An Aggregation of Nincompoops

Viewed from across the pond, the U.S. government seems at best incompetent and at worst a joke.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In 1939, Joseph Kennedy, then serving as U.S. ambassador to Britain, petitioned President Franklin D. Roosevelt to restrict foreign screenings of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the grounds that the film was "an indictment of our government" that "will cause our allies to view us in an unfavorable light." Capra’s depiction of a Washington dominated by special interests and toadying political hacks also angered Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley, a Democrat from Kentucky, who complained that the movie presented a "grotesque distortion" of Washington politics that suggested that the Senate was nothing more than an "aggregation of nincompoops."

So not much has changed in the last 70 years.

These days, mind you, there’s no need for a latterday Capra to come to Washington — not when the Senate’s tragicomedy is broadcast to the world daily by CNN and the Internet. International observers of Washington politics gaze with wonder at a system that produces so much drama from so little legislation and a republic in which even winning a contest by a landslide can’t guarantee success. American elections used to have consequences. Now, they merely determine which party the public wants to hate next.

That’s one explanation for the present sorry state of affairs, in which the party occupying the White House and controlling both houses of Congress cannot figure out how to pass a health-care bill that has been the progressive Holy Grail since the time of Harry Truman. Of course, the other obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the Democratic Party simply isn’t very good at politics.

If it’s too easy to pass legislation in many countries (including Britain), it seems too difficult to get anything done in Washington, with the 60-vote hurdle now the rule rather than the exception. Excepting the Democrats’ rare, tenuous, and wasted supermajority, power generally resides, however improbably or quixotically, with the minority party, which attempts and often succeeds in stymieing every majority initiative. Minority obstructionism, of course, can be principled. But its chief attraction is that it absolves the opposition of responsibility for anything while making the majority look, well, stupid. As former British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin once said of the press, this kind of "power without responsibility" has been "the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages." And Democratic complaints that "It’s the system, stupid" aren’t likely to impress too many voters — who, rather rightfully, despise Congress no matter who runs it — even if, by any reasonable measure, the system is dysfunctional and perverse.

So what a difference a single vote makes! The lamentations that followed Martha Coakley’s stunning defeat in Massachusetts were heard on the far side of the Atlantic as well, as health care and cap-and-trade legislation disappeared with a 2 percent drift in the Senate tides. All of a sudden it seems as though "Yes We Can" actually means "Well, All Things Being Equal, We’d Like to Have a Go, but, Actually, It’s Terribly Complicated and Difficult. So We Won’t."

This has consequences that extend beyond the useful reminder that, despite the promise of his rhetoric, the U.S. president is constrained by both the constitution and the feebleness, even the ineptitude, of his Democratic colleagues. President Barack Obama deliberately pitched himself as a leader for the post-globalization age. So many promises were made on so many fronts that, inevitably, many of them would be broken or ignored or, as now seems increasingly probable, chewed up by the legislative process.

No wonder Europeans are unimpressed by this president and his inability to deliver upon the promises he made, not merely to American voters, but to the entire planet. Campaign aspirations are always snuffed out by brutal political reality. But rarely has the contrast between campaign poetry and governing prose been quite so clear.

Nowhere has this been more the case than on climate change and the fate of the prison at Guantánamo Bay. European leaders had hoped for more from Obama at the Copenhagen conference on climate change. Hamstrung by a skeptical Congress, Obama did his best. But it was a best that satisfied few people and, once more, reminded Europeans that the U.S. president is less powerful, in terms of domestic politics, than any prime minister. It was a reminder of the Yankee separation of powers. Only the most cockeyed optimist would bet on cap-and-trade legislation passing this year.

Something similar might be said of Guantánamo. Obama’s promise to close the camp was the clearest possible signal that the new administration would break with its predecessor. Yet a year has passed and Gitmo remains open. Again, political realities — dictated by hysterical, bed-wetting congressmen who argue, with straight faces and empty minds, that the United States cannot safely imprison the Guantánamo inmates on American soil proper — have stalled progress. But at some point one begins to wonder what the point of having a majority is if it isn’t used for anything.

Because, more than anything else, it was the promise to close Gitmo that earned the president his Nobel Peace Prize, the failure to solve the detainee problem now makes that award seem even more preposterously premature. Much worse than making the president seem weak, it risks making him seem ridiculous. While politicians can survive and even, on rare occasions, embrace disapproval, mockery and ridicule are much more poisonous.

Another irritant, imposed upon the rest of the international community by the world’s most ridiculous deliberative body, is the lack of U.S. diplomatic representation in key spots. Brazil went nearly a year without an ambassador because of a senatorial hold, while important positions at the World Trade Organization and other bodies still remain unfilled.

It’s a measure, mind you, of how Washington has changed. In the Capra film, Jefferson Smith used the filibuster to heroically resist the system. Today, the mere threat of a filibuster is enough to persuade the majority party to run screaming for the hills.

Right now, however, the Democrats might want to take a cue from Smith’s epic speech in the movie: "You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked. And I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if the room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place." Unless they do show some spine, it’s hard to see what they’re for — and far less why voters should bother endorsing Democratic candidates in November. The system may be ridiculous, but it is what it is — and when managed correctly, things can be changed and done. The game remains the game. Unless the Democratic Party realizes that, then it can hardly complain if voters — and the international community — decide it’s a lost cause.

Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.

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