Norm Ornstein speaks to me. From his books (It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, with Thomas Mann, and One Nation After Trump, with E.J. Dionne and Thomas Mann) to his principled fight against gerrymandering, I have admired both his intellect and his principles.
I have been immersed in national politics in Washington for five decades. Over my time here, as an academic, a congressional staffer, a think tanker, and a commentator and public figure, I have gotten to know and worked with a wide range of key actors in politics and policy. I have seen up close the changes in our politics and culture. Nothing has been more striking or significant than the transformation of the Republican Party, from a moderately conservative party to a very conservative party to something else entirely.
One sign of this change? A five-term Republican congressman from Colorado, elected in the Tea Party wave in 2010 and now a Trump loyalist, was recently defeated in a primary by a candidate who runs Shooters Grill, where servers are encouraged to carry firearms, and who has indulged the QAnon conspiracy theories and who is now endorsed, not repudiated, by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Another? The current buzz surrounding Tucker Carlson as the party’s hope in 2024—even as he takes sudden leave from his show to go fishing, after one of his writers was tied to racist and misogynistic posts on an internet message board.
Those of us of a. “certain age” would agree with Ornstein that “old-time” Republicans would be appalled by the party’s ethnic and anti-immigrant animus and deliberate efforts to stoke racial division. Although the GOP has always had a rightwing, nativist fringe–just as the Democrats have always had a collectivist fringe– when I was Republican, they were, for the most part, consigned to that fringe.
The party of Nixon, with all its pathologies, created the Environmental Protection Agency, proposed a health-care-reform plan as sweeping as the later Affordable Care Act, and considered offering Americans a guaranteed annual income on a par with Andrew Yang’s universal basic income. The party of Reagan, which tried to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and which slashed taxes in 1981, precipitating ballooning deficits, also cut deals with Democratic Representative Henry Waxman to bolster Medicare and Medicaid; championed bipartisan Social Security reform in 1983; and supported tax increases in 1982, 1983, 1985, and 1986 to offset the earlier cuts and reduce the deficits. The party responsible for Iran-Contra is also the party that championed democracy and moved in concert with Democrats to create the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States Institute of Peace, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute.
Many of the Republicans with whom Ornstein worked exemplified “institutional patriotism,” which he defines as a concern for the integrity of Congress as an institution, and a commitment to checks and balances.
Unfortunately, they were unable to transfer those values to succeeding generations, or to overcome the regional shift in American party politics, the rise of manipulative leaders, and the growing influence of extremist tribal media.
Ornstein tells us what we all know: that whatever it is that has taken the place of that GOP “has thrown away its guiding values and embraced its darkest instincts.”
It has blown up long-standing norms in the Senate, creating divisions that outstrip anything I have seen before; done nothing about rank corruption in the White House and the Cabinet; accepted the politicization of the Justice Department and lies from the attorney general; avoided any meaningful oversight of misconduct; and failed to curb attacks on the independence of inspectors general.
The article goes into considerable detail about Ornstein’s political biography–the Senators and staff with whom he worked, and the ability that afforded him to see public servants up close, to evaluate their sincerity and integrity. I encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety.
But the sentence that really resonated with me was the following:
Plenty of the Republicans I dealt with in the past were fierce partisans, including Dole and John Rhodes. But when pushed, they put country first.
When the sniveling sycophants beholden to the conspiracy theorists and bigots that make up today’s GOP “base” are pushed, they put their own prospects above country– and arguably even above the long-term best interests of their party.