Two U.S. senators -- one a Democrat, one Republican -- thought a bit of holiday cheer might help thaw the frozen partisanship that has immobilized Capitol Hill.
Last holiday season, Sens. Al Fanken, D-Minn., and Mike Johanns, R-Neb., sponsored a "Secret Santa" gift exchange among U.S. senators.
It didn’t work.
The response: 77 percent of the so-called "Gingrich senators," the 22 Republican senators elected after 1978, decided not to participate, as did three of the five Republican Tea Party senators elected in 2010.
That anecdote was recounted Monday by University of Texas political scientist Sean Theriault at a California conference called "Politics to the Extreme."
In reaction to that story, Pepperdine University professor Brian Newman observed, "There’s some poison in the air."
By whatever name -- "poison," "partisanship" and "polarization" were among those used by conference speakers -- the hard edge of modern U.S. politics was the subject of intense discussion among leading national political scientists during the first day of the conference that ends Tuesday.
The keynote speakers were Washington, D. C-based political scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, who spoke of their new book and why they named it "It’s Even Worse Than It Looks."
Mann, who is a scholar at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, said the book was motivated not by a sense that today’s extreme polarization is unprecedented but by a fear of the consequences.
"Yes, we got through them," he said, referring to the nation’s past political estrangements. "But one of those times we had to go through a war. Democracy is about living with each other and learning to live with our differences without resorting to arms."
Ornstein, who is a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington, said he and Mann, whose book blames the extreme dysfunction in Washington on the Republican Party, realize that "neither party is filled with angels" but think today’s GOP is a radical outlier in U.S. politics.
He said several top Republican leaders, including GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, met on the eve of Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural and settled on a strategy to oppose the president at every turn and try to delegitimize him.
"That’s different from we’ve seen before," he said. "That’s tribalism."
Ornstein, who leans center-left, said the book also was motivated by a concern that the U.S. media is not doing its job of reporting what is happening in Washington.
"We were dismayed by the press, both the tribal press and the so-called mainstream press, fearing criticism, has fallen back on saying: ’They’re all doing it. They’re all the same,’ " he said.
Former Washington Post reporter and Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, moderator of the keynote discussion, asked whether there was short-term hope for the lame duck Congress to address the critical issues it will face, including the fate of the Bush tax cuts.
Ornstein said Americans will mostly "just have to hope we can skate through this period" and that there is a chance that if re-elected, Obama will have enough leverage to force a compromise.
If no agreement is in sight, he said, Obama can threaten to allow all the tax cuts to expire and point out to Republicans, "I’m going to come back in January and propose one of the biggest tax cuts in history."
That would simply involve proposing his current position on the issue, which is to leave the tax cuts in place for most taxpayers but allow the higher rates to go up for those with the biggest incomes.
The blame-the-Republicans theory of Ornstein and Mann is not shared by all conference speakers, including former GOP Rep. Mickey Edwards, who will be the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s closing luncheon.
Edwards supports nonpartisan political reform and will be promoting his new book, "The Parties Against The People: How to Turn Democrats and Republicans Into Americans."
In brief comments Monday, Edwards said Washington is beset with "institutional problems that transcend partisanship. This has roots that go beyond the current Tea Party."
Villanova University political scientist Lara Brown took a shot at the title of Ornstein and Mann’s book in her presentation on presidential election strategies.
"It may be worse than it looks," she said, "but it may not be as bad as you think."
Brown said she saw the parallels between recent presidential and congressional elections and those that took place during the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century.
At that time, the country was dealing with a major economic transition, she said. Industrialization was to Americans of the late 19th century what globalization of the economy is to Americans in the early 21st century.
The transition could take many election cycles before a consensus on a path forward emerges, she said.
"It’s not that the parties aren’t offering new solutions," she said. "It’s just that they don’t have any yet."
(Contact Timm Herdt of the Ventura County Star in California at therdtvcstar.com)