Late-night notes from civil war Washington, girded for a shutdown of the biggest game in town and country, as I write. "Really, Congress?" as a 25-year-old friend summed up our American house divided.
On one side of the Capitol, senators speak and plead words of reason, while on the other, newly arrived Republican congressmen cheer behind closed doors and count down the hours 'til midnight Friday. The beautiful lantern at the top of dome will go dark. Nice going, everybody. [Vote now: Will the government shut down?]
Let me tell you, those House Republicans are awfully sore winners. They pinned the president down to $33 billion in budget cuts, which Barack Obama meekly agreed to. Now they want deeper cuts into the body politic. That is the most perplexing part: Obama giving up before the battle's begun. If you remember the 1995 shutdowns on President Clinton's watch, it was hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye combat with Speaker Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, leaders of a rambunctious new Republican majority.
Shutting down the government was personal to Bill Clinton, and he saw that showdown as the "high noon" of his presidency.
Obama needs to do more to meet the moment well. If he can't break up the tempestuous Tea Party, the most extreme element of the opposition, he has to confront and show them publicly he is a force to be reckoned with. Right now, Obama is not winning any arguments with anybody, and he is the President of the United States—who, by the way, is running for re-election. To borrow a phrase from New York publishing houses, the American people like you, but they don't love you. Clinton inspired love and hate, but he engaged his enemies instead of letting them define the debate. [See editorial cartoons about the Tea Party.]
Up on a high point, the Washington National Cathedral's skyline silhouette may be seen about five miles across from the Capitol. On Thursday night, three former secretaries of state—Madeleine Albright, James A. Baker III, and Colin Powell—shared pieces of their minds and careers with an august audience, even with Congress locked in crisis. Give me Albright any day, with her forceful forthright sense; my respect for Powell and Baker is slim and none. One told the world about Iraq's supposed WMD, wrongly, whether he knew it or not, like a good soldier. Baker directed the George W. Bush 2000 victory strategy from deadlocked Florida all the way to the Supreme Court. Author and Aspen Institute director Walter Isaacson, master of aplomb, moderated the only-in-Washington event on a sunny April evening. [See 10 effects of a government shutdown.]
Civilized conversation is a fine thing, but this was a rare chance not taken: to connect the dots of the past and present, in the cathedral and the Capitol.
And so, at home, thinking about the government, I wondered why budget axe-wielding Rep. Paul Ryan, (the other Wisconsin Republican up for man of the year so far) is suddenly the man-crush among some pundits. I won't name names, but is Ryan charming, smart, and serious, as they proclaim? "Really, guys?" [Check out a roundup of political cartoons about the budget and the deficit.]
Finally, I played my only-in-Washington parlor game.When I see an unknown lawmaker speaking on C-SPAN, I guess whether he is a Republican or Democrat—just by the face, tone of voice, and general manner—before he can complete a sentence. This lightning-like classification of the political species has turned me into a kind of present-day Darwinist. I can identify many Republicans just like that, by the way they jut their jaws. Anger, by and large, is their most identifiable characteristic.
A burning anger against the federal government—as we know it—may come to shut this town down.