The Weary and the Worthy
January 28, 2015
Among the many stunning moments in Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” there is one visual that sticks with me: when Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his men, after immense hardships, finally find Ryan.
I saw the movie shortly after it was released. I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park, and the unbearably intense Normandy Beach scene had me, and others in the audience, wincing or closing our eyes. The suffering doesn’t stop there, and everyone questions just why it is that eight men must risk, and lose, their lives to bring back one. But when a very young, very handsome Matt Damon showed up, back lit, there was an audible gasp. It wasn’t what we were expecting—Damon was a star, fresh off of winning an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” but Spielberg couldn’t have known that when he cast him (the filming of the two movies overlapped). He must have chosen Damon for the visual impact, and he succeeded. That’s Ryan, we must have all thought. “Just look at him. He’s worthy.”
Worthy is a hard word. And it’s a word that my fellow Democrats worry about, even if they don’t articulate it that way. After the bipartisan train-wreck that was and will be governance during the eight years of the Obama Administration, we know that the next President is going to be the one the electorate considers more worthy.
The public looks at what goes on in Washington, and they are tired of it. I am not talking about the can-do-no-right or can-do-no-wrong crowd. Rather it is the weary middle of the electorate that is struggling to find its footing—a group that could thrash Obama in 2010, re-elect him in 2012, and thrash him again in 2014. They want better than Executive Orders and better than endless investigations and silly votes to repeal Obamacare. They are losing faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and perhaps even more importantly, they are losing faith in anyone acting as an honest broker. Even the Judiciary is increasingly seen as partisan, a feeling that is likely to intensify after the Supremes make a decision on yet another ACA challenge, and several voting rights and campaign spending cases.
Why should the President be different? He or she is after all, a product of the party system. Well, because of the job itself. The guys on Mount Rushmore sat in that chair, and anyone who follows them shouldn’t be a hack on the make. The President is supposed to work for us—not all the time, of course, he’s allowed to have a philosophy and allowed to occasionally play politics—but in the end, he is expected to do the best he can for the maximum number of us. If he is not perceived that way, his standing suffers, and suffers in a particularly corrosive way.
I don't think either Barack Obama or George W. Bush ever really understood that. Bush had his chance after 9/11, and inexplicably kicked it away as hard and as fast as his handlers could make him. Obama doesn’t seem to have handlers, in fact, he doesn’t seem to have anyone—rather, he projects a detachment that can drive even people who are ideologically in tune with him completely nuts (read Maureen Dowd when she has her Irish up.)
The weary middle wants better, and it is looking for someone that is worthy of its trust. It is painful to watch this particular movie when you have the suspicion that nothing at all will end up feeling redemptive.
Who can change this? I don’t know, but as a Democrat, and a citizen, I can tell you I’m worried. My party seems to have only one candidate—Hillary Clinton. She is smart, talented and experienced, but…she’s Hillary Clinton. She might turn out to be a very solid President. But…she’s Hillary Clinton, and a Clinton candidacy, and Presidency, if she is so lucky to get elected, will not end the trench warfare, the personal vendettas, and the petty foolishness that seems as natural as breathing right now. We will be weary in 2016, and weary in 2020, and possibly weary in 2024. That is a lot of weary.
But, if Hillary does run, and loses, I worry even more what impact it will have on both the party and the country. A Republican President means a Republican government—without coattails, the likelihood is that the GOP would keep the House and the Senate. They would firm up their hold on statehouses and state legislatures. Institutionally, the Democrats would have fewer and fewer elected seats where they could demonstrate political ability. Could Hillary lose, given that she is currently running ahead in the polls? Absolutely. Beyond the fact that two years is a very long time, there is also the distinct chance that enough of the less-partisan and persuadable electorate would be weary enough of the whole GOP vs. Obama thing to not to want to continue it with Hillary. They might pick the elephant just to seek some (temporary) peace.
But if a Hillary candidacy sows doubts, an all-GOP government raises fears. At the Congressional level, they have turned into a parliamentary party, with a very conservative wing, and an acutely conservative wing. There are no real moderate conservatives with any influence, and accordingly, the GOP-controlled Congress represents only the roughly 30% of the electorate that shares its ideological passions.
Even that might not be so much of a problem if Boehner and McConnell had more control, but they have permitted the acutes far too much sway. Neither man can bargain with the Democrats/Mr. Obama because the smallest concession brings out the screeching.
There are only three ways out of the box for Boehner and McConnell if they really want to forge a workable conservative agenda—and demonstrate to the country that they can trust Republicans with the keys to the vault. The first is to break the power of the purists by bringing legislation to the floor that would get enough (not a lot, but enough) Democratic votes to offset the loss of those who want confrontation. Essentially, you get the Democrats (and Obama) on board by saying “I know it’s 75% good for me, but the alternative is worse. You need to give more to get anything.” The second is to take the Presidency, but that is two years off. Since they are unwilling to do the first, and unable to do the second, they seem to have defaulted into the third—pandering to the worst instincts of the worst of the acutes.
That pandering was fine when the House could play show and tell without having to take responsibility for actually governing. But now, the GOP is ascendant, and what they pass actually matters. How are they doing? Just like a big, but vaguely malevolent puppy—all clumsy paws with sharp claws.
Where to start since they just started? Trey Gowdy in the House has been holding secret Republican-only interviews for his Benghazi committee, and apparently suppressing exculpatory evidence. Boehner had to withdraw an anti-abortion bill because of social conservatives insistence that pregnant rape victims report it immediately—and some (male) House conservatives actually complained there were women in their caucus. The hard-liners want to shut down the government and the Homeland Security Department to defund Obama’s immigration moves. Boehner breached protocol by privately inviting Bibi Netanyahu to speak to Congress to oppose Obama’s Middle East policy, and Bibi privately accepted, an act that blew up in both their faces—Senate Democrats withdrew support for an Iran sanctions bill, and Bibi is facing significant criticism at home for apparently playing in American domestic politics.
That is your GOP scorecard for the first few weeks. Stop me when you see “worthy.” Right now I’m still at “weary” with a very heavy dollop of “worried.” And this ain’t a movie.
I have to call Steven. Maybe he could send someone over from central casting?
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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