accounts of it -- and some were -- I mean, there's tremendous reporting of what was going on, and we made heavy use of it. But throughout, there was an effort to say, well, you know that both parties are implicated in this. With that story and with almost every other story, it really works to, I think, demobilize, disarm the public. You've got to get stories out. How can the public rein in, let's say, an outlier party if they don't really have a clue as to what they're doing?

  • 10:33:01

    REHMTom Mann and Norm Ornstein. Their new book is titled "It's Even Worse Than It Looks." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And a lot of people are wondering whether you are both in danger of committing the very sin that you accuse the Republicans of -- that is, denying the legitimacy of a party with whom you disagree.

  • 10:33:33

    MANNWe have had some emails and...

  • 10:33:36

    REHMI'll bet.

  • 10:33:36

    MANN...response to that effect. But, Diane, we may not be getting a representative sample. But 95 percent of the reactions we've had, including from many self-identified Republicans, says thank you. Thank you for saying what we have thought for a long time. Our party has gone wacko, in many respects. And there are so many Republican -- these are elected officials, staffers, activists out in the states, ordinary citizens saying, what has been going on?

  • 10:34:14

    MANNNo one will -- this must have been very courageous of you. Well, no. Norman and I sit at think tanks. No one's going to fire us. We have freedom and independence to -- even if it means picking a side now because that's what we believe reflects reality.

  • 10:34:35

    ORNSTEINLet me say, Diane, that we have sympathy with many of the policy issues that have come up and that, you know, I frankly would have been thrilled if we'd had a collaboration on the health care plan that had brought more market elements to play, that had done something about malpractice and defensive medicine, that would have been possible and would have made it a better bill. That didn't happen.

  • 10:34:57

    ORNSTEINWe want fiscal restraint. And one of the great frustrations is that every group outside the political process and the one courageous group inside the Gang of Six -- with conservative Tom Coburn, all the way over to liberal Dick Durbin -- have come up with the same template. And both parties need to accommodate to that. But Democrats have indicated a real willingness to take on Medicare and other shibboleths that really hit their own constituency, and Republicans have been stuck with the anti-tax pledge and mantra.

  • 10:35:29

    ORNSTEINSo there's a difference here, and all we can do is get out there. And in a lot of ways, I think, we've criticized Democrats harshly in the past for their rejections of the regular order when they've done it, used the credibility that we've built up over time to say what we think is the truth right now. It's not ideological.

  • 10:35:45

    REHMAll right. We're going to open the phones and go first to Miami, Fla. Good morning, Robert. You're on the air.

  • 10:35:56

    ROBERTGood morning.

  • 10:35:57

    REHMHi there, sir. Go right ahead, please.

  • 10:35:59

    ROBERTYes. I just want to say the meeting that was written about or talked about regarding the -- after the inauguration of -- President Obama's inauguration, the meeting that they had later on that included some prominent Republicans, you know, that should show how they wanted to impact this man's administration because they were going to say no to anything 'cause I hear everyone say that you should work with them, work with them. But how could you work with anyone who, at the beginning, say they're not going to work with you?

  • 10:36:31

    ORNSTEINIt took the president a long time to realize he had no negotiating partner, that they weren't interested in collaboration.

  • 10:36:39

    REHMWas he naive, Tom?

  • 10:36:40

    MANNHe was. I think so. I mean, he's a very intelligent man, but remember, his -- the whole basis of his breaking out in American politics so quickly and so dramatically, his brand was beyond the partisan divide. We are...

  • 10:37:00

    REHMAnd he thought he could bring people along.

  • 10:37:03

    MANNHe thought…

  • 10:37:03


  • 10:37:03

    MANN...the force of the presidency, the capacity of leadership would do it. He overestimated. By the way, as most observers of American politics do, what individuals can do in that position? He entered a partisan thicket, and there was nothing he could do about it.

  • 10:37:24

    REHMTom Mann, Norman Ornstein. The book is titled "It's Even Worse Than It Looks." When we come back, more of your calls, your email. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • 10:40:04

    REHMIf you've just joined us, Norm Ornstein, who's resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Tom Mann, who's senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, have co-authored a new book. It's titled "It's Even Worse Than It Looks," talking about the current political system, especially the workings of Congress and how they lay just about all of the blame at the feet of Republicans for a system that they see as pretty darn near broken. Let's go to Bob in Roanoke, Va. Good morning. You're on the air.

  • 10:40:54

    BOBHi. Good morning, Diane.

  • 10:40:55


  • 10:40:57

    BOBI -- I've had a wide range of reaction to the conversation as I've been listening from -- starting out with much laughter at listening to the gentlemen try to explain how bipartisan and even-handed they are to a little bit of outrage in the last segment of them saying how much Obama wanted to work with the Democrats. They conveniently forgot that when Mr. Obama came into that meeting, he said, I won, you lost, sit down and listen. So how is that the Republicans' fault? In the first segment, they said that...

  • 10:41:39

    REHMOK. Hold on one second, Bob. Hold on. I want to clarify, is there any documentation to tell us that President Obama sat down for his first meeting with Republicans and said, I won, you lost, sit down and listen? Norm.

  • 10:42:02

    ORNSTEINNo. What we do know, at least from the news reports, is that in an early meeting, John McCain was lecturing the president about giving a list of basically non-negotiable demands, and Obama said, elections matter, I won. You lost. But that's not exactly how it started.

  • 10:42:22

    ORNSTEINAnd it's also worth pointing out, Robert Draper, in his very good new book about the Republicans in the House of Representatives, mentions a meeting that took place among leaders at the inaugural evening at the Capital Grille, where they basically plotted out a strategy that said, we're going to try and bring everything down and vote against everything. So...

  • 10:42:41

    REHMAll right. Bob, do you want to continue?

  • 10:42:44

    BOBYes, yes. The -- in the first segment, they stated that basically what the president said there are consequences to elections, and then they minimized the consequences of the 2010 election in that there was a massive state, federal, local movement toward conservative ideas. And the debt ceiling "crisis" was not called by the Republicans. The Republicans simply said, look, guys, we're going over a cliff. We're not going to jump with you.

  • 10:43:30


  • 10:43:32

    MANNIt's absolutely true the 2010 elections had consequences. It produced a Republican majority and that -- we acknowledge that. We write about it. We don't think it's different. But this was a rejection of how the economy was doing in the country and tells us one of the problematics in our political system, that is without a parliamentary system that allows a majority to put its program in place and not either nickeled and dimed downward or defeated altogether and then time for it to work before being called before the electorate.

  • 10:44:21

    MANNWe have immediate midterm elections. And throughout history, the president's party loses at midterm. And what -- they lose more if the economy is doing badly. So that's not an ideological embrace. That's a classic referendum.

  • 10:44:36

    ORNSTEINYou know, I think we could look at some of the differences between the parties. And by the way, Diane, once again, Democrats are not angels, and they have been plenty cunning and willing to use their resources to embarrass Republican presidents and sometimes to hit their nominees unfairly. And we've called them on that. But here's one stark difference: George W. Bush becomes president, and among the worst circumstances possible for a president, contested election 36 days before it's determined, a 5-4 vote along party lines in the Supreme Court.

  • 10:45:12

    ORNSTEINHe comes in weakened with no coattails, no Republicans elected to Congress as a consequence, and Democrats first moved to give him a huge victory that gave him legitimacy and a boost by supporting No Child Left Behind -- that was Ted Kennedy and George Miller behind it -- provided the votes necessary for him to get his tax cuts, went along with everything in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and provided the votes that gave the TARP bill, the Bush administration's preferred program...

  • 10:45:46

    REHMSo your point is?

  • 10:45:49

    ORNSTEINMake that and contrast it with what happened with Obama coming in with a 70 percent approval rating, a landslide in the worst economic condition since the Great Depression. Three and a half weeks in, not one Republican in the House votes for his economic plan.

  • 10:46:03

    REHMAll right. We have a tweet from a listener who asks, "Is there a racist element to the one-term-president agenda?" Norm.

  • 10:46:18

    ORNSTEINI don't -- you know, race is never far from the surface in American politics. But if you consider how Bill Clinton was characterized when he first became president in 1992, I remember editorials suggesting that he may have been implicated in the murder when he was governor of Arkansas. There was a lot of vicious stuff. I think this is less about race and more about a conscious desire to change our politics, to hamstring a president to gain short-term political advantage.

  • 10:46:49

    REHMAll right. To Cambridge, Mass. Good morning, Steve.

  • 10:46:54

    STEVEDiane, I'd like to take issue with your guests on three principle points.

  • 10:46:58


  • 10:46:59

    STEVEThe first is I'm 64 years old. I've never heard a president say, when he took office or just before taking office, that he wanted to fundamentally change America, and so that -- Obama identified himself from the get-go as an ideologue and pointed people to his cabinet and administration, who, like him, are very strong ideologues. And that is a reason that we Republican conservatives were very concerned with him from the very beginning.

  • 10:47:37

    STEVEAnd the second point is I think if you talk about partisanship, it's very interesting that there was a strong anti-war movement when Bush was president, and then even though Obama kept many of the same policy movements, the anti-war movement completely disappeared, and nobody said anything. And the third thing is that we Republicans are very concerned about Barack Obama because we don't believe he's truthful.

  • 10:48:05

    STEVEFor example, he promised not to raise taxes on anyone earning less than $200,000, and yet, not 16 days into his presidency, he raised tobacco taxes to an historic high. And these taxes fall mostly upon low-income people. So we don't trust him either.

  • 10:48:24

    REHMAll right. Let's hear the response. Tom.

  • 10:48:29

    MANNYou know, the tax charge is ludicrous. First of all, taxes, overall, at the lowest point, is a share of the economy in many, many decades. But the reality is Obama cut taxes. That was a big part of...

  • 10:48:47

    REHMWhat about his taxes on tobacco, though?

  • 10:48:52

    MANNYeah, he raised them. When he made the argument about cutting -- about not raising taxes above that level, he was talking about marginal income tax rates. But Congress -- every Congress, every year, is dealing with hundreds of individual little fees and taxes, and that happens. I don't think there was ever any doubt about his position on tobacco.

  • 10:49:22

    REHMSo you would not call him not truthful on that?

  • 10:49:25

    MANNI wouldn't call that not truthful. But the other thing is the language of fundamentally changing America. I would say, look back to Ronald Reagan. He inspired people by saying he wanted to fundamentally change it. He -- that government was the problem, not the solution, and there was going to be a big change. Now, he ended up being a more pragmatic president, much too pragmatic for the contemporary Republican Party as subsequent Bush presidents are.

  • 10:49:58

    MANNBut the truth is -- and there've been volume after volume -- Obama is not an ideologue. He is inherently pragmatic. He is looking for collaboration and cooperation. On virtually every one of the initiatives he's taken, he is veered toward the center for private markets to operate in health care and the rest.

  • 10:50:23

    REHMAnd talk about the anti-war movement.

  • 10:50:26

    ORNSTEINYeah. Before I do that, Diane, let me say, if you look at his cabinet -- I was listening to Steve -- Bob Gates kept on as defense secretary, Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Ray LaHood as secretary of transportation. You go down through that list, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to find very many left-wing ideologues there.

  • 10:50:45

    ORNSTEINThe idea that he is a left-wing ideologue and pursued policies on the war and torture and other things that were very close to Bush's -- actually, if you read any of the left-wing press, they went ballistic over this stuff and still are extremely unhappy. But, you know, if this guy were a socialist, we would have seen a very different set of foreign policies than the ones we've seen pursued.

  • 10:51:12

    REHMThanks for calling, Steve. Here's an email from Will in Silver Spring, who wants to know how much the role of money in electoral politics is for responsible for dysfunction in government, what can be done to turn that around given the Citizens United decision. Tom.

  • 10:51:35

    MANNDiane, we spent a lot of time in this book talking about money and politics because it is a serious problem, and it's gotten worse in the aftermath of the Roberts Court series of decisions effectively deregulating the role of money in campaign. So we acknowledge it. We think it's getting worse especially with the formation of so-called independent spending only not aligned political action committee, super PACs, which are taking multimillion dollar contributions and running floods of ugly ads. So it's a problem.

  • 10:52:18

    MANNBut there's no solution until we change the Constitution or change the Supreme Court to slow that money. All we can do is try to balance it with small donations. And we have a lot of ideas for doing that, for increasing transparency, and we are open to mobilization of citizens behind efforts to clarify the Constitution on this.

  • 10:52:44

    REHMTom Mann and Norm Ornstein, the book is titled "It's Even Worse Than It Looks." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Susan emails, "Many people are still angry about a health care reform was passed on Christmas Eve through some technical manner. It was sneaky and underhanded. It lacked total transparency, everything the president said he stood for.

  • 10:53:16

    REHM"Look what the Democrats did to every Bush appointee. Look how they spoke of him. And your authors blame this current mess on the Republicans? This did not happen overnight. This is a result of both party's actions." Norm.

  • 10:53:33

    ORNSTEINI think you -- it is a fair point that Democrats -- some Democrats used very harsh language on George W. Bush. There were Bush nominees, like Miguel Estrada, who were treated in a shabby fashion. That's definitely true.

  • 10:53:51

    ORNSTEINBut as we were saying earlier, there's a sharp difference here between using hardball politics but generally within the bounds and still cooperating to solve problems, from No Child Left Behind to TARP, and holding up every nominee through holds and filibusters over long periods of time and voting against every policy initiative and using filibusters and other tactics to block things small and large.

  • 10:54:19

    ORNSTEINThere's a difference between the parties. It has built up over a long period of time. Nobody is blameless here. But there's a tilting of the scales here in the last several years.

  • 10:54:28

    REHMAll right. Final call from Elkhart, Ind. Judy, you're on the air. Go right ahead.

  • 10:54:36

    JUDYThank you. I wonder what your guests think of the fact that remembering back in history that the majority of the Republicans seem to vote against Medicare, Social Security and, I think, Medicaid, too. And Bush, the younger, was talking about putting the investment money in the market instead of our traditional retirement Social Security situation. And I'm wondering, do you think that especially the very conservative wing of the Republican Party are still trying to do away with those programs that we've gotten, basically, I think, through the Democrats' efforts?

  • 10:55:20


  • 10:55:21

    ORNSTEINI actually do think that we've seen sharp party differences over 70 years on these basic programs. Republicans, lots of them, were dead set against Social Security. But in the end when it came to the votes in Congress, significant numbers of Republicans support it. The same was true of Medicare and Medicaid. And, of course, you have to say George W. Bush pushed the Medicare prescription drug program. And if it weren't for Ted Kennedy, it never would have gotten anywhere inside Congress.

  • 10:55:51


  • 10:55:51

    ORNSTEINBut there are differences here, and those differences are sharp enough ones, with the Ryan plan on Medicare, for example, that they will become a core part of the 2012 presidential campaign.

  • 10:56:01

    MANNThat's exactly right. There are important differences. Judy is right to point that out. In the past, Republicans have come to embrace most of these policies after they were enacted under some what partisan conditions. But now, we have the most ambitious effort to renegotiate the entire social and economic policy edifice of this country going back before the new deal. It's quite dramatic. And I think for our elections to work, that has to become crystal clear to the voters.

  • 10:56:40

    REHMWhat do you mean crystal clear?

  • 10:56:43

    MANNBy that, I mean, the press, the think tankers, the candidates and the voters need to focus on not just how am I feeling now or what have I've heard some partisan or one side of the other say, but really figure out what they have in mind doing and what it means.

  • 10:57:05

    REHMTom Mann, he's at the Brookings Institution. Norm Ornstein is with the American Enterprise Institute. Their new book is titled "It's Even Worse Than It Looks." Thank you both for being here.

  • 10:57:24

    ORNSTEINAlways a pleasure, Diane. Thank you.

  • 10:57:25

    MANNThank you, Diane.

  • 10:57:25

    REHMThank you. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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