Our capital is greatly diminished compared with its old crackling pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd self. It is quieter, less bustling, drabber. A lot of government employees are still working at home, and you can feel it in the air, the sense that the federal government is coming out of everyone’s dining room.
It was my first visit since January. Things look better than they did then, but Washington has grown worn and less authentically itself. The bronze statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square, once brazenly heroic, has an air of retreat. There is a homeless encampment in a little copse of wood where Georgetown starts. Big buildings looked empty.
One place that seemed to retain its old mystique was the U.S. Senate, which still has the shine of the old marble and brass. The Facebook hearings were down the hall in the Russell Office Building, the press in full gaggle. Senators and staff were dressed as adults, suits and ties, heels and hose. I mentioned it to a staffer. “Yeah, today was like the old days,” he said.
Leaving my hotel one morning I saw security men hustle a man in a sharply cut suit into the back seat of a gleaming black SUV. He looked like a European diplomat. The world is still coming to Washington, still having its meetings, and making its calculations based in part on what it sees on the street.
Washington needs a new coat of paint. Stand up, feel your stature. “Remember who you are.” You are the capital of a great nation. Look like it, act like it.
We segue with the idea that Washington’s outer reality reflects its inner political life, where things are a murk, but not the usual one.
I’m not a huge respecter of polls (only snapshots, not a measure of greatness or consequence) but when polls put numbers on what you’re sensing you pay attention. And so the Quinnipiac poll this week on the president.
had a 38% overall approval rating, with 53% disapproval. Those are Trump numbers. On the issue of the border, 23% approve of the job Mr. Biden is doing and 67% disapprove. The economy: 39% approve, 55% disapprove. Asked if the administration “has been competent in running the government,” 42% said yes and 55% no.
Democrats, this “I’m a big ol’ progressive and we’re rewriting spending and taxing along left-wing ideological priorities and isn’t this dynamic and exciting?” thing isn’t working. The whole “You think I’m Joe Biden but if you squint you can see I’m really
” thing isn’t working. Ideological aggression isn’t working.
Mr. Biden is showing a lot of it. “Get out of the way,” he tells Republicans, on the debt limit. “If you don’t want to help save the country, get out of the way so you don’t destroy it.” He’s more rhetorically hostile to the unvaccinated than he is to the Taliban: “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us.” His statement on
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema
being harassed in a ladies’ room by activists who hissed like the devil’s imps was wan and passive-aggressive: “I don’t think they’re appropriate tactics, but it happens to everybody. . . . It’s part of the process.” It doesn’t happen to everybody and to announce it is part of the process is to make it part of the process. It was as if he were saying: Yeah, she’s got me mad. Hound her some more.
This is not the sound of bring-us-together; it’s not forbearance and grace. The tone is off in the White House, and the strategy on the Hill is off. I don’t think they understand who their progressives are.
People compare the progressives to the tea party and the Freedom Caucus, which drove successive Republican House speakers mad, but that’s not right, they’re not alike. The tea party and Freedom Caucus weren’t about getting something done, they were about portraying a mood: conservative resistance. They made a great show of fighting those compromised lackeys in the GOP leadership, but they never got anything done. They didn’t have a serious legislative strategy. They threw snares and did cable TV hits.
The progressives are serious. They are ideologues. They know what they want; they have serious legislative aims and worked-through strategies; they are socialists and mean to change America in its fundamentals.
They are not the usual politician driven by traditional exigencies, the usual “I need this” of politics. They are playing a different game.
And I think this has not been fully understood. You look at the infrastructure bill and how they are stopping it. You say, “They wouldn’t thwart the speaker in the culminating achievement of her political career.” They would. “They wouldn’t humiliate their new president in his first year, on his signal domestic effort, as his poll numbers wobble.” But they would.
I don’t understand why the speaker and the White House didn’t play hardball, put the infrastructure bill on the floor and get it passed with moderate Democrats, Republicans, and some frightened progressives who’d cave because they didn’t want to face the 2022 election after tanking it.
The infrastructure isn’t solely a Democratic drama. It affects the whole country. It got 19 Republican votes when it passed the Senate. Lawmakers want to say it made our roads and bridges stronger, our electrical grid fortified. Both parties could and should pass it. And the president would still get credit: “My God, something big got passed, he brought us together.” It was crazy to put this bill’s future in the hands of AOC and friends.
Democratic leaders are letting progressives push them around. Mr. Biden may want to create LBJ-sized history but he lacks LBJ’s electoral mandate and his tactical brutality. Would LBJ have allowed a caucus within his caucus to keep him from passing a popular, bipartisan bill that would have won him greatly needed praise? I don’t think so. He didn’t just know how to count, he knew how to kill.
The president and the speaker look as if they’re caught in the same dynamic that has seized almost every major institution in American life, including mainstream journalism and corporations. Progressives, who trend young, are pushing around moderates, who tend to be older. They’ve pushed to change the mission of the institution, to make it more woke, more reflective of the ideology of racial and gender identity, of social-justice wars. The older professionals, mostly longtime liberals, disagree with the progressives yet steadily lose. The progressive are winning, the institutions changing.
Are people seeing some of this same dynamic in Congress, with the young progressives knocking off the more moderate liberals? A lot of American voters who feel pushed around by the same forces might be seeing the parallels. And not liking what they see.
It is now almost a year since the election. America saw Joe Biden as a moderate liberal who, as his party went left, and its center went left, also went left, as a practical pol would. But not that far.
Or maybe that far. Maybe he was more to the left than he always let people think, more ferocious in his aims than he portrayed. I suspect America is coming to see this. And not liking it. Thus the polls.
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