Years ago, over many beers in a D.C. bar, a congressional aide colorfully described the House of Representatives, where he worked.
It’s “435 heads up 435 asses,” he said.
I thought of that person yesterday, while reading the analyses of Hillary Clinton’s victories Tuesday night. The arrival of the first female presidential nominee was undoubtedly a huge moment in American history and something even the supporters of Bernie Sanders should recognize as significant and to be celebrated. But the Washington media’s assessment of how we got there was convoluted and self-deceiving.
This was no ordinary primary race, not a contest between warring factions within the party establishment, á la Obama-Clinton in ’08 or even Gore-Bradley in ’00. This was a barely quelled revolt that ought to have sent shock waves up and down the party, especially since the Vote of No Confidence overwhelmingly came from the next generation of voters. Yet editorialists mostly drew the opposite conclusion.
The classic example was James Hohmann’s piece in the Washington Post, titled, “Primary wins show Hillary Clinton needs the left less than pro-Sanders liberals think.”
Hohmann’s thesis was that the “scope and scale” of Clinton’s wins Tuesday night meant mainstream Democrats could now safely return to their traditional We won, screw you posture of “minor concessions” toward the “liberal base.”
Hohmann focused on the fact that with Bernie out of the way, Hillary now had a path to victory that would involve focusing on Trump’s negatives. Such a strategy won’t require much if any acquiescence toward the huge masses of Democratic voters who just tried to derail her candidacy. And not only is the primary scare over, but Clinton and the centrist Democrats in general are in better shape than ever.
“Big picture,” Hohmann wrote, “Clinton is running a much better and more organized campaign than she did in 2008.”
Then there was Jonathan Capehart, also of the Post, whose “This is how Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the same person” piece describes Sanders as a “stubborn outsider” who “shares the same DNA” as Donald Trump. Capeheart snootily seethes that both men will ultimately pay a karmic price for not knowing their places.
“In the battle of the outsider egos storming the political establishment, Trump succeeded where Sanders failed,” he wrote. “But the chaos unleashed by Trump’s victory could spell doom for the GOP all over the ballot in November. Pardon me while I dab that single tear trickling down my cheek.”
If they had any brains, Beltway Dems and their clucky sycophants like Capeheart would not be celebrating this week. They ought to be horrified to their marrow that the all-powerful Democratic Party ended up having to dig in for a furious rally to stave off a quirky Vermont socialist almost completely lacking big-dollar donors or institutional support.
They should be freaked out, cowed and relieved, like the Golden State Warriors would be if they needed a big fourth quarter to pull out a win against Valdosta State.
But to read the papers in the last two days is to imagine that we didn’t just spend a year witnessing the growth of a massive grassroots movement fueled by loathing of the party establishment, with some correspondingly severe numerical contractions in the turnout department (though she won, for instance, Clinton received 30 percent fewer votes in California this year versus 2008, and 13 percent fewer in New Jersey).
The twin insurgencies of Trump and Sanders this year were equally a blistering referendum on Beltway politics. But the major-party leaders and the media mouthpieces they hang out with can’t see this, because of what that friend of mine talked about over a decade ago: Washington culture is too far up its own backside to see much of anything at all.
In D.C., a kind of incestuous myopia very quickly becomes part of many political jobs. Congressional aides in particular work ridiculous hours for terrible pay and hang out almost exclusively with each other. About the only recreations they can afford are booze, shop-talk, and complaining about constituents, who in many offices are considered earth’s lowest form of life, somewhere between lichens and nematodes.
It’s somewhat understandable. In congressional offices in particular, people universally dread picking up the phone, because it’s mostly only a certain kind of cable-addicted person with too much spare time who calls a politician’s office.
“Have you ever called your congressman? No, because you have a job!” laughs Paul Thacker, a former Senate aide currently working on a book about life on the Hill. Thacker recounts tales of staffers rushing to turn on Fox News once the phones start ringing, because “the people” are usually only triggered to call Washington by some moronic TV news scare campaign.
In another case, Thacker remembers being in the office of the senator of a far-Northern state, watching an aide impatiently conduct half of a constituent phone call. “He was like, ‘Uh huh, yes, I understand.’ Then he’d pause and say, ‘Yes, sir,’ again. This went on for like five minutes,” recounts Thacker.
Finally, the aide firmly hung up the phone, reared back and pointed accusingly at the receiver. “And you are from fucking Missouri!” he shouted. “Why are you calling me?”
These stories are funny, but they also point to a problem. Since The People is an annoying beast, young pols quickly learn to be focused entirely on each other and on their careers. They get turned on by the narrative of Beltway politics as a cool power game, and before long are way too often reaching for Game of Thrones metaphors to describe their jobs. Eventually, the only action that matters is inside the palace.
Voter concerns rapidly take a back seat to the daily grind of the job. The ideal piece of legislation in almost every case is a Frankensteinian policy concoction that allows the sponsoring pol to keep as many big-money donors in the fold as possible without offending actual human voters to the point of a ballot revolt.
This dynamic is rarely explained to the public, but voters on both sides of the aisle have lately begun guessing at the truth, and spent most of the last year letting the parties know it in the primaries. People are sick of being thought of as faraway annoyances who only get whatever policy scraps are left over after pols have finished servicing the donors they hang out with at Redskins games.
Democratic voters tried to express these frustrations through the Sanders campaign, but the party leaders have been and probably will continue to be too dense to listen. Instead, they’ll convince themselves that, as Hohmann’s Post article put it, Hillary’s latest victories mean any “pressure” they might have felt to change has now been “ameliorated.”
The maddening thing about the Democrats is that they refuse to see how easy they could have it. If the party threw its weight behind a truly populist platform, if it stood behind unions and prosecuted Wall Street criminals and stopped taking giant gobs of cash from every crooked transnational bank and job-exporting manufacturer in the world, they would win every election season in a landslide.
This is especially the case now that the Republican Party has collapsed under the weight of its own nativist lunacy. It’s exactly the moment when the Democrats should feel free to become a real party of ordinary working people.
But they won’t do that, because they don’t see what just happened this year as a message rising up from millions of voters.
Politicians are so used to viewing the electorate as a giant thing to be manipulated that no matter what happens at the ballot, they usually can only focus on the Washington-based characters they perceive to be pulling the strings. Through this lens, the uprising among Democratic voters this year wasn’t an organic expression of mass disgust, but wholly the fault of Bernie Sanders, who within the Beltway is viewed as an oddball amateur and radical who jumped the line.
Nobody saw his campaign as an honest effort to restore power to voters, because nobody in the capital even knows what that is. In the rules of palace intrigue, Sanders only made sense as a kind of self-centered huckster who made a failed play for power. And the narrative will be that with him out of the picture, the crisis is over. No person, no problem.
This inability to grasp that the problem is bigger than Bernie Sanders is a huge red flag. As Thacker puts it, the theme of this election year was widespread anger toward both parties, and both the Trump craziness and the near-miss with Sanders should have served as a warning. “The Democrats should be worried they’re next,” he says.
But they’re not worried. Behind the palace walls, nobody ever is.
“Our major success so far is laying out a broad progressive agenda,” says Bernie Sanders. Watch Sanders’ campaign.