I’m still getting used to be the interviewee and not the interviewer. Here’s a recent Q&A with me conducted by Katie Perkowski, a super-talented former Texas on the Potomac intern who now works and lives in Bratislava.
Katie’s piece first appeared in WBP Online.
Behind Capitol Hill: Q&A with long-time Washington watchdog
Rick Dunham has had eyes and ears on Capitol Hill and in the White House for three decades, giving him a unique view into US politics. In an interview with WBP Online, the former Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle explains how dramatic political party transformations have led to the dysfunction in Congress we are seeing today.
By Katie Perkowski
Few people understand the inner workings of US politics quite as well as Rick Dunham, who covered the White House and Capitol Hill for three decades, during which time he served as Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, White House correspondent for BusinessWeek and board president of the National Press Club.
In a Q&A with WBP Online, Dunham explained the dramatic transformations of the two main political parties, Republicans and Democrats, that he saw during his time in Washington, and why those shifts have led to an ever-dived Congress seemingly incapable of getting anything done. The latest evidence of that now all-too-familiar phenomenon? The federal government’s shutdown, now on day four with no sign of stopping.
Here’s what Dunham had to say:
Q: Can you describe the shift in dynamic you noticed in both the Republican and Democrat parties during your time in Washington? What do you think brought about this change in the way things get done (or don’t)?
There has been a tremendous shift, both culturally and politically, over my three decades in Washington.
One is ideological. Both parties’ representatives were far more diverse in the past. Democrats ranged from far left to far right. Republicans ranged from liberal to very conservative. Now there are no liberals and very few moderates left among Republican lawmakers. And there are very few Democrats remaining who are right of the political center. The party is pretty well split between far left, left and center. Republicans are pretty well divided between right and far right, with a tiny group of centrists. The key Republican division is establishment and insurgent. The establishment Republicans still are in the majority but the radical right Republicans control the agenda through mastery of tactics and willingness to “do the unthinkable.”
Culturally, there has been an even bigger shift. When I arrived in Washington in 1984, Congress was controlled by “doers” and not “talkers.” The goal of lawmakers was to make laws. Legislators used to legislate. Now, the vast majority on both sides of the aisle want to posture and play to their ideological core rather than to get things done.
The great lawmakers I have covered were often very liberal or conservative – Ted Kennedy was hard left and Bob Dole was very conservative – but they believed in moving things forward for their country in the end. There are almost none of those left now, and certainly not enough to get things done.
Q: Covering Texas, you followed Ted Cruz in his rise from solicitor general to senator. What kind of change within the Republican party does Cruz represent? There have been numerous reports out about how senior members of his party, like McCain and Graham are not happy with the way he’s doing things. Do you think there could be a party split among Republicans in the near future? What is the Tea Party’s role in all of this?
The key figures representing the three strands of the Republican future are Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. All are ultraconservative but only Rubio among them is pragmatic and willing to cut deals. The other two are ideological purists who would rather lose than compromise. Rand Paul is the leader of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. He is anti-government. Period. Ted Cruz is an ultraconservative in the mold of the 1964 version of Barry Goldwater, who believed that extremism in the defense of liberty (as he saw it) is no vice. Cruz is against government unless government will help him accomplish his ideological ends. He also is against (almost) anything Barack Obama is for. I call him the leader of the nihilist strain of the modern Republican Party.
That’s why old-fashioned conservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham don’t like him. They are very conservative – I don’t buy into the revisionist view of McCain and Graham as moderate because they are willing to cut deals and occasionally act like mavericks.
McCain took an instant dislike to Cruz because Cruz has such an authentic dislike for the institution. McCain respects the institution. Cruz despises it. They are both strong personalities, so it is natural that they will clash. Neither of them is phony. They genuinely dislike each other.
McCain and other Republican leaders believe that Cruz is leading the party on a political suicide mission. They believe he is hoping to burn down the village and then claim to be king of the ashes.
Cruz represents the socially conservative strand of Tea Party Republicanism. Rand Paul represents the pure libertarian strand of Tea Party Republicanism. Both are ideologically pure and strongly “pro-liberty” but both philosophies are distinct and different. They have a slightly different definition of what liberty means.
Q: What kind of precedent do you think it would set if Republicans hold to their current stance and hold the debt ceiling “hostage” as some are calling it in an effort to repeal or delay a law that’s already been passed? Could that lead to similar actions by Congress in the future, or even “revenge” acts of a similar manner by Democrats?
I don’t think it will lead to a “tit for tat” reaction from Democrats in the future. Democrats never held the government or the country hostage during George W. Bush’s administration. I’ve always said that the Democrats’ big problem is that they are too “responsible.” I’m not talking about being ideologically moderate. I mean that they won’t take extreme measures in order to prevail.
Filibusters are another matter. Both sides are irresponsible and hypocritical when it comes to filibusters. That’s another big change in the Washington culture. But that’s another story.
In some ways, Democrats are to blame for all of this. It started with the defeat of Robert Bork, who was very qualified for the Supreme Court (in terms of legal qualifications) but was defeated for ideological reasons, because he was out of the judicial mainstream. That has led to the political equivalent of an arms race where each side is willing to become more and more virulent in order to make political points. It’s gotten to the point that Republicans will block Democratic nominations just because the nominees exist, not even for reasons of ideology or the nominee’s personal issues. That is utterly irresponsible and, I am sorry to say, bipartisan.
Q: Do you think the current party structure in Washington can survive, or should it be changed to prevent the type of mess we’re seeing now?
I see the party structure surviving because that is the history of American representative democracy. We have always had two main parties. The two parties have not always been Republican and Democrat. Since we entered the R/D era, the two parties have changed radically. Now, just about anyone who would have been a Republican at the time of slavery and the Civil War is a Democrat, and anybody who would have been a Democrat at that time is a Republican. The two parties have reversed regional bases. One of the only common threads is that immigrants still tend to be Democrats.
I see the Democratic Party becoming more “moderate” in coming years as more disgruntled former Republicans and moderate young people join the party. I see the Republican Party finally having a showdown between the establishment right and the hard right. It probably will take the nomination of a far-right Republican for president and an overwhelming defeat for the party to move back toward the center. The last two nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney, were not purists. Indeed, Ronald Reagan is the last hard-core conservative to be a presidential nominee. And Reagan would be considered a pragmatic moderate by today’s standards.
One last thought: If the Republicans are to have a future at the presidential level, they cannot afford to continue to lose immigrants, minorities and young voters. Those three blocs are the future. Republicans not only need to maintain their current levels of support, they need to increase them. A similar fate befell Democrats during the 1980s as Ronald Reagan cut into the blue-collar Democratic base, young voters went Republican and old New Deal Democrats died off rapidly. Democrats won just once in 24 years before Bill Clinton started to redefine the Democratic Party with his “New Democrat” movement. We’re at a similar point in reverse now. But I suspect we’ll need a disaster like the Democrats faced in 1980-1984-1988 to convince Republicans to rethink Cruz-ism.
Dunham is now based in Beijing, where he is a professor of multimedia journalism and co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University. You can follow him at https://rickdunhamblog.com/.
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