Politics watcher Norm Ornstein has long been known as a moderate voice at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. And like many moderates, he is thoroughly freaked out by the government shutdown and the prospect of a debt-ceiling breach. He spoke recently to Salon about life at AEI, the difference between conservatives and radicals and why the most conservative Southerners can run the show in Congress. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
You wrote recently that congressional Republicans are not conservatives, they are radicals. How do you tell the difference? Is there some dividing line?
I think you’ve got several characteristics here that matter. One is conservatives tend to conserve, they are respectful of institutions and traditions. Radicals just aren’t conserved about those things. You can have very strong views about something but still respect the way the House of Representatives, the three branches of government, the constitutional structure was set up to work. And that involved at its essence, debate and deliberation and finding common ground and compromise.
Most conservatives recognize that. Radicals don’t care about the institutions. They are looking for an ideological crusade. Traditions don’t matter. It's one thing to have hardball politics, but when you take it to a level of extortion in ways that could cause dramatic long-term turmoil in the country, that’s just not conservative.
Conservatives want smaller government. They want to focus on market-based solutions wherever one can. They want to have as little regulation as possible. But in general they recognize that government must play an important role for a society to operate. And that includes national security and law enforcement. That includes collection of taxation and revenue. That includes protecting public safety in a variety of different ways. That includes, certainly in the modern concept, basic research that the market is not going to allow if there are not payoffs that come within a reasonable period of time, or that will necessarily accrue to you.
Government is inevitably going to play a very significant role in infrastructure, and in a country with a federal system where vibrancy and economic health depend on interstate commerce it’s not going to be private enterprise or state governments that will give you things like an interstate highway system. Radicals will basically throw all those babies out with the bath water. There is almost an underlying feeling that government is bad, and if any part of government works that’s not good, because then people will like it and want more of it.
Where do we go from here now that they’ve shown their cards?
Well, one of the problems is that it’s a relatively small group of radicals that are the tail wagging the dog right now. It would certainly be helpful if some of those who are more conservative than radical stepped up and said, enough of this crap. That doesn’t happen for a variety of reasons, among them the campaign money system, the dynamic of new media, the dramatically increased role of primaries.
But I think it’s bigger than that. You know, if we are going to avoid a bigger catastrophe, there are three things that really trouble me now, even in the short run. Certainly a shutdown of the government is a very dangerous, debilitating and costly thing. In 1995-96, seven of what were then 13 appropriation bills had been signed into law, so it shut down a relatively small slice of the federal government. Now none of the 12 appropriation bills have been signed into law so it has a much larger impact. And it’s going to affect not only the employees who are not being paid, it’s going to have a huge impact on the economy at large.
The [debt ceiling] threat to the full faith and credit of the United States goes right to the carotid artery and it’s not clear exactly what will happen, except that what does happen will be really bad, and some of it will have long-lasting, even permanent effects. The notion of an America as a safe harbor, interest rates, not just Treasury rates, that are tied to everything like mortgage rates, it could get even worse.
Then there’s another element, the sequester. The sequesters were designed to be so awful and harmful that they wouldn’t happen and force action. As we know, they didn’t work that way and we got them. And now you‘ve got a lot of people who I would call either radical, or people so ignorant they don’t understand it, who think that this is a good thing.
No doubt it’s bringing spending down in the short run, which is causing some short-term damage to the economy, but when you look at what it's going to do to some of the most important elements of society, including the framework of basic research that really is our greatest advantage in the global economy, grants that would have among them breakthroughs in debilitating diseases, scientists spending all their time writing proposals now instead of doing science, people who will leave because they can’t get funding that NIH won’t provide, DARPA, which really did give us the Internet among other path-breaking things, is shuttered effectively. All of those things, plus the harm to national security, are much deeper. Right now it’s a matter of triage.
How can the situation be improved?
Well, I wrote a piece in the New Republic suggesting a way out. It’s based on a couple of things. The first is that basically the Republicans have put themselves into a box here, no easy way out to negotiate, to basically declare defeat, which is a devastating thing to happen. The president is not in a position where he can or should capitulate in any way or negotiate with a gun to his head, or a gun to all of our heads.
But we can do something by changing the terms of debate. I suggest that there is some way that we can reach an understanding, that moves us past awful things, and enables both sides, even if there is a lot of shakiness here, to say, OK, we got something out of this. So I wouldn’t negotiate over extending the debt limit by a month or six months or a year, or two years, I wouldn’t negotiate over a continuing resolution for a month or two or six. What I would negotiate over is taking the debt limit as a hostage mechanism permanently off the table. The way to do that is to make permanent the so-called McConnell rule. You know we saved ourselves at the 11thhour, all be it in the most embarrassing way, in 2011 from a breach in the debt ceiling with a process devised by Mitch McConnell, which allowed the president to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling. Congress can then vote to disapprove of the action and the president can veto the resolution. And then it would take two-thirds of both houses to override that veto. If we can get that then I can see any number of things in which we can reach an accommodation, even things like the Affordable Care Act.
There are ways that we can get out of it. What scares me to death right now is that we may not get out of it until after we’ve gone over the cliff with the debt limit.
You’re at AEI, so you are working closely with a lot of conservative intellectuals, and that’s really a voice that isn’t as loud as some of the voices on Capitol Hill. What are you hearing from them?
I can’t really speak for most of my colleagues, I haven’t talked to most of them about this issue specifically. What I can tell you is that I know that there are some who sort of think this is good and think this ought to be done and even think that they ought to double down on it.
What do you mean that this is good?
What congressional Republicans are doing. There are others that think this is really not a smart way to go, like Ramesh Ponnuru. And a lot of my other colleagues, I think, are just really uneasy over what’s happened. And this is something you see written about increasingly by some Republican intellectuals, like Michael Gerson, that their party is being hijacked by radicals. So that resonates with a significant number of people who could qualify as Republican intellectuals. Obviously I’m a bit more of an outlier here in a more general way.
Is it an uncomfortable place for you?
No, it’s not, interestingly enough. I’ve been here for a very long time. I really am very fortunate to be in a place that leaves me alone to do what I want to do and what I think is the right thing to do.
Going back to the radicals. Sometimes you hear a metaphor, like a boiling pot, and you know the heat needs to be turned off. What do you think could turn off the heat?
Well, I certainly worry that it would take a catastrophe like a default and the backlash that falls from that, which is not a great outcome, because that’s going to blow up on all of us. But there’s also the reality of the world: You’ve got to lose elections. You lose a few elections and then you start to think that maybe you have to adjust what you are doing and how are you are doing it. One of the dangers here is that you may see a public reaction that says screw them all, and then incumbents running will be in some trouble. But I think if you lose three presidential elections in a row what it does is that it begins to give a little bit of traction to the pragmatists in the party, and a little bit less attraction to the radicals in the party.
But even there, you know, another piece that I wrote a couple of weeks back now on how there are five Republican parties, a House and Senate and presidential one, but also a Southern and non-Southern party. The bottom line was that it’s the House party and the Southern party, which are the dominant forces out there; they are the ones driving the dialogue. And the fact is that in the House party you’ve got people who come from homogeneous echo chambers in their districts and are concerned, most of them, only about primaries. The Southern party has a very different worldview from the rest of the country, and is not moved by broader national opinion. It is much more overtly hostile to Obama, and I suspect that race is a part of it.
Almost all of the people from those areas come from districts with at best a trace element of minority voters. If you look, even within the House, at all of those votes where Boehner tried to get bipartisan majorities, the ones at the end of last year and the beginning of this year: the fiscal cliff, Hurricane Sandy, Violence Against Women Act, the ones who voted against him consistently, the vast number of them, were from the South.
These are not people moved so much by presidential politics or presidential elections, so it's going to be a tough nut to crack. And it's tough as well because what incentive is there for Rush Limbaugh or Mark Levin or a local radio talk show host to suddenly say, “Oh my God we’ve got to move back to the center.” The best way to get your audience larger and more consistent is to be more divisive and more radical and criticize those who cater to or kowtow to other forces. And the money is still much more driven over on that side, from multibillionaires and others, who themselves are more ideological, so it's hard to see in the short run how we come out of this.