Could A Second Term Mean More Gridlock?
President Obama has been re-elected. Democrats and Republicans have maintained their respective majorities in the Senate and in the House. So does this mean there will be more partisan gridlock?
Norm Ornstein, a writer for Roll Call and a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that it's a mixed message.
While it's a substantial victory for Obama, Ornstein says, "I think we're going to see conflicting themes in the Republican Party. They held the House of Representatives despite low approval of Congress — didn't suffer serious losses there, and House Republicans are going to come back saying, 'We've been vindicated.' "
For moderate Republicans, Ornstein thinks Obama's victory is a crushing defeat. He says the Republican Party could become a minority party for a very long period of time when it comes to the presidency — "unless they can broaden [their] appeal, especially to Latino voters, who made up for the first time a double-digit share of the electorate and are growing."
With Congress coming back next week to deal with the so-called fiscal cliff and other issues, Ornstein says, "there's going to be a lot of soul-searching, and a lot of jockeying for position in the Republican Party. And if you're [House Speaker] John Boehner at this point, or [Senate Republican Leader] Mitch McConnell, you've got some heavy thinking to do."
Ornstein is known for his bipartisan approach to public policy. He co-founded a bipartisan election reform group and a campaign finance reform group that played a role in drafting the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, which put some limits on campaign spending.
In his latest book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, co-authored with Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, Ornstein says that although he has no partisan agenda, "it's time to acknowledge how far the Republican Party has veered towards tolerating extreme ideological beliefs and policies, and how the GOP has embraced cynical and destructive means to advance political ends over problem-solving."
On whether the new Congress will be more or less polarized
"I think it's going to be different. ... I've been thinking a lot lately about the challenge to John Boehner, the speaker. About the only way he can get things done ... is going to be to bring things to the floor that will probably have at least as many Democrats, if not more, supporting [them] as Republicans. And that is so alien to the contemporary Republican Party in the House. And it's not as if other leaders like Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy will have his back — they will have his back, dirk in hand. So it's a real challenge.
"And of course it becomes a huge challenge for President Obama to try and figure out how he can use inside leverage, and maybe something he didn't do much in his first term — using that bully pulpit and going to the public to try and push them to act in areas where there's an urgent need to act."
On the influence of the Tea Party post-election
"We use ['Tea Party'] as a catchall phrase ... but it's really almost the radical wing of the Republican Party. At one level it was pretty devastating, if you think about the fact that Republicans have now, in several instances, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Senate races where they had surefire winners: 2010 with Sharron Angle and Nevada; Christine O'Donnell in Delaware; this time in Indiana with Richard Mourdock; in Missouri with Todd Akin. This was not a good night for them at that level.
"On the other hand, almost all of the Tea Party freshmen elected in that huge class — 63 seats gained for Republicans in the House in 2010 — held on, and they have some new compatriots joining them as well. They're a serious force within the Republican Party. And of course one of the real challenges for the more mainstream and pragmatic Republicans is, how do you control those forces which bring you energy but ... can also bring you loser candidates?"
Why Ornstein would like to reform the filibuster rule
"We've seen the filibuster used in the last three or four years in ways it was never used throughout our history. And it's not just the rule — the rule's been the same since 1975 [when the Senate reduced the majority requirement from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 members]. It was a deliberate misuse of the rule. ... The whole idea behind Rule 22 as it is ... is that you could have a minority, not necessarily a partisan one, feel so intensely about an issue that they're willing to put themselves on the line, to debate around the clock, to sleep on mattresses outside the chamber, to take the issue to the country.
"What's happened since the rule's change in 1975, and especially in the last few years, is you don't have to do any of that. You lift your little finger and say, 'I intend to filibuster,' ... and to stop that process, the majority needs to produce 60 votes. We had a spectacle, a couple of times in the last Congress, where Democrats had to bring in 92-year-old Robert Byrd, out of his hospital bed basically ... to provide that 60th vote. And instead, if you basically say, 'If you want to keep blocking action, [to] keep debate going, you have to consistently provide the 40 votes' — it's different.
"It used to be that before we had this last change, it took two-thirds of those senators [who were] present and voting. So if the majority said, 'You want to bring the place to a halt, we'll do that, we'll go 'round the clock,' [then] the minority had to keep its members around — because if they didn't show up, you could get two-thirds of 50 ... members of the majority to stop debate and move forward.
"Now, the minority only has to keep one or two people around to note that there's no quorum of a majority of members, and to block unanimous consent action. And it's the majority that has to keep its members on the couches and the mattresses going around the clock, so it doesn't work in the traditional fashion."
Why partisan officials oversee voting
"We are the only country that does this. Every other democracy uses independent authorities to handle the administration of elections. And basically it's got a couple of roots; the single largest root is we have traditionally handled elections at the state and local level. Now, that includes of course all the federal elections, and Congress does have the constitutional authority to regulate the time, manner and place of federal elections. [But] we've left it to the states, and the states, over many decades, decided that elected officials, secretaries of state, would [be] running elections.
"Nobody, I think, thought this through, [and] the result was something that is really terrible. It's the equivalent of having an NFL game where the referees are part owners of one of the teams. It's just a terrible way to run an election process. It evolved without forethought, but now it's there."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Now that President Obama has been re-elected, and the Democrats and Republicans have maintained their respective majorities in the Senate and the House, are we facing more partisan gridlock? We thought we'd ask Norm Ornstein that question. He writes a weekly column for Roll Call and is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.
But he's known for his nonpartisan analysis. He co-founded a bipartisan election reform group to make voting easier and a campaign finance reform group that played a role in drafting the McCain-Feingold Act. In Ornstein's latest book, co-authored with Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, he says that although he has no partisan agenda, it's time to acknowledge that the Republican Party has veered toward extreme ideological beliefs and policies and embraced cynical and destructive means to advance political ends over problem-solving.
The book is called "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism." We spoke this morning. Norm Ornstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. You must be very relieved, not necessarily at the outcome but at the fact that there was an outcome.
You recently wrote: I am praying that we don't have another uncertain election outcome. The next time, half the country might take to the streets if the Supreme Court or partisan officials tilt the outcome or leave a taint of unfairness.
So you must be relieved. Do you think that we've lost faith in our own election system?
NORM ORNSTEIN: I think we're close to that point, and that's why I really was relieved that the outcome was clear. For parts of the evening, where it was possible that it could come down to Ohio and where we knew there were going to be 250,000 or more provisional ballots, many of them controversial, the possibility of something far worse than Florida, having 100,000 ballots, each one contested one by one, an army of lawyers making the Florida example look puny by comparison and something that possibly could have gone on even into January - it just chilled my blood, frankly.
You know, one of the problems is that the Help America Vote Act, which was enacted by Congress - it was the first national attempt to do something about elections, because they are traditionally local, and it was passed in the aftermath of 2000, didn't really solve the problem.
And we've had so many instances this last time of states where partisan election officials - we're the only country that does that - have intervened in ways that were, to say the least, suspicious, that you just have to hope that we don't get an election where the cynicism level and the tribalism that we have in the country spill over. And thank God it didn't happen this time.
GROSS: Yeah, you stayed up later than I did. I went to bed about 11:45. You told me you went to bed about 3:00 in the morning. I didn't know if Romney was going to concede or not when I went to sleep. I had no idea where things really stood, yeah.
ORNSTEIN: Another kind of weird instance, which also reflects, I think, the tribalism - I was at BBC doing election coverage, but then as I watched and heard about what was going on on Fox News, where even after Fox and all the other networks had called Ohio, Karl Rove was saying wait a minute here, you're all wrong, we're going to contest this election, there will be a recount. And it was not exactly a pretty picture.
And I think for a while at least, Romney waited to make sure. Now, you know, we have to keep in mind that we had the debacle in 2000 where networks called Florida for Bush and Gore conceded and then found out that the networks had been premature. So there's a reason, at least, to wait until you're absolutely sure.
But in this case, I think it probably was something where he held off a little bit longer than he should have.
GROSS: Well, we'll get to some of your suggestions for election reform a little later in our conversation. But first I want to ask: What message do you think President Obama's re-election sends to the Republican and Democratic Parties?
ORNSTEIN: You know, it's a mixed message in a lot of ways. It was a very substantial victory. We're still waiting to get the final returns on the popular vote.
GROSS: And I want to remind listeners, we're recording this - right now it's 9:14 in the morning as we record this. So things will change through the day. I just want to acknowledge that.
ORNSTEIN: Yeah, so I think Obama is going to win, you know, clearly a popular vote victory, although much closer than the electoral vote margin, and that's a whole lot better than another outcome that could have been disturbing. Imagine if Obama had won 271 electoral votes, just one over the margin necessary, and had lost the popular vote.
I think one of the memes that we would have seen from a lot of conservatives and Republicans is he's illegitimate, he wouldn't have won if it weren't for Sandy, and there would have been, I think, a concerted effort to try and de-legitimize anything that he did. That's a much harder thing to take right now.
But I think we're going to see conflicting themes in the Republican Party. You know, they held the House of Representatives despite the low approval of Congress, didn't suffer serious losses there, and House Republicans are going to come back saying we've been vindicated.
The conservative theme is going to be: There we did it again, we picked another moderate; when are we going to learn our lesson and go with the purely conservative candidate who can stand on principle?
GROSS: Romney being the moderate?
ORNSTEIN: Romney being the moderate. Of course Romney was all things to all people, and you could make a very strong case that the real problem was that he tilted so sharply to the right on issues from immigration all the way across to taxes and Social Security and Medicare that it hurt him, despite the shift back dramatically to the center in the final weeks.
But whatever it may be, you've got people who want to believe that this was a - not a defeat for conservatism, but the opposite. Then we're going got have people like Jeb Bush; my guess is Mitch Daniels, the outgoing governor of Indiana; Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi, who are pragmatic and who understand that this was a crushing defeat for a party that could become a minority part for a very long period of time unless they can broaden the appeal, especially to Latino voters, who made up for the first time a double-digit share of the electorate and are growing, and basically find ways to move back to the middle.
There's going to be a lot of soul-searching and a lot of jockeying for position in the Republican Party, and if you're John Boehner at this point or Mitch McConnell, you've got some heavy thinking to do that you have to get done pretty quickly, because the 112th Congress, the current one, comes back next week to deal with the fiscal cliff and other issues.
How are you going to respond to a resounding Obama victory - with more obstruction or with some level of cooperation?
GROSS: You've been watching Congress since the late 1970s.
ORNSTEIN: Late 1960s.
GROSS: Excuse me, OK.
ORNSTEIN: I'm sorry to say.
GROSS: And so after this election, the Democrats hold the majority in the Senate, Republicans hold the majority in the House. So having studied the Republican Party's move to the right and written a new book about it, just speculating for a moment, do you think that this new Congress will be any more or less polarized than - do you think that the 113th Congress will be any more or less polarized than the 112th?
ORNSTEIN: I think it's going to be different, especially in this sense. Talking to a lot of Republicans in the Senate over the last year or so, there's a great deal of unease among many that they basically just voted no on everything, supported all of these filibusters in an unprecedented way, blocked nominations.
I had one senator, Republican, who won re-election last night say to me a couple of years ago, you know, in two years my contract with the people of my state is up, and do I really want to look back on it and say what did I do, I voted no on everything. That would not a be a great outcome.
So I think the Senate has some real possibilities to move in a different direction. But the fact is, Terry, the House is going to be more polarized. A number of moderate Democrats either retired or lost last night. There was one exception to that, quite remarkably - a conservative Democrat from Georgia, John Barrow, who was redistricted into a very Republican seat but still prevailed, but he was the exception rather than the rule.
And remember, in 2010 a lot of those Blue Dog moderate and conservative Democrats lost as well. And on the Republican side, there's a shift, if you can believe it, even more to the right - one major reason being that a lot of those Tea Party freshman, as we call them, had challenges in primaries from the right. They mostly prevailed, but the lesson that you draw from that is move to the middle and you're vulnerable, and your vulnerability is not in a general election, it comes in a primary.
So the challenge to find middle ground, common ground in the middle when there is no middle, is substantial, and you know, I've been thinking a lot lately about the challenge to John Boehner, the speaker. About the only way he can get things done, even with, you know, huge majorities for programs in the Senate, working with the president (unintelligible) to the floor that will probably have at least as many Democrats if not more supporting as Republicans.
And that is so alien to the contemporary Republican Party in the House. And it's not as if the other leaders, like Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, will have his back. They will have his back, dirk in hand. So it's a real challenge, and of course it becomes a huge problem for President Obama to try and figure out how he can use inside leverage and maybe something he didn't do much in his first term, using that bully pulpit and going to the public to try and push them to act in areas where there's urgent need to act.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Norm Ornstein. He's a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and has co-founded bipartisan groups on campaign finance reform and election reform. He's the co-author of the new book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Norm Ornstein. He's been a political watcher since the 1960s. He's a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, which is a conservative think tank, but Ornstein is famous for his nonpartisan analysis of politics. His latest book, which he co-authored, is called "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism."
Emerging from this election now, how would you say the influence of the Tea Party has emerged? Is it still a strong influence?
ORNSTEIN: You know, we use it as a catchall phrase, and I think it's there, but it's really the - almost the radical wing of the Republican Party. At one level it was pretty devastating. If you think about the fact that Republicans have now in several instances snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Senate races where they had surefire winners - 2010 with Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, this time in Indiana with Richard Mourdock, in Missouri with Todd Akin - this was not a good night for them at that level.
On the other hand, almost all of the Tea Party freshman elected in that huge class, 63 seats gained for Republicans in the House in 2010, held on, and they have some new compatriots joining them as well - they're a serious force within the Republican Party. And of course one of the real challenges for the more mainstream and pragmatic Republicans is how do you control those forces which bring you energy but which it can also bring you loser candidates?
GROSS: The Democrats maintain their majority in the Senate, but it's not a filibuster-proof majority, they're still not going to have 60 votes. Do you think that the Democrats might try to change the filibuster rule? And I say that knowing that you support reform of the filibuster. You think that it's been used too much as an obstructionist technique, which is not what it was intended to do.
ORNSTEIN: Yeah, and just as a predicate to that, we've seen the filibuster used in the last three or four years in ways that it was never used throughout our history, and it's not just the rule. The rule's been the same since 1975. It was deliberate misuse of the rule. And I do support reform.
I wouldn't support eliminating it entirely, but mostly what I want to do is turn the burden, if you're going to filibuster, away from the majority to have to produce 60 votes to the minority to have to produce the 40 votes to block debate.
GROSS: When you say that you would like to see the burden be on the minority, the 40 votes in a filibuster, as opposed to in the majority, what do you mean?
ORNSTEIN: Well, you know, it's - not to get too deeply into the weeds, but you know, the whole idea behind Rule 22, as it is, that brings cloture is that you could have a minority, not necessarily a partisan one, feel so intensely about an issue that they're willing to put themselves on the line, to debate around the clock, to sleep on mattresses outside the chamber, to take the issue to the country.
What's happened since the rules change in 1975, and especially in the last few years, is you don't have to do any of that. You lift your little finger and say I intend to filibuster, which itself takes a lot of time, the precious time off the Senate floor. And to stop that process, the majority needs to produce 60 votes.
We had a spectacle a couple of times in the last Congress where Democrats had to bring in 92-year-old Robert Byrd out of his hospital bed, basically, almost on a gurney to provide that 60th vote. And instead, if you basically say if you want to keep blocking action, keep debate going, you have to consistently provide the 40 votes, it's different.
You know, it used to be that before we had this last change, it took two-thirds of those senators present and voting. So if the majority said you want to bring the place to a halt, we'll do that, we'll go round the clock, the minority had to keep its members around because if they didn't show up, you could get two-thirds of 50 Democrats able to - or 50 members of the majority just able to stop debate and move forward.
Now the minority only has to keep one or two people around to note that there's no quorum of a majority of members and to block unanimous consent action, and it's the majority that has to keep its members on the couches and the mattresses going round the clock.
So it doesn't work in the traditional fashion. But there are ways to change the rules to make that work and also to move the filibuster from being one that can be used multiple times on the same bill. You can filibuster the motion to proceed to act, you can filibuster the bill itself, you can filibuster a conference report when you have a compromise between the two houses, to basically have one bite at the apple.
And if you put those things together with streamlining the nomination process, so you go back to having a president have the ability to get his own people confirmed, then we're getting somewhere.
GROSS: So you wrote an article in April that got a really big response that was headlined "Let's Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem." And in that article you wrote: We have criticized both parties - because this was co-authored with Thomas Mann from the Brookings Institution, with whom you've co-authored your new book - and so you wrote: We have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies within the Republican Party.
The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly possible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenge.
What did it take for you to say that, since you've tried to have this kind of, you know, nonpartisan, bipartisan outlook?
ORNSTEIN: It wasn't easy, Terry, and I thought about it a lot, and the same is true of -because it reflects a larger theme in the book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks." You know, I basically believe that in 43 years of being immersed in our politics in Washington at both ends of Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue up to the White House, I built some political capital as a nonpartisan, as a straight shooter, somebody who called them as I saw them.
And at this point I felt I've got the capital, what's it for? I need to use it because the system has become so dysfunctional at a time when we've got critical short-term and long-term problems that it's got to be said, and I'll let the chips fall where they may.
You know, there are certainly a lot of people within my own institution who were not real happy with the article or the book, but I have to say, to their credit, you know, nobody has said to me you can't say that, you can't do that. They've been supportive even if they don't like it. But I've made some enemies along the way here, and there are a lot of people who are furious.
But it's true. That's the reality of it. This is different from what we've seen before. And you know, it's not a criticism of conservatism, and it's not as if I want the Republican Party to be demolished or disappear. I want two vibrant parties, and the Republican Party's going to be a conservative party, but it's lost the problem-solving element and it's moved from being conservative to being radical.
You know, you have a sizable group, including leadership coalition in the party, that basically has become dismissive not just of public policy since Franklin Roosevelt but since Teddy Roosevelt, wanting to demolish the entire regulatory state and basically an awful lot of the functions that we have.
You put that together with pretty dramatic and radical positions in many cases on social policy, you put that together with a campaign money system that has careened out of control, and it's not healthy. And so, you know, I felt that whatever the cost might be to me in either my reputation or even my position, what am I there for? So I went ahead and took the plunge.
GROSS: Norm Ornstein will be back in the second half of the show. He's a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Norm Ornstein. He's a resident scholar at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, but he's known for his nonpartisan analysis of American politics. He says it's time to acknowledge that the Republican Party has veered toward extreme ideological beliefs and policies. He writes about that change in the book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism," and in the article, "Let's Just Say It: The Republicans are the Problem." Both are co-written with Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.
Now, just curious, you've been with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, since at least the late '70s, right?
ORNSTEIN: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So do you think that the American Enterprise Institute itself has changed since you joined? Has it moved further to the right? Has it become part of the problem that you've just defined?
ORNSTEIN: I do think that there is a sharper edge in all of our discourse, and it's there in my institution, as it is in others. You know, having said that, I also believe that there's still an ethos of academic freedom at AEI. There's still at least an openness to dialogue. But, you know, you can't be blind to the fact that institutions, including my own, have - are a part of what's become a very sharply divided political culture, and it's different from when I - certainly than it was when I got there in 1978. But if it reached a point where I felt like I was just completely an outlier or where I was being pressured to say or do things that I wasn't comfortable with, I'd be out of there in a nanosecond, and I'm still there.
GROSS: So I know a lot of our listeners right now are thinking: I want to know if he's a Republican or Democrat.
GROSS: You probably get that a lot.
ORNSTEIN: I do. And I have really strenuously avoided any partisan identification. I don't contribute to campaigns. I don't endorse candidates. I've got - at least I did before this book - as many friends on the Republican side as on the Democratic side.
I am - I have to be honest, I live in the District of Columbia and I'm registered as a Democrat, because if you're not, you simply have no role to be able to vote in the District of Columbia. You know, we'll get a lot of people who just simply assume that I'm a Republican because I'm at the American Enterprise Institute, and sometimes that doesn't hurt because they read things that I write in a - where they might just completely dismiss them out of hand otherwise. But I'm going to continue to try to avoid any kind of partisan coloration.
GROSS: Back in 1978, you cofounded, at the American Enterprise Institute, the Congress Project. And this was a project to observe new members of Congress and how they adapted to Congress, changes they wanted to make in Congress. You had a series of dinners with these new members of Congress, you know, talked with them a lot. Did you see the roots of the partisan problems that you write about now, and of the extremism in the Republican Party that you right about now? Did you see the roots of that in 1978 when you started this project?
ORNSTEIN: Indeed, we did. You know, the first thing that Tom Mann and I did at that point was to convene this group of new members elected in 1978 for regular, off-the-record dinners to take them through the first two years in Congress as a kind of window both into them and into Congress, and we tried to pick a representative group of people who would be significant figures in the future.
And through luck and skill, we had among them Dick Cheney, Geraldine Ferraro and Newt Gingrich. And what was so striking is that Newt - who had run twice before unsuccessfully before winning, had been a, you know, a history professor at a small college - came in and was a dominant figure in this group.
Because even then, Newt had a completely, a full-blown theory, approach, strategy and tactics for how to break what was then a 24-year stranglehold the Democrats had on majorities in the House. And it was basically: We need to destroy this institution in order to save it. If we keep going the way we've been going, individual incumbents go back. And even if Congress is in ill repute back home, they separate themselves out from it. It's not me. It's everybody else.
They've got money. They've got name recognition, and they have more incumbents. They'll keep winning. So we have to convince Americans that the institution is so rotten and awful, that anything would be better than this.
It fostered the kind of tribalism we have now. It drove a wedge between the parties. And, you know, what's true is that the Democrats, after 25 years in power, had grown arrogant and were condescending towards the minority. There was some corruption built into the process. They overreacted. But many of the roots of where we are now came from what Newt brought about. And, of course, he recruited a whole group of people, his progenies. It took them 16 years to do this. And they've contributed to the difficulties that we have.
GROSS: I think it's fair to say one of the strategies Republicans have used is to weed out moderates in the party and try to replace them with people further to the right. What do you think has been the most effective strategy the Republicans have used to accomplish that?
ORNSTEIN: Well, a large part of it is the use of money. It started with the Club for Growth, which raised a significant sum of money and put it into primaries. And now it's happening in a much larger way, including at the state level.
And I have to tell you, what really disturbs me the most about the post-Citizens United, bleak world we live in now - it it's not just Citizens United. It's many other things. It's not at the national level. You know, we had all of this money thrown in by these superPACS and the 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups and other outsiders, this time, it didn't affect the presidential campaign. It didn't affect the Senate campaigns as much as we might have expected. But you start to get down to the state legislative level, where they're used to having no campaigns and no money, and then even more disturbing to the judicial level, and we've got a problem.
I was out in Kansas a few weeks ago, and I saw it firsthand. The Koch Brothers, who have a base in Kansas, put several million dollars into a set of primary elections a couple of months ago in Kansas, and basically they bought the state. A few million dollars, and they targeted the moderate Republicans, and they've hollowed out the Republican Party. Now they're aiming at Arkansas. A fellow named Art Pope did the same thing in North Carolina.
And you create a higher level of polarization, but, you know, part of the tactic is we take the majorities, and then we can use the redistricting process, voter ID laws and other ways of tilting the electorate and basically do a hostile takeover of a state. You go state-by-state, and it starts to become a big problem, and at the national level, we're seeing it happen with these primaries.
And one of the things that concerns me is you get a guy like Lindsey Graham, who is plenty conservative, but is one of the big problem solvers in Congress, senator from South Carolina. The Club for Growth has said he's their number one target in 2014. You know, they may bump him off just as they managed to bump off Richard Lugar and Bob Bennett in Utah before him, push Arlen Specter out of the Republican Party.
They can create a purist party. It will be a minority party, but it could also be a party that will create enough division in the country that you lose the ability to come together to solve problems. This is not healthy.
GROSS: What's the one change you'd most like to see?
ORNSTEIN: If I could wave a magic wand and do one thing - and it's something were not going to be able to do - it is to bring us the Australian system of mandatory attendance at the polls. In Australia, you don't have to vote, but if you don't show up at the polls where you can cast a ballot for none of the above, and you don't write an excuse - I was sick, I was traveling - you're subject to a fine of roughly 15, now it may be $20. And that's increased turnout to over 90 percent in every election in the seven decades they've been doing it.
It's not that higher turnout is, in and of itself, a goal, or creates a healthy society. The former Soviet Union had regularly 98 percent turnout. What they'll tell you in Australia is that if you know that your base is going to turn out and their base is going to turn out, that you don't have politics driven by I'm going to scare the crap out of my base to get them out there or suppress the other sides. You focus on the voters in the middle, and it changes the issues you talk about and the way you talk about them. If I could do that, and if I could change the Supreme Court so that we didn't have terrible, destructive, foolish decisions like Citizens United coming down the pike, I'd be a happy camper.
GROSS: You have an idea that I find very entertaining, and this gets back to the mandatory voting, that your voting stub has a number on it, that that number becomes part of the lottery. The fines that are collected from the people who didn't vote fund the lotteries. So one of the incentives to vote is that you've basically bought a lottery ticket.
ORNSTEIN: Yeah. You know, if you look at what happened with the Mega Millions lottery, where you had people waiting in the rain overnight so that they could get that opportunity for the one-in-169-million chance that you could win 300-plus million dollars, if we had a lottery with a substantial prize, I think we could increase turnout dramatically overnight. It's sort of the other side of the coin from a disincentive or cost if you don't vote, to an incentive to vote.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Norm Ornstein, and he's a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, but Ornstein is well-known for his nonpartisan, bipartisan approach. He is the co-author of the book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism."
Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Norm Ornstein. He's been studying and analyzing America's political system since the 1960s. And he's a resident scholar at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, but he's known for his nonpartisan, bipartisan approach. He is - he co-founded a bipartisan election reform group, a bipartisan campaign finance reform group, and is co-author of the book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism."
Do you know how we ended up in a system where partisan officials oversee voting, where Democratic or Republican secretaries of state make the calls, and therefore, people are suspicious that there is partisan motivation?
ORNSTEIN: And we are the only country that does this.
GROSS: How did we get there?
ORNSTEIN: Every other democracy uses independent authorities to handle the administration of elections. And basically, it's got a couple of roots. The single largest root is we have traditionally handled elections at the state and local level.
Now, that includes, of course, all the federal elections. And Congress does have the constitutional authority to regulate the time, manner and place of federal elections. We've left it to the states. And states, over many decades, decided that elected officials, secretaries of state, would have, as a major part of their responsibility, running elections.
Nobody, I think, did - thought this through. But the result was something that's really terrible. It's the equivalent of having a NFL game where the referees are part owners of one of the teams. It's just a terrible way to run an election process.
It evolved without forethought, but now it's there. And, you know, my third magic wand would be to move us to a system like what the Canadians have and the Australians have and the British have and the Germans have, and you can just go down through the list, which is impeccable, nonpartisan career people adjudicating elections. And the chances of that are about as great as mandatory attendance at the polls, I'm afraid.
GROSS: So, one more thing. You've spent your entire adult life analyzing American politics, but never running for office. Did you ever consider running for office, and if not, why not?
ORNSTEIN: I must say, you know, 20, 25 years ago, if I had been able to run for or get elected to an office, it would have just thrilled me to do so. I have a hard time because I promote good government. You know, answering that question truthfully, but the truthful answer is that it's such a miserable life for people now that I don't want to do it.
And what I've done instead is not just to study, but to be very active, especially in the last 15 or 20 years, in - outside, in trying to actually improve the nature of our governance. I had a hand in the McCain-Feingold bill, and I'm very proud of that. I helped to create a process in Congress that's called the Office of Compliance, so that Congress has to apply the laws that it applies to others to itself. I was part of a - I ran a committee in the Senate for a while that helped to reorganize the committee system. So I've done some things that have had some impact without being in office. You know, if I could go back and wave a magic wand and having actually run for and served in those offices, I'd be happy but right now, given especially the money system, I wouldn't do it.
GROSS: You wouldn't run for office now because being a politician is such a miserable life. What do you perceive as so miserable about that life?
ORNSTEIN: You think about 20, 25 years ago and the stereotype, and I think it's an accurate one, is that people in a community would go to somebody and say you've had an exemplary record. You've done so many things in your law practice or your business, or as an educator, now it's time to give something back to public service. We'd like you to run for Congress. And you'd get a lot of those people running.
What if you tried to do that today? You'd go to somebody and say you've had an exemplary life. You've done so much. You've built this reputation. We want you to run for Congress. First thing that's going to happen is (technical difficulties) his or her forces are going to raise millions of dollars with the express objective of trashing you and shredding that reputation. And they will do a victory dance in the streets.
ORNSTEIN: If your kids come home from school crying and saying they can't go back anymore because everybody's ridiculing you, you'll do the same to your opponent and maybe you'll win. And then you'll get there and you'll go back and forth between two residences and nothing will get done because of the tribalism.
And every spare minute you'll run out of the Capitol grounds to do call time so you could raise money for yourself and your team, and to guard against some alien predator group that can parachute in behind your lines with two weeks to go in the campaign and spend $20 million sliming you further. Isn't that wonderful?
And the miracle is that we still get some good people who are willing to go through this craziness to serve. But let's face it; increasingly we're getting people who do it because they are true ideologues and this is a crusade, or because they are cynical opportunists who see it as a springboard to something else. It's - or people who are going to figure if I make it I'll get more money than I could ever have anywhere else.
We're on a difficult path where I'm really afraid that, over time, we're going to lose the kinds of people who come for the right reasons, who respect their own institutions, and who have some perspective on all of this. And that's another reason why I feel such urgency about speaking out about the dysfunction.
GROSS: Norm Ornstein, thank you so much for talking with us today.
ORNSTEIN: It's really been my pleasure, Terry.
GROSS: Norm Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz remembers composer Elliott Carter. He died Monday at the age of 103. This is FRESH AIR.
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