Monday, October 11, 2010

Governing in prose or sausage turning out stillborn

Sometime in the 1960s, probably when I was in junior high school, I read a series of books - political novels - where the political system seemed to be in jeopardy or worse. These included Seven Days In May, Fail Safe, and It Can't Happen Here. I don't believe that last one was ever made into a movie, but we know the other two now from the film versions, though I'm quite sure that for these I read the books before seeing the movies.

So too it was with Advise and Consent, which must have made a strong impression on me. When our family made the drive trip to Washington D.C. sometime later, we stayed at the Sheraton Park Hotel, the first time the family stayed at a hotel outside the Catskills. The book opens with Senator Robert Munson beginning his day at the Sheraton Park Hotel. I have distinct memory fragments of that trip. We stopped for lunch somewhere outside DC at a Howard Johnson's and I recall having what we now know as a Big Mac, before McDonalds had branded the idea. The parking garage was adjacent to the hotel and designed so you could park on the same floor your room was located on. That was the coolest. And I recall visits the U.S. Mint and the FBI building.

The movie, with Walter Pidgeon as Robert Munson, the personification of the dignified statesman as U.S. Senator, was on a few weeks ago. I recorded it and watched it a bit later. It is still an intriguing film, with multiple layers of story, great characters such as Charles Laughton as Seeb Cooley and Henry Fonda as Robert Leffingwell, and a mixture of dignity in external behavior coupled with an extreme viciousness in the politics. It is helpful to watch such a film nowadays, where things appear so dysfunctional, to understand that maybe they never were quite as rosy as we sometimes seem to imagine.

Switching to modern day politics, yesterday after reading Tom Friedman's column, where the dysfunction is given its due, I read a piece in the New Yorker by Ryan Lizza, As the World Burns. It is a disheartening read, where the Obama White House is severely criticized by not more strongly championing energy/climate change legislation. Quite possibly this indictment is deserved. But I want to focus on something else that became apparent in the piece.

Harry Reid is no Robert Munson. Reid is brought into Lizza's piece as a saboteur, blocking the legislation because it would have hurt him in his own election prospects in Nevada. He is characterized as being entirely self-serving, without principle, and seemingly otherwise unconnected to the legislation. One has to wonder why he is Majority Leader and the consequence of his being in that position. I don't have any inside poop on that but I can speculate.

When Tom Daschle lost his election rebid back in 2004, the Democrats were reeling. Being the Democrat leader in the Senate during the Bush White House at that time must not have been a coveted job. So Reid too the job for the good of the party. Obama became a Senator during that same election. The story is that Obama was frustrated in that role, because nothing seemed to get done. Robert Munson had a strong relationship with the President in Advise and Consent. They were junior Congressmen together. There was no such parallel relationship between Reid and Obama.

There has been much written about the Senate has over and over again blocked Presidential initiatives, with the Filibuster implied or utilized. But I've not seen any pieces on the relationship between the Senate leadership and the President. Dick Durbin, the current Majority Whip, would be far better as the Leader than Reid, in my view. Chuck Schumer would also be better. There was much greater alignment between the Presidency and the Congress when the Republicans were in the Majority. Obama rode into office under a post partisan mantel. Knowing how much he is actually into real politics, perhaps much of that was because he didn't think a partisan approach could work, in spite of the majority. Blue Dogs get mentioned here, but leadership does not. I wonder why.

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