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It was an odd but intriguing experience to sit at a press breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor last week and listen as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell strongly rebutted one of my recent columns, implicitly endorsed the message of another and sent a disquieting signal about the prospects that might follow a Republican victory in the midterm elections. The opening question to the Kentucky senator from one of my colleagues asked about the criticisms of the Senate’s performance detailed in the latest issue of the New Yorker and summarized in my recent column. McConnell, admirably candid, made it clear he did not agree with any of it.
Earlier this week, as the United States Senate went through the motions of debating Elena Kagan’s nomination to a Supreme Court seat that almost certainly will be hers, readers of the New Yorker across the country could review journalist George Packer’s masterful article “The Empty Chamber,” tracing the decline and fall of that same Senate. Packer shares with thousands of citizens what every reporter who covers the Capitol knows: that the public disdain for Congress, measured in record low approval scores in polls, is mirrored by the frustration of the members of both parties who have to serve and bear the scorn.
MIDDLETOWN, Del. – A lot of the mail I receive these days reads like this letter from a Milford, Utah, man, who says: “Truly, there is a lot of anger in the land, and one other thing that columnists like you appear to have missed or perhaps are ignoring. That thing is disgust with the obvious, deliberate refusal by elected officials to do their duty and actually represent the will of the people.” If that is your feeling, too, come with me to Delaware, where I spent the weekend with two Senate candidates who will restore your faith in representative government.
Buoyed by a 13-6 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Elena Kagan is on her way to the Supreme Court. The talk in Washington is what the impending elevation of the former Harvard Law School dean and solicitor general will mean for the capstone of the judiciary. Seated next to a former attorney general at a dinner party last weekend, I put the question to him – and received what is probably the conventional wisdom. “It won’t change anything,” he said, because Kagan’s moderate liberal philosophy is unlikely to deviate often from that of the justice she will replace, John Paul Stevens, often described as the leader of the four-member liberal minority. Not until one of the five conservative justices steps down will President Barack Obama have an opportunity to remake the judicial branch.
On June 30, the Congressional Budget Office issued its long-term outlook, predicting that deficits would come down for the next few years as the need for counterrecession spending eases and revenues improve. But then, it warned, “unsustainable” red ink would flow again, creating debts not seen since World War II. The very next day the House of Representatives passed a one-year budget resolution rather than the normal blueprint committing the government to a fiscal plan of at least five years.
Just as this year, Independence Day in 1852 fell on a Sunday. But in New York City the traditional celebration was upstaged by another event. The casket bearing the remains of Henry Clay had arrived aboard the steamboat Trenton. As historians David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler write in their splendid biography, “Henry Clay: The Essential American,” published earlier this year, “New York closed down and turned out on Broadway to see the makeshift parade that bore Clay to City Hall. He lay there in state for the rest of the day and all of the next, July 4, a Sunday.”
The paradox of Robert Byrd’s life – and the reason his death was recognized by his Senate colleagues as so significant a milestone – is the balance he struck between the parochial and the profound. On one hand, he was known as the “King of Pork” and was immensely proud of the way he used his long years on the Appropriations Committee to funnel billions of federal funds into his home state of West Virginia. It never occurred to him to apologize for looking out for the home folks.
What began as a well-intentioned effort to deal with the consequences of the miserable Supreme Court decision expanding special-interest influence in election campaigns has turned into a roiling mess for the Democrats. There is a better way. Here’s what’s happened. In January, the court, in a 5-4 decision, discovered new rights for corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on their own ads supporting or opposing federal candidates. The extension of First Amendment privileges to these groups, which had been historically barred from using their treasury funds in politics, threatens to inundate campaigns with outside cash.
Far be it from me to tell the crew of public relations officials who now occupy those West Wing offices as a reward for running one of the best presidential campaigns anyone has ever seen, but ... If there is any value in President Obama’s knocking himself out to dramatize on prime-time television his impotence in the face of the Gulf oil leak calamity, I wish someone would explain it.
While the nation remains preoccupied by the drama of the oil leak in the Gulf, which consumes an inordinate portion of time and attention in the media, a struggle of potentially greater consequence for most American families is taking place with far less publicity. I am referring to the scenarios being enacted in legislatures across the land as the final strokes are being placed on state budgets, and the fate of literally thousands of teachers and pupils is being decided.
“This is the worst,” a Democratic friend exclaimed over the phone on Tuesday, the first day back at work after the Memorial Day weekend. I knew without asking what he meant – the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that dominated television coverage and was into its second month with no quick solution in sight. No, I told him. It’s not yet the worst.
Much of political wisdom consists simply of understanding and acknowledging which subjects and practices are off limits. Yes, I know, to some people the very term “political wisdom” is a contradiction. To them, true wisdom rejects compromise and insists on clarity and discipline. But those who understand that the American system of governing a free society involves finding practical approaches to complex problems also understand that the “good until” date applies to politics.
As we approached the Tuesday night with the most significant senatorial primaries of the year so far, I turned for guidance to a man who had already been through the fires that define the incendiary politics of 2010. Ten days after he was barred from the ballot in the Utah Republican primary because the 3,500 delegates to the GOP state convention preferred to give more votes to his two challengers, three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett was, as I expected, more analytical than angry, more thoughtful than embittered.
In separate sectors of the English-speaking democratic world, the capacity of the two-party system to cope with the pressures of an economic crisis is being tested this week, with important implications for both Britain and the United States. Today’s voting in England, Scotland and Wales will determine whether it is possible to assemble a majority in Parliament for either the Labour government that has ruled for 13 years or the Conservatives, who have furnished the strongest consistent opposition. The rise of the third-force Liberal Democrats creates the possibility of a hung Parliament and a protracted period of inter-party bargaining.
Many in the media, including my colleagues at the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson and Richard Cohen, have written powerful and appropriate columns decrying the action of the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer in passing and signing a punitive law aimed at illegal immigrants. If the law goes into effect despite promised constitutional challenges, local police in Arizona will be able to stop people they suspect may not belong here and require them to produce papers attesting that they are legal citizens. Jail terms for trespassing await anyone without the documentation.
Recently, I wrote a column commending President Barack Obama for his long-range vision and for the patience to wait, beyond his own term if necessary, for the rewards to appear. (Editor’s note: Spokesman-Review readers saw the column last Thursday under the headline “Obama looks to the future.”) The column really irritated a reader in Maryland, who unloaded on Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander, who sent the complaint on to me.
We are beginning to learn that the Obama presidency will be an era of substantial but deferred accomplishments – perhaps always to be accompanied by a sense of continuing crisis. His vaunted “cool” allows him to wait without impatience and to endure without visible despair. It asks the same of his constituents. These thoughts were generated by the events of the past few days in Washington, when a glut of 46 visiting heads of state caused a massive traffic tie-up and a veritable windstorm of talk, all to yield a promise that two years hence, we may see major steps toward control of loose nuclear weapons and their fuel.
No one waited longer for the passage of health care reform than John Dingell, so it was only right that no one smiled more broadly than the 83-year-old congressman while seated at the president’s side for the bill-signing ceremony in the White House East Room. It was back in 1955 when Dingell succeeded his late father in a special election from Downriver Detroit and took up the family business of working for health care to be guaranteed for every family regardless of income.
The last time Sen. Evan Bayh was the subject of this column was back in October, when he organized a letter from 10 moderate Democrats informing Majority Leader Harry Reid that they would oppose any increase in the statutory debt ceiling unless it was accompanied by a serious move to rein in the national debt. Specifically, the Indiana Democrat and his colleagues asked for a vote on the proposal to create a bipartisan commission to examine all aspects of spending and taxation and recommend deficit-cutting steps for a guaranteed vote by the House and Senate by the end of this year.
The snows that obliterated Washington last week interfered with many scheduled meetings, but they did not prevent the delivery of one important political message: Take Sarah Palin seriously. Her lengthy Saturday night keynote address to the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville and her debut on the Sunday morning talk show circuit with Fox News’ Chris Wallace showed off a public figure at the top of her game – a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself.