The Has-been

The Kaine Mutiny

Why responding to the State of the Union isn’t the next best thing to giving it.

Friday, Jan. 27, 2006

Friday, Jan. 27, 2006

Browbeating: For the past week, bloggers have been trashing the choice of Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to deliver next Tuesday’s Democratic response to the State of the Union Address. Arianna Huffington weighed in first, saying, “Chalk up another one for the What the Hell Are They Thinking? file.” Other blogs have gone after Kaine for opposing same-sex marriage, lacking Jack Murtha’s expertise on foreign policy, and being no match for Barack Obama as an orator.

One lefty blog lamented that “the Dems chose someone who touted his religious faith to get elected.” Another called him a “squat, squinty, pug-nosed fellow.” From the right, a commentator noted Kaine’s ability to arch one brow, and warned, “Prepare for ‘The Eyebrow.’ ” That prompted a reader to compare Kaine to browbeaten ex-con and former Nixon domestic-policy adviser John Ehrlichman.

Poor Tim Kaine—drawing the short straw to deliver the official response to the State of the Union ought to be punishment enough.

In truth, Kaine’s a fine choice—a fresh face most welcome in a party desperate for a makeover. He just won a campaign that the White House foolishly tried to turn into a referendum on the president’s performance, and offers an appealing contrast to the status quo. Thanks to Kaine and his predecessor Mark Warner, Virginia has a budget surplus. As the Congressional Budget Office reported yesterday, the rest of us are stuck with Bush’s deficits for the next decade. Kaine and Warner changed the tone in Richmond, winning praise from both sides of the aisle. This week, Bush whined to Kansans about the tone in Washington, just days after Karl Rove promised once again to use the nation’s security as a partisan wedge issue.

When a Republican legislator accidently shot the bulletproof vest on his coat rack at the State Capitol in Richmond yesterday, the man apologized, and Kaine teased him about his good aim. In Washington, the motto of the Bush White House has been shoot first, apologize never.

It’s easy to understand Democratic frustration with losing, but as the party’s most recent winner, Tim Kaine is the last guy who should be bearing the brunt of it. On the contrary, Democrats from across the spectrum should be throwing him a ticker-tape parade, for showing how to turn the Republicans’ vicious wedge-issue campaign against them. When Kaine talked about his faith, he wasn’t being cynical—he was giving a refreshingly candid response to the GOP’s deeply cynical attacks on his opposition to the death penalty.

The Kaine mutiny is troubling not just because a few bloggers are picking on the wrong guy. It’s also a disturbing reminder of how much time most of us in the blogosphere—and in politics generally—waste pretending that daily tactical decisions are what matters.

I happen to think Tim Kaine will give a good talk next Tuesday. But if I really thought the Democratic Party’s future turned on the Democratic response, I’d pack it in and start looking for a new profession. I’ve watched the post-State of the Union ritual for 20 years now, and not once has the poor soul giving the response—or his party—come out a winner for it.

The Dud Zone: Surfergirl may have other suggestions, but if I could award an Emmy for the Ten Most Excruciating Minutes in Television, the opposition party’s response to the State of the Union would be the runaway winner. No matter which party is responding, which leader reads the teleprompter, or which hokey backdrop is chosen, the effect is the same: the ten-minute equivalent of your local TV station’s Ted Baxter giving one of his just-my-opinion commentaries.

In 1996, Republicans thought they were being smart by choosing Bob Dole, their presumptive nominee, to respond to Clinton’s State of the Union. Clinton turned in one of the best performances of his career. Dole gave his best shot—and dropped about a point a minute in the head-to-head opinion polls.

A year earlier, Republicans had turned to the best on-air talent in their party: once-and-future character actor Fred Thompson. Clinton himself fretted that Thompson’s folksy charm would connect with middle America. We needn’t have worried—that response was a dud, too.

One year, Republicans invited then-Gov. Christie Whitman to try a new format—a town hall from New Jersey. It looked like an adult education class on public access. Democrats have tried to vary the format with a tag team between congressional leaders. That hasn’t worked, either.

Why is the response doomed to fall short, no matter who gives it? Consider the inherent disadvantages. First, it’s a ten-minute rebuttal to an hour-long speech. By the time the opposition leader speaks, the television audience is desperate to go to sleep or change the channel to Sports Center.

Second, the contrast in settings is a killer. The State of the Union highlights all the president’s majesty, as he speaks to a packed chamber of members who throng to shake his hand and applaud even his lamest lines. The rest of the year, the Founders’ checks and balances are theoretically in effect—but on this night, the president looks down on Congress and the Supreme Court, sitting powerless in the well below. By contrast, the poor sap giving the official response is like a movie without a sound track—no buzz, no applause, no majesty.

With that much to overcome, an opposition party might seriously consider giving the time back, or ask to bank it for use a few days, weeks, or months later. We might try to avoid the contrast altogether: for example, by inviting Jon Stewart to give a 10-minute monologue, or letting Bill Clinton use the time to ask for contributions for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006

Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006

Because of You: Fox Television is proud to announce that next Tuesday, the second hour of “American Idol” will present the best and worst of its Washington, D.C., auditions, as the judges give “Crazy George” one more chance to perform his medley, “State of the Union.” Don’t miss the show the Washington Post calls “America’s Winning Losers“!

Alas, Bush’s State of the Union will be missing the very element that “American Idol” offers far too much of: drama. White House aides have already given away the plot. Last week, Karl Rove delivered his own speech explaining that Republicans would spend the year attacking Democrats over national security. Today, the Post reports that the domestic centerpiece of Bush’s address will be – surprise, surprise – tax cuts, this time for health care.

There’s a reason that shows like “West Wing” get cancelled after seven years: All but the most loyal viewers tire of seeing the same old formula. Somewhere in America, there may be an unsuspecting voter who has forgotten that President Bush loves to cut taxes and thinks Democrats are wimps. But most of us in either party know that speech by heart, and would rather use the extra hour to learn something new – like which undeserving wannabe Paula Abdul will let through this week, or how star tailback Shaun Alexander of the Super Bowl-bound Seattle Seahawks came to love chess.

What makes the prospect of this State of the Union seem more tedious than past ones is not simply that Bush is an old shoe, but that we can no longer suspend disbelief enough to pretend that what he proposes will happen. Last year, we tuned in to find out what the president would actually put forward on Social Security, after five years of listening to him tout his own courage on the issue. We knew he would probably hit all the wrong notes, but as “American Idol” has shown, that can be worth watching, too.

This year, Bush will go through the motions of presenting a legislative agenda, but his real objective will be to kick off the fall campaign. Rove has already tipped his hand that the White House’s prime objective this year is to survive the midterm elections. The issues Bush has chosen to highlight are likewise primarily political.

I, Spy: For example, Rove is probably right that by exploiting Democrats’ reflexive alarm over domestic spying, Republicans can make sure national security is the political gift that keeps on giving. But that’s not an agenda; it’s simply using lemons to make lemonade. Even as Bush campaigns against ACLU-card-carrying Democrats, he will be lucky if he can persuade enough black-helicopter-fearing Republicans in Congress to give him an extension of the Patriot Act. His defiant political stand could actually run counter to his legislative interests: it will be hard to reassure conservatives that the administration won’t overreach when the president is out on the hustings bragging about his determination to keep doing just that.

In the same way, health care is an election-year staple for the Bush crowd. Back in 1992, Bush’s father rolled out an ambitious health care plan that had no prayer of passage, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to persuade voters that he cared about domestic issues. In 2000, the younger Bush promised a patients’ bill of rights at every stop on the campaign trail. Yet even when Congress passed a bipartisan plan, he turned down the deal.

Gong Show: We can only hope the White House has some surprises up its sleeve for next Tuesday. Perhaps Bush will show the nation he has learned his lesson in the past year, and do his part to change the tone in Washington by giving Rove his walking papers. Perhaps, as part of his new effort to appear spontaneous and unrehearsed, the president will wrap up the speech early and take questions from the audience.

Monday, Jan. 23, 2006

Monday, Jan. 23, 2006

Still Searching: First Santa, now the Easter Bunny. With conservatives still recuperating from the stress of saving Christmas, the Weekly Standard reports that gay and lesbian family groups are planning to use the White House Easter Egg Roll to spotlight their cause. A spokesperson for the Family Pride Coalition says, “It’s important for our families to be seen participating in all aspects of American life.” The plan sounds like the famous “Trojan Bunny” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail—except that this time, the organizers might remember to put people inside.

Conservatives consider this a threat to one of their most cherished traditions: politicizing religious holidays. According to the Associated Press, some conservatives want to retaliate by mobilizing straight families “to outnumber gay families at the egg roll” on April 17.

Like most Americans, I don’t have an egg in this hunt. The war on Christmas and the war over Easter pale in comparison to more pressing holy wars that should keep us up at night. But I have some advice for gay, lesbian, and conservative activists who want to politicize the White House Easter Egg Roll: You’d better get in line now.

Last month, John Dickerson wrote about the magic of the White House at Christmas. Mesmerized by the twinkle of the season, Republicans and Democrats lay down their arms and enjoy the holiday cheer.

If Christmas at the White House is a rare window of peace and forgiveness, the Easter Egg Roll brings out more familiar Washington traits: the ruthless struggle for power, the clash of insatiable egos, the frustration of gridlock, the temptation of bribery. And that’s just to get in. Families who make it past the palace gates witness another display of traditional values: a mad dash to get ahead and trample anyone in the way.

Indeed, the Easter Egg Roll has always been a Washington parable. According to the White House official history, the event began on the grounds of the Capitol but caused such damage that Congress passed one of the most aptly named bills in congressional history, the Turf Protection Law. President Rutherford B. Hayes, no doubt still smarting from his failure to win the popular vote, let children frolic on the South Lawn instead.

Quagmire: Every White House event is a challenge for the social office, but the Easter Egg Roll is a nightmare. From a logistical standpoint, the event makes the invasion of Iraq look easy: Months of careful planning devolves into the chaos of little boots on the lawn.

The fatal flaw in the Easter Egg Roll is arithmetic. Every young family in Washington wants to be there, including hundreds of White House employees, thousands of appointees, members of Congress, and hordes of supporters from outside the government. That’s not counting the people for whom the event was created in the first place: the general public. Thousands of people from Washington and beyond skip school and stand in line from the crack of dawn to get their hour in the sun on the South Lawn. USA Today once estimated the crowd at 40,000 children.

At Christmastime, the White House can manage such crowds by holding several parties a night for staff, friends, and supporters, and herding the general public through during the day. But there’s only one egg roll, which lasts about two hours on the Monday after Easter. Clearing a small city of parents and toddlers through security and ID checks took hours even before 9/11. Now, parents of rambunctious young children might want to leave them on call at the Marriott a few blocks away.

With such crowds, the Easter Egg Roll is a remarkably democratic event. When it’s over, it’s easy to understand how Andrew Jackson must have felt when thousands stormed the White House after his inauguration: Democracy is a wonderful thing, provided you survive it.

Don’t get me wrong—my family loved the Easter Egg Roll. Standing in line for two hours in 30-degree weather with two children under 5 may have seemed like an ordeal at the time; now, like the pain of childbirth, it’s a cherished memory. Veterans of the Easter Egg Roll learn not to worry about finding eggs—success is not losing any children.

As in any hostage situation, the wait in line is a revealing test of character. It’s like a Type-A Disney World, an endless queue of toddlers enjoying quality time with Mommy’s or Daddy’s Blackberry. We once stood next to a high-ranking official who had sent a deputy to stand in line for her for an hour, then fumed when she and her son had to wait another hour after they arrived. “They don’t understand how important I am,” she complained.

Beyond the guards, more lines loom—for the egg hunt, the egg roll, and any goodies the candy companies have to offer. The White House gives out 10,000 souvenir painted wooden eggs, which fetch about $10 on eBay.

Perhaps it was only matter of time before the culture war between red and blue found its way into the hunt for yellow, green, purple, and orange. Yet gay groups may be disappointed to discover that the event is so chaotic, the president sometimes doesn’t even come out to see his shadow.

Friday, Jan. 20, 2006

Friday, Jan. 20, 2006

About Face: All week long, the Republican Congress has been on a mad dash for salvation. Each of the three men jockeying to replace Tom DeLay as House Majority Leader claims to be the true reform candidate. Six months ago, John McCain’s colleagues rolled their eyes whenever he brought up reform at the caucus luncheon; now House and Senate Republicans alike have asked him to help write their lobby-reform proposals. Rep. Bob Ney’s golfing junket to Scotland turned out to serve an educational purpose after all.

Now that Democrats have made a big splash with their can-you-top-this reform package, a Washington Post editorial called “A Rush on Lobbying Reform” actually warns that “in their zeal to outbid each other, they will go too far.” The Post doesn’t elaborate, either because editors couldn’t honestly think of a reform that would go too far or because they’ve been in Washington long enough to know that should be the least of their worries.

Until we see the details, we won’t know whether Republicans in Congress have any stomach for real reform or are counting on their leaders to make sure this is only a face-saving exercise. Already, some members have sent smoke signals to be patient and let the reform urge fade.

But the true significance of the current Republican panic isn’t the unlikely hope that the GOP has somehow gotten religion on reform. This was a landmark week for another reason: For the first time in nearly a decade, House Republicans are more frightened of the American people than of Tom DeLay.

Coffee Talk: When the Founders designed the House of Representatives, their whole point was to make it responsive to the masses. They were so worried that the people’s House would run amok doing what the people wanted that they created the Senate as a saucer to cool the coffee, in Washington’s famous phrase to Jefferson.

Tom DeLay turned out to be no Tom Jefferson. He knew his House colleagues’ most immediate fear wasn’t big government, terrorist attack, or moral decline. Their biggest worry was the one Jefferson intended: losing their seats or losing their majority.

In a profession as volatile as politics, the natural instinct is to insulate oneself from the fickle moods of the electorate. That was DeLay’s mission from the start. His K Street Project gave Republicans a bottomless line of credit to finance their campaigns and a lucrative retirement system for members who lost or retired. He helped rewrite district lines in Texas and elsewhere to protect Republican incumbents and pad their majority.

As an instrument of party discipline, DeLay’s system worked wonders. No matter how unpopular a bill might be with the voters, he could always twist enough arms to get it passed.

Yet along the way, DeLay and his colleagues forgot the most important lesson Newt Gingrich had taught them in 1994: Accountability to the voters is a blessing, not a curse.

A decade ago, when Democrats held the White House and Republicans the Congress, both parties had to compete to deliver on their promises. In 1996, for example, Washington enjoyed one of its most productive years in recent memory—passing major legislation on welfare reform, the minimum wage, and health care—because Democrats and Republicans couldn’t afford to forget the interests of the voters they were supposed to be working for.

It’s easy to ridicule Congress for its historic tendency to do nothing for months on end and then hit the panic button when the voters catch on. Yet the trouble with the Republican Congress under DeLay was that it didn’t panic enough, and certainly never when the American people did.

One-party rule and the explosive growth of the influence industry have proved to be a deadly combination. For a few members, the comfort of a safe seat may now give way to hard time in a cold, dark cell. For most, a self-perpetuating majority came with a different price: the frustration of not having much to show for their time in Washington.

Five Down, Three To Go: With exactly three years left in the Bush presidency, Republicans still have to sort out the contradictions in big-government conservatism. Even without DeLay, they’re still susceptible to the siren song of K Street. But if they decide to let the American people whisper in their ear for a change, they won’t regret it.