Q&A: 4 questions for Norman Ornstein

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norman ornstein
Norman Ornstein

Norman Ornstein, along with co-author Thomas Mann, warned in the 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks that the extremism of the Republican Party has led Congress and the United States “to the brink of institutional collapse.” Recently, they wrote that Trump’s election represents “not a break with the past but an extreme acceleration of a process that was long underway.” Ornstein speaks at UNCG’s Elliott University Center Auditorium on April 12 at 7 p.m.

You’ve co-authored a book [One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not Yet Deported] with EJ Dionne Jr., a liberal columnist at the Washington Post. You’re a registered Democrat and a centrist, although you work for a conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. What would you say to readers to let them know you’re not just a partisan warrior and a member of the Resistance?

Through my long career — and it’s been a very long career — I’ve spent almost 50 years around Washington, and I’ve worked very intensively and intimately with people in Congress, and also with some administrations. They’ve always been members of both parties. I worked closely with a series of Republicans, going back to [Sen.] Pete Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico. I worked with Bob Packwood and Barry Goldwater in the Senate. I worked with David Dreier on reforms in the House. I worked with Joshua Bolten, the chief of staff for George W. Bush on the transition when W was leaving office.

The last 10 to 15 years have resulted in something that Thomas Mann [also a co-author of One Nation Under Trump] wrote about in our previous book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. We saw the parties polarizing, but the polarization has been asymmetric. The Republican Party has been moving from a problem-solving conservatism to a radical party, and now, with Trump, a populist radical party. But look at the strongest critics of President Trump. They’re not exclusively coming from the left. People like Bill Kristol, George Will, Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, conservative intellectuals and parts of the commentariat, mostly outsiders but also a hardy number of insiders like Jeff Flake. Anybody who would call Jeff Flake a moderate hasn’t been looking at his voting record. But he’s a problem-solving conservative, and someone who’s concerned about the decline of common values and decency, and about kleptocracy.

If one side is uniquely culpable, how do you persuade Republicans to recognize the error of their ways and step back from the ledge?

Some of this is, “He’s our president, we’ll follow him.” “Put anything in front of him; he’ll sign it.” “Yes, but Neil Gorsuch.” Part of it is the fear that if you criticize the president, your constituents will be unhappy. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake — they’re not running again. If you do anything that’s considered disloyal, you’re going to have Trump tweeting at you. You’re going to have his loyal lieutenants like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham going after you.

Another reality — and this is true in both parties — [is that] the campaign money system is so out of control. Members spend so much time raising money. David Jolly, a Republican from Florida who recently retired — when he got to the House, he said he was told he needed to spend more time doing what’s known as “call time” to raise money. It degrades people.

Neither party is pure. The Democrats are not angels by any stretch. We’re at a time when there is an asymmetry. To those who say I’m going after the Republican Party and trying to destroy it, I would say that the country needs two parties that are problem-solving parties…. If it is a party that is losing its moorings, that doesn’t believe in science… a party more interested in dividing than uniting, that’s not healthy for the system. A conservative party that believes in order and believes in the rule of law — that’s something we should all wish for.

Democracy requires that political leaders respect the other party as a legitimate opposition and it requires some compromise to get things done. Republicans have been refusing to do that for a long time and, given how extreme the Republican Party has become, Democrats might be crazy to do so. Is there any hope for salvaging democracy at this point?

Polarization is one thing. You can solve problems with polarization. Tribalism is something else. Both parties can become so tribal where you view the other party as so evil that you try to block them from accomplishing anything. The hope is that religious people and a lot of young people in the aftermath of Parkland will move us forward and allow us to create some kind of dialogue. There is a small core of people where you have to draw a line. We saw it in Charlottesville and now with Steve Bannon going to address the National Front in France and saying, “Wear your racism proudly.” But there are a lot of areas where we can find common ground. With social issues, the people who voted for Trump, they were right in a sense to say that the system isn’t working. We need to create a society where everyone can have opportunity and thrive. I would be Pollyannaish to say we’re going to fix this anytime soon.

All this sounds pretty bleak. What do you do first thing in the morning to get your head in the right space, and continue to engage in this work?

I read the sports page first, and then the comics page. No, if you’ve read our book, you know that I’m very optimistic. We are seeing all kinds of forces emerge. There are conservative intellectuals that are opposed to Trump and handful of people who are lawmakers. You can also turn to a person like John Kasich. I can look at the marches that have taken place, the large number of groups that are out there. I’m deeply heartened with what I see with this younger generation that is recognizing that if things turn out badly they’re the ones who are going to have to bear the brunt of this.

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