The fight within the GOP, a Hillary assessment for non-fans, pot criticism and life-changing books

Posted at 5:23 AM, Nov 10, 2014

I was going to avoid politics in this week’s suggestions of good reads, but I can’t quite resist. I’ll be brief, though, I promise.

Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann are political scientists who actually know politicians, consultants and hacks. Based at the American Enterprise Institute and the Bookings Institution, respectively, they have served as the semi-official Professors of Government in Washington for a long time. A few years ago they published a sober account of federal sclerosis, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” that became a national best seller, quite against the odds.

But their book didn’t make quite the splash in Washington – on the Sunday talk shows, for example – that you might have thought.  I suspect the reason for that is that Mann and Ornstein broke the rules people like Mann and Ornstein are supposed to play by – they said Republicans were more to blame for toxic partisanship than Democrats.  You see, there are two categories of talking heads in Washington – ideologues and experts. Experts are supposed to be neutral between the two parties.

This week, they’ve published a clear and shrewd analysis of the thermodynamics of the GOP Congress that undermines hopes of a Great Ungridlock.

“So what happens when a party that has defined itself as an insurgent outlier, scornful of compromise and dismissive of the legitimacy of its opposition, actually takes charge in Washington?” they ask.

Hint: “The pragmatic desire of mainstream Republicans to transcend their ‘party of no’ label and show that they can actually govern will clash with the forces that continue to pull the GOP to the right and oppose anything the president does. This fight within the party will define the new Congress nearly as much as the battles with a Democratic president.”

I also recommend, for contrast, a midterm analysis by conservative Yuval Levin in the National Review.  It contains a particularly poisonous assessment of Hillary Clinton’s prospects that her non-fans in both parties will get a chuckle from:

Hillary Clinton has some enormous structural advantages as a general-election candidate, to be sure: basically the benefits of incumbency (no real primary challenge and no bar of presidential plausibility to clear) without the key disadvantage of incumbency (being responsible for everything people don’t like). And she has some personal advantages: She is smart, tough, and savvy and has a capacity to learn from failure and adjust. But she does have other disadvantages of incumbency (people are bored of her and feel like she has been talking at them forever) and some disadvantages all her own: She is a dull, grating, inauthentic, over-eager, insipid elitist with ideological blinders yet no particular vision and is likely to be reduced to running on a dubious promise of experience and competence while faking idealism and hope—a very common type of presidential contender in both parties, but one that almost always loses. And as things stand now, she will have little of substance to run on, which makes it even harder for such a politician to win. The Democrats seem only vaguely aware of this problem.

Now, on a higher note, the Times has a fun profile of the new pot critic at The Denver Post, Jake Browne. “A typical day for Mr. Browne likely starts by testing a few products,” the article says. One wonders how long he can stay at it.

The most important element of being a pot critic, though, is one that traditional food criticism may lack (at least in this much detail): how the product makes you feel. Seated in his living room testing out the Lemon Kush, Mr. Browne kept detailed notes from the moment he ingested, and observed how it moved through his body. (When writing about Jack Flash, another strain, he once noted that it “always gets me straight between the temples.”) With the Kush, he observed whether the pot relieved his headache (a little) and tracked, in painstaking detail, how the feeling of the high evolved.

Get used to it folks, coming to a city near you.

Now best for last: A nice piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education (no pun intender here) that asks a dozen academics from different fields what nonfiction books rocked their mind. Mind-changing seems to be a scarce skill in this polarized, social-media triumphalist times, so I enjoyed the piece immensely.

Many of the recommended books are specialized, but there is certainly something for everybody in the list. My favorite line came from Justin E.H. Smith. “The Yale political scientist James C. Scott’s ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ (2009) gave me the resources to come out as an anarchist.”

I must read that immediately.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Is American optimism fading?]

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