With the GOP presidential race in upheaval again and members of the budget supercommittee violating their own rule of silence to take public shots at one another, the Washington political gossip mill was working overtime last night.
At a reception of insiders (primarily Republicans), the talk in the back of the room started off focusing on whether the supercommittee could reach agreement.
“It [the committee] was designed to fail,” one of the town’s most astute players told me, a veteran of senior congressional relations positions in and out of the government. “It will miss its deadline. It can’t possibly come to a decision. It’s going to be a mess.”
What would be the political fallout?
“The public will blame everyone, Republicans and Democrats, but not the president,” this sage said. “The president has distanced himself from it all. He’s said, not my idea, not my deal. Everything is set for the blame to go to Boehner. And it’s a shame. Boehner has really been trying to get something done.”
A player with even closer knowledge of thinking on the Hill had a different take.
“Oh, there will be a deal sure enough,” he said. “But it won’t mean anything.”
How could that be?
“They’ll just have it take effect after 2012. And then when the time comes, they’ll ignore it and rewrite everything. This is just a way of kicking the can down the road. It’s meant to look as though something is happening, but nothing really is.”
Others were talking about the presidential race and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s sudden surge.
“The problem with Newt,” a highly ranked insider worried, “is that he has no discipline. He will go along just fine for a month or so and do really well. Then he’ll mess up. He’ll say or do something really stupid. He can’t control himself. He’ll self-destruct.”
This figure wasn’t impressed with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney either. “Three-fourths of Republican voters don’t want him,” he said.
A Capitol Hill insider agreed that the race was coming down to Romney versus Gingrich.
“Gingrich has a program,” one observer sighed, “but he’s insane. Romney has his head on straight, but he has no program.”
“Maybe we need someone who’s a bit crazy,” an intimate to Washington observer responded. “We need someone who will shake things up for a term.”
He continued, “Romney will always position himself at the point of political equilibrium. He will always seek at that place. Which is why you worry about him. He shifts as that balance point shifts.”
He concluded, “I’m not sure that’s the kind of president we need just now.”
Like the rest of country, perhaps, no one sounded energized by the choices. Instead there was a sense that, thanks to the weakness of the GOP field, President Obama might win another term. “They are all fatally flawed,” said an operative in many GOP presidential campaigns of the Republican contestants.
As I listened to the handwringing, I asked myself, when before have we had moments of such impasse in Washington and such doubt about alternatives to the incumbent president? I found myself thinking about the Buchanan, Hoover, and Carter administrations.
Each served at a time national of turning, even as the incumbent was holding onto policies and ways of thinking that belonged to another period and that no longer worked.
In Buchanan’s case, the national appetite for compromise to avoid confronting the incompatibility of slavery with our founding ideals was over. In Hoover’s case, national economic policies of a rising industrial power no longer fit a world economic system where the other major nations had been financially devastated by World War I and ours was the lone untouched source of money and markets. And Carter took office as the U.S.’s post-World War II economic policies were in need of a major overhaul.
In each instance, the clash of an administration of yesterday with a stormy present produced a period of policy paralysis, just as we have now. In each case, the opposition had a spirited contest for succession, just as we have now.
President Obama is an odd man of the past. In contrast to Buchanan, Hoover and Carter, he is not holding onto the recent past. He has reached farther back to the thinking of the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s. He is in truth a man of antiquity.
Thinking of all this, I found my optimism rising. We are in a storm, but the kind of storm that has, in our system, always preceded renewal.