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Year End Review: Washington

 

In the political realm, the end of 2013 could scarcely look more different from its beginning. The Capitol in Washington was awash in construction one year ago as the platform for President Obama’s second inauguration was going up. Now, at year’s end, the platform – and the President’s agenda – has been thoroughly dismantled.

 

If 1992 was the “annus horribilis” for Queen Elizabeth II, 2013 was Obama’s horrible year. Two term presidents usually accomplish most of what they can get done in the first year of their last term. Obama has precious little to show by way of accomplishment at year’s end. He promised to galvanize the nation to enact stricter gun control measures. Nothing happened. He hoped to reach a grand bargain on the nation’s finances with House Republicans, but nothing happened. He promised to get comprehensive immigration reform through Congress, and while something happened - a bipartisan bill passed the Senate by a wide majority – the President was unable to get the Senate measure onto the House floor. Now, his tanking poll numbers make it unlikely we will see much in the way of progress on any of these proposals.

The chief cause of the President’s present predicament is entirely of his own making: The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Passage of the ACA was the president’s signature achievement, the thing that would likely lead his biography in the future, something every Democratic president (and one Republican) had tried and failed to get through Congress. You would have thought he would have made sure that the rollout went smoothly. You would have thought he would have recognized the sheer incompetence of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in time to ward off disaster, not only her inability to hire a firm that was capable of constructing a website but her myopic political sense that led her to stop selling the law long before most Americans were convinced it would work. You would have thought that the President would have laid the groundwork for walking back his famous, untrue promise about being able to keep your insurance if you like it. Nothing.

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The less proximate, but on-going, cause of the President’s predicament is his unwillingness to do the job. He has spent precious little time cultivating relationships with the legislators whose support he needs to advance his agenda. He seems to think that other people are as bloodless as he is, or that members of Congress do not have needs beyond a briefing book on policy, or that interpersonal relations are unimportant in affecting political change. To the extent he thinks these things, he betrays a complete ignorance of history. He also betrays the fact that he has surrounded himself with sycophants (yes, that’s you Valerie Jarrett!), none of whom have the courage to explain to the president that he is not doing his job.

How bad is it? The most disturbing question for the White House is this: Which group dislikes the president more, House Republicans or House Democrats? I am not sure I know the answer. I do know that the petty slights his staff routinely inflict upon members of his own party make for some sad telling. He turns to them, expects them to fall on their swords, when he needs them, but does nothing on their behalf.

Of course, the House Republicans have not had a very good year either. At one point, if memory serves, root canals were more popular. Their foolish government shutdown brought their popularity to an all-time low. They end the year relatively better off because of the ACA fiasco. And, House Republicans also end the year better off as a result of Speaker John Boehner’s decision to lance the boil known as the Tea Party caucus. Indeed, Boehner seems to grasp that the political calendar is now giving him an opportunity: As the deadlines pass for filing a primary challenge, Boehner can tell his caucus that they no longer need fear a challenge from the right and, consequently, he is going to bring issues to the floor, such as comprehensive immigration reform, despite the fact that they lack majority support within the GOP caucus.

The nation’s status abroad is demonstrably weak not least because foreign policy, which was once a source of consensus in Washington, has now become a source of partisan bitterness over the past decade or so. President Obama seems to have developed a fetish for removing certain, admittedly horrible, weapons from the arsenals of the world’s tyrants – chemical weapons from Syria, nukes from Iran – which is a good thing to be sure, but an inadequate thing. A Syrian killed by a non-chemical weapon is just as dead as a Syrian killed by a chemical weapon. The regime in Iran may be a tad more moderate than it was this time last year, but they still export more terror than oil. And, America’s allies look at Obama the way House Democrats do, asking themselves what they saw in this guy in the first place, worried that he lacks the steady hand and long-view that are essential to the conduct of foreign affairs.

Just off-stage, Hillary Clinton had what seemed to most people to be a very good year. While other politicians were making fools of themselves, she was in the wings, basking in the glory of past achievements and future hopes. Except, I would argue that she had a very bad year in reality. Her replacement at State, John Kerry, is on a roll, cutting a deal with Iran in Geneva, jetting to Jerusalem to re-ignite negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, pushing for intervention in South Sudan. I have my doubts about the deal with Iran and the prospects for peace in the Holy Land always seem just out of reach, but Kerry’s relative e success and activity has raised an important question for Mrs. Clinton: What, precisely, did she achieve during her tenure as Secretary of State? Her acolytes tout her frequent flyer miles. There is vague talk about supporting women. But, can she point to a single achievement that was substantive, something like the Marshall Plan, the Cuban Missile Crisis, opening relations with China, the Camp David accords, the end of the war in Bosnia? I can’t think of anything.

So, in 2013, no one in the political universe had a great year and there is something of a vacuum of leadership in the nation’s capital. One man’s vacuum is another man’s opportunity. There are many issues that warrant attention, but those of us on the Catholic Left must place immigration reform at the top of the list. And, with politicians’ reputations in the tank, I would suggest that the opportunity for our nation’s bishops to focus effective attention on the issue is greater than usual. It helps, too, that Pope Francis is loved by everybody. I have suggested before, and suggest again, that all the U.S. cardinals find a day to fly to Tucson or Brownsville or Las Cruces, say Mass at the border, visit a detention center, make the moral case for immigration reform now. It might be just enough to move the leadership in the House to bring the Senate bill to the floor.

Next week, we will look ahead. But, looking back, one dominant fact stands out at this blog: The Church had a great year and Washington a bad one. And, I do not see that dynamic changing anytime soon.

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