A respected congressional scholar takes on Washington extremism
By Richard Harris, Photos by Jonathan Thorpe
He wears the label of policy wonk as a badge of honor, pointing out that "wonk" is "know" spelled backwards. But "wonk" doesn't begin to describe the political junkie who is Norman Ornstein (B.A. '67). In a city where the fault lines between Republicans and Democrats have become a chasm, Ornstein is that rare breed of Washingtonian: zealously nonpartisan with friends and colleagues on both sides of the growing political gulf.
Rarer still, Ornstein is an amalgam of political analyst and policymaker: a contributing writer and editor for The Atlantic and National Journal and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, where he headed up projects on election reform, congressional reform, and continuity of government. At the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he led a project to examine the role of institutions in promoting the common good. He was a cocreator of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit that safeguards democracy in the areas of campaign finance, voting rights, political communication, and government ethics. He serves on its board, along with the boards of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which promotes American leadership abroad; the Volcker Alliance, which works to make government at all levels perform better; and the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.
He's also one of the funniest people you'll find in a town not known for its yuks.
Unlike most pundits during this wacky political season, Ornstein saw as early as last August that Donald Trump could become the first presidential nominee with no political experience since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Writing in The Atlantic ("Maybe This Time Is Really Different," August 2015), Ornstein was one of the first analysts to suggest that Trump could ride an insurgent, antiestablishment wave and actually become the Republican nominee or at least be in the mix for an open and freewheeling convention in Cleveland. Trump's immigration rhetoric, Ornstein sensed, had become a catchall for a whole lot of angry populism out there. If you look at the arc of his success, Trump vaulted from being a curiosity into prominence and then front-runner status after he talked about Mexicans being rapists and building a wall. Still, not even Ornstein anticipated that Trump would have all but secured the nomination by early May.
Trump's ascendancy and the fracturing of the Republican Party are not likely to make Ornstein's career-long mission to make government work better any easier. Unlike many in Washington who make a living wringing their hands at its pitched political battles, Ornstein takes his critique to a constructive place. "Norm has been in the thick of trying to heal what ails American politics," says Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform doesn't happen without Norm Ornstein. He was the midwife. I think he was actually present at fertilization."
Following 9/11, Ornstein worked with former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson, a cochair of the Continuity of Government Commission, who was impressed with Ornstein's attention to detail. "He diagrammed what would happen if the Senate were off in one area and the blast got them and suddenly the New York delegation appoints the President of the United States. I never saw Norm lurch to the right or left. He seems to plow his ground straight up the middle, which is hard to do in Washington and still be respected."
Because Ornstein is perched at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, and his longtime collaborator, Thomas Mann, represents the left-of-center Brookings Institution, they have been respected across the aisle in part because they're affiliated with complementary think tanks and are unencumbered by partisan labels. But in 2012, they caught some static when they coauthored It's Even Worse Than it Looks, a book on the politics of extremism. A Washington Post op-ed based on the book carried the provocative headline, "Let's Just Say It: The Republicans are the Problem." Ornstein and Mann didn't mince words, concluding: "We have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party." Their message wasn't well received by one of the major political parties. And none of the signature Sunday talk shows invited them on to discuss it.
Fast forward to 2016. Because the "political tribalism" they described in the book has only gotten worse, the title of their updated book had to be changed to It's Even Worse Than It Looks Was. Belatedly, journalists such as Dan Balz of the Washington Post, dean of the Capitol political reporters, came to realize Ornstein and Mann "were ahead of others in describing the underlying causes of polarization as asymmetrical, with the Republican Party - in particular its most hard-line faction - deserving the blame for the breakdown in governing." Another political reporter, Ezra Klein of Vox, recently said Ornstein and Mann's view may have been controversial four years ago, but "is obviously correct now."
Ornstein and Mann's previous book, The Broken Branch, singled out Democrats in the years leading up to 1994 for growing arrogance and condescension. "We don't do partisan spin or ideological rants," Ornstein says. But he concedes that, for some, "trust in us became more difficult as we became more critical of the Republicans."
"To call him Mr. Quotemeister is to sell Norm short. He's not just trolling along behind the circus of Washington politics peddling quotes. His genius is in converting rigorous analysis to the wavelength of popular media." -Humphrey School Director Larry Jacobs
After nearly five decades in Washington, Ornstein would be the first to tell you Congress isn't known for its breakneck speed. But even he, the leading political scholar of America's gridlocked government, had never seen anything like the rapid-fire events that unfolded on the afternoon of February 13.
First came news of the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Then, in a matter of minutes, the office of Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee tweeted, "What is less than zero? The chances of Obama successfully appointing a Supreme Court justice to replace Scalia?" Barely an hour later, while other members of Congress were sending out statements of condolence, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell declared, "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice." His edict: Despite nearly a year left in office, President Obama would get no hearing or vote for anyone he nominated to replace Scalia.
For Minnesota native Ornstein, this was not just "quite extraordinary," but Exhibit A of the dysfunction in Washington. "Norm came up in an environment that puts a premium on good and effective government," says Minnesota's U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee. On the ides of March, deep inside the U.S. Capitol Visitors Bureau, Klobuchar was the lead speaker at a discussion, moderated by Ornstein, on the broken nomination process.
Before he decried how the "the Court itself had now become an instrument of the partisan tribalism," Ornstein took note of a presidential election season that has focused on, among other bizarre sideshows, one candidate's hand size. "There's parlor game speculation on who Donald Trump would choose for the Court, should he become President. I think it's fairly obvious," Ornstein deadpanned. "It would come from the universe of those he knows or has seen deeply involved with the judiciary, which would mean either Judge Judy or one of the many judges in the Miss Universe pageant." The room erupted in laughter.
Don't let Ornstein's zingers fool you. His ability to inject humor into speeches before burrowing into the weeds of public policy has been on display all the way back to when he partnered with then-comedian, now Minnesota's U.S. Senator Al Franken on Comedy Central's Indecision '92. "He blew me away," says Franken. "He never gave a bad line reading. The best letter we got said, 'The guy you had play Norm Ornstein was perfect.'"
The two met during the 1988 Democratic Convention and became fast friends. Amazingly, the two political junkies grew up blocks apart in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, but didn't know each other. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who was born in St. Louis Park, describes the community in his forthcoming book Thank You for Being Late as "the town that would be produced if Finland and Israel had a baby." Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who put St. Louis Park on the map in their movie A Serious Man, also hail from the town. Friedman reveals the recipe: "In a bottle you put very civic-minded Scandinavian culture and third-generation Jews whose grandparents came from Europe. Shake and stir until you create an incredible explosion of energy that propelled a lot of people."
Bonded by comedy and politics, the team of Franken and Ornstein performed one New Year's during the Clinton administration for the President and First Lady at a Renaissance Weekend retreat. Recalling that weekend, Franken bursts into song in his Senate office. "I'm Norm. I'm Al. Together, we're Norm-Al. The comedy team that's not exactly normal. . . ." and then he let out that unmistakable Franken laugh, surprised that he could recall the 20-year-old ditty.
More recently, Ornstein advised Franken on making the transition from comedian to Senator. His advice: Be a workhorse, not a show horse, and learn the Senate by presiding over the body as much as you can. In fact, Franken held the gavel so often as a freshman that he has two golden gavels in his office as mementoes.
How rare it is for a political scientist like Ornstein to have both comedic timing and the ability to deftly translate policy into compelling, understandable analysis, never leaving the audience feeling that they're hip-deep in the weeds. "Norm has such clarity and insight into what those in the know are thinking. And he weaves it all into each conversation so brilliantly," says NPR's Diane Rehm, who's had Ornstein on her 37-year-old show nearly 200 times since 1993 - and countless times before then when the show didn't keep records - likely more than anyone else. He holds a similar record on PBS NewsHour. A picture on the wall of his well-lived-in office depicts him as a face card, "the King of Quotes."
The morning after Ornstein's Supreme Court panel, he was listening live on headsets at Rehm's Washington studios just a few miles up the road from the White House, where President Obama stood in the Rose Garden formally nominating Judge Merrick Garland to replace the late Justice Scalia. After the President and Garland spoke, Rehm turned to Ornstein for his reaction. "I know Merrick Garland and his wife," he began, "and there's a good reason why he's been on everyone's short list for years. There are two reasons the President picked him. Some Democrats are not going to be happy with this. He's older - 63. He's not a strong liberal. He's very much a pragmatist and a centrist."
There, in a soundbite, is the magic of Norm Ornstein: well-connected, analytical, and pithy. "To call him Mr. Quotemeister sells Norm short," says Jacobs, a professor of politics and governance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School. "This is not a guy who's just trolling along behind the circus of Washington politics peddling quotes. His genius is in converting rigorous research and analysis to the currency and wavelength of popular media."
- It's hard to find anyone in Washington to say an unkind word about Ornstein. Well, almost anyone. A public encounter between Ornstein and then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the American Enterprise Institute in 2013 earned the headline "Think Tank Smackdown" in the Washington Post. Ornstein introduced himself and was about to ask McConnell a question about campaign finance disclosure when the Senator said, "I've enjoyed dueling with you over the years. You've been consistently wrong on almost everything. . . the worse things that have been said about me over the years have been said by Norm Ornstein." Ornstein shot back, "One of the things we can agree on is that some of the worst things said about me have been said by you."
Maybe the secret to Norm Ornstein isn't so mysterious. He had something of a head start, graduating high school at 14, the University of Minnesota at 18, and the University of Michigan with his Ph.D. at 23. With his mother's family very involved in politics, his grandfather a labor leader in Minneapolis, and his uncle serving in the Minnesota State Legislature, Ornstein was prepped to follow in the footsteps of his University of Minnesota mentor, Political Science Professor Eugene Eidenberg. He had been a Congressional fellow and inspired Ornstein to become one, thus launching his nearly half century in Washington.
For his fellowship. Ornstein literally learned at the knee of Minnesota Representative Don Fraser (B.A. '44, J.D. '48), who would later become mayor of Minneapolis. "To his everlasting credit, Fraser said, 'I'm giving you a desk inside my personal office. He never once said to me, 'You need to leave - this is a private meeting.'" Ornstein stayed and watched the Congressional sausage being made from the inside. And he was hooked.
Through the years, Ornstein believed so deeply in governance for the common good, as opposed to scoring political points, that he didn't shy away from warning Speaker of the House Tom Foley about the "powerful train wreck ahead" if Congress made laws that applied to others but exempted members. And how many people would work tirelessly for 30 years to get independence in the ethics procedures in Congress, resulting in the Office of Congressional Ethics?
The through line in Norm Ornstein's career is perhaps best summed up by three people who have observed him. Tom Friedman calls Ornstein "an original thinker who offers analytical rigor with soul." University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs says, "Norm is at heart an optimist and believer in America." And former Senator Alan Simpson, whom Ornstein calls "one of my champions" and "one of the few members who venerated his own institution," pays Ornstein the highest compliment. "You can put on Norm's tombstone, 'He wanted to make things work.'"
How many of us would rate such an inscription?