|Image from New York Magazine, October 2014.|
I'm compelled to give David Brooks ("Washington's New Power Structure") half a pass today: he's written a column that deserved to be written and even contains a little Brooksian witticism that's not entirely unfunny:
Dear Senate Republicans,
I really enjoy spending time with you. You are interesting and excellent company (I really mean that!). When I’m with you, we often enter a magical land in which Donald Trump doesn’t exist. You’re eager to tell me about the issues you’re working on, and sometimes we have these substantive conversations in which we get to ignore the raging dumpster fire on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
In fact, sometimes I think the Senate isn’t a legislative body; it’s the world’s most expensive writer’s colony. Half the senators I meet are writing books.The point being one that has been made again and again over on our side, that Republican Senators seem to have lost the sense that they have any power. Flake and Corker issuing their style critiques of Trump as if their oath had been sworn to the Constitution of the United Tastes are gone, but Willard Mitt Romney is carrying the work on with the same indignation, surprise, and impotence.
But there’s one question, which I’d like to ask of practically every member of Congress. Why are you so dispossessed?I won't say he has a very good grasp of the causes of the problem, which he analyzes as a "leadership vacuum":
Right now, there is a massive leadership vacuum in Washington.
The White House can’t lead because it lacks a legislative agenda and a competent chief executive. Pelosi can’t lead because she has control of only one chamber and she has a base that doesn’t believe that Trump is legitimate or that compromise with him is moral. McConnell can’t lead because he’s in a tough position in Kentucky and can’t allow any space to develop on his right for a potential primary challenger.There's surely much too much leadership in the White House, all working at cross-purposes, between the president hurling ukases from his bedroom and the various power centers with their own parochial interests in encouraging environmental destruction, preventing the wrong people from voting, demonizing the immigrant, and so on, some of them certainly getting things accomplished.
At the end of December, David Brooks's newspaper published an extraordinary and deep account of the damage being done from deregulated chlorpyrifos poisoning farm workers in California to natural gas flares fouling the air in North Dakota, dropping of demands for retrofits on coal-burning plants in Texas, and dropping of efforts to get rid of the arsenic, mercury, and selenium polluting West Virginia rivers, touching "the quality of the air we breathe and the food we eat, the cleanliness of the rivers that flow past us, and the pace at which the climate is changing." It took plenty of dedicated leadership to do all that.
On the House side, it's ridiculous bothsiderism to blame Pelosi for failure to lead eight days into her term as Speaker. It's true that the president is illegitimate, but there can't be more than a couple of very new members who believe that precludes compromise to get governing done, and it's not even compromise with the president that's a problem but compromise with the Senate, and particularly McConnell, whose extraordinary determination to obstruct almost any legislation at all has been on view since 2011. Certainly the government could be reopened by veto-proof majorities in both houses if McConnell would allow a bill on the Senate floor.
It's equally ridiculous to excuse McConnell because he's hated by his constituents (he's long been the least popular in his own state of any Senator, most recently clocked at 33% approve to 52% disapprove). He's not doing anything to make himself loved but rather following the slimy path he always has:
McConnell’s M.O. in Kentucky is not so much to improve his own image as to drag his opponents down to his own level of unpopularity using his vast fundraising ability. He also has, of course, a general election advantage based on his state’s partisan leanings, which have been trending Republican for a good while.
Still, nothing should be taken for granted with respect to the reelection of a figure as unpopular as McConnell. He is and will remain loathed by many conservatives for his indifference to ideology and his willingness to smite them in primaries all over the country. And for Democrats, he is the enduring symbol of everything corrupt and cynical about the GOP; the only cause he seems really to believe in passionately is opposition to anything that even vaguely looks like campaign-finance reform.McConnell's power is immense, and it's really the only thing he cares about—he's the closest thing to a real Frank Underwood we've ever had, but unlike Underwood he exercises his dogged and ruthless leadership only in a negative direction, to stop things from happening. Other Republican Senators have tried to get around McConnell now and again, notably with a discharge petition over net neutrality last spring (but the bill failed in Ryan's House), but these devices are really difficult to bring off, and of course the main thing is that they're afraid of McConnell. And unless he makes some enormous gaffe (the way Trent Lott did in 2002 when he expressed his regret that the vile segregationist Strom Thurmond had never become president), there'll be no way of getting rid of him.
The Republican Senators are pretty pathetic, and thanks, Brooksy, for reminding them, but as far as governance is concerned, McConnell is a bigger problem than Trump (at least Trump will sign bills, even bills he really hates, like the Russia sanctions bill in August 2017). I do wish he would go away. We need a good deal less leadership, and McConnell's is the leadership we could do without the best.