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Willem Lange: Washington Drama Is Engrossing but Not All That Enjoyable

Montpelier

With its grand decor and cast of characters, it’s just as riveting as — if a lot less fun than — Downton Abbey. Instead of Lord and Lady Crawley, their charming daughters, quirky servants and other fascinating characters, we’ve got Mitch “The Abominable No-Man” McConnell, Harry Reid, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Michele Bachmann and — waiting eagerly in the wings for a second act — Sarah Palin. Take your pick; both dramas are soap opera. One is historical fiction. The other, unfortunately is contemporary reality television. Unlike the Downton Abbey drama, it doesn’t come to us at very low cost, courtesy of PBS; its plot convolutions cost us billions in tax dollars.

I almost envy the members of our New England congressional delegations, heading for work in the morning and wondering what plot twists will be revealed during the course of the day. Will House Speaker Boehner lose his position (along with some great perks and about $50,000 in salary) in the aftermath of his “betrayal” of the Tea Party members? Will immigration reform and the farm bill get the attention they urgently deserve? Will a disgruntled radical congressman grab one of the Confederate battle flags or “Don’t Tread on Me” banners from a protester outside the Capitol and charge into the chamber with it? Stay tuned for all the latest developments!

There are lots of reasons for the current legislative dystopia in the nation’s capital. I believe two major factors can be blamed for the obvious lack of collegiality, cooperation and willingness to compromise.

The first is the increasing ease and speed of travel. No matter how frustrated we may get at the congestion of our airports and the indignities of their security systems, travel by air is now an easy option for members of Congress. Fewer of them than ever have moved their families to Washington, where once their wives and children, irrespective of party affiliations, hobnobbed and dined together at each others’ homes. Some new members even sleep in their offices, and perform their toilet in the Capitol’s gym and locker room. If you haven’t shared a meal or a drink, played tennis or squash, or gone to the theater with your colleagues’ families, it’s more difficult to appreciate their personal attributes, and easier to personalize your differences of principle.

The second is the ubiquity of television cameras and reporters desperately seeking juicy and provocative sound-bites. Very few congressmen, given the heat now generated by partisan politics, can resist the temptation to respond to leading questions. Long forgotten is Calvin Coolidge, who once observed that what he didn’t say, he didn’t have to take back. When you watch politicians speak these days, it’s pretty clear who’s looking over their shoulder. Sens. McConnell and Lindsey Graham, for example, are clearly concerned about challenges from — as hard as it may be to believe — their right. And everybody’s worried about keeping their suppliers of campaign funds happy.

When we manage to get abroad, Mother and I listen carefully for the opinions of the citizens of our host country. France is our favorite. They love to talk politics. Our treatment there leaves no doubt that they like Americans, but they clearly think us politically mad. During the $40 million investigation of alleged fellatio in the White House, they smiled and shook their heads. President Mitterand had two families, they mentioned, but it had nothing to do with his competence as president; quite the opposite, peut-être. During the Bush years, they treated us with the same bemusement we Yankees currently reserve for North Carolina: What’s up with le cowboy? We developed a bit of a Gallic shrug of our own, while I privately swore to outlast the cowboy.

I have to admit to a healthy dose of schadenfreude when I consider the current state of the Republican Party. I can even cite a bit of Old Testament scripture to justify it: “They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” — Hosea 8:7. The members of the Tea Party bloc in the Grand Old Party were welcomed on the scene in 2010, and in spite of their populist rhetoric, were strongly supported by corporate interests and conservative public action committees. It was a perfect storm combining the Lost Cause, the notion of government as the root of evil, and the good old-fashioned racism you can read daily in the blogosphere.

You’ve got to give them this: They’ve striven to do exactly what they said they would — discredit liberal policies, dismantle the Affordable Care Act, impeach Barack Obama as a Kenyan pretender to legitimacy, and establish conservative “Christian values” as the basis of further legislation concerning social and educational issues. Their backers got their money’s worth.

Until now. The Tea Party’s intransigence concerning the so-called government shutdown and its vow to continue the fight through the next debt-ceiling deadline have apparently alarmed foreign investors and world markets; given China a chance to exploit America’s distraction by establishing trade relations in eastern Asia; and hurt our nation’s image of stability. Successful business, in order to continue to thrive, requires stability above all else. It now appears that many Tea Party backers are suffering buyers’ remorse: What will the Tea Partiers do next?

Whatever it is, they have little to fear from the voters of their gerrymandered districts. It will all end eventually, and wiser heads may prevail, though there’s no way of knowing how soon. For they have sown the wind, and as the verse continues, “the heads of the grain will bear no fruit.”

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.