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Mr. Woebegone Goes to Washington


The purification of both parties had significant consequences. Congress was suddenly closely divided, and it would remain so, with the gavel always up for grabs. Partisan aggression became standard procedure to recapture or defend the majority—to the point that Bill Frist, the majority leader in 2004, flew to the home state of his counterpart, Daschle, to campaign against him during a tough election year. (“That helped legitimize a policy of ‘anything goes,’ ” says Chuck Hagel, the retired Nebraska moderate. “I remember saying to Bill, ‘How do you think you two can sit down on Monday morning and go through an agenda when the element of trust is gone?’ ”) Senators were suddenly rewarded for their partisanship, both with special-interest-group money (polarizing figures are great for fund-raising) and air time (ditto for ratings). And party unity emerged as a transcendent, overriding value, particularly for Republicans, whose cohesion seemed to be reinforced from the top down. Lincoln Chafee, the liberal Republican from Rhode Island, who lost in 2006, says he couldn’t understand why the old-timers went along with it—especially during the Bush years, when the president kept proposing measures far beyond the Treasury’s means. “It’s a mystery,” he says. “Ted Stevens was a pilot in World War II. He’s a brave man. Why didn’t he and John Warner and Pete Domenici and Chuck Grassley and Richard Lugar go down to the White House and say, ‘You don’t have us on this’? I’d ask, and they’d always say, ‘The president wants it.’ ”

Cass Sunstein, the Harvard legal scholar and Obama-administration official, has a theory about this: that people become more radicalized when they spend too much time in like-minded company. And maybe that explains some of the mystery Chafee is describing. Starting in the eighties, both parties began having weekly policy lunches. Eventually, they turned into pep rallies and partisan breeding grounds. For centrists or party outliers, they could be uncomfortable places to be.

“It was painful at times,” says Chafee, who’s now running for Rhode Island governor as an Independent. “Even my health improved after leaving the Senate. I had health issues that instantly went away.”

Like what?

“They were stress-related,” he said. “Let’s just say I had to make sure I chewed my food very carefully in the Senate.”

Don Ritchie, the Senate historian, likes to point out that the Senate was never meant to be a parliament, with its members consistently voting along party lines. But that’s what’s happened. And when Obama came in, ushering in a Democratic supermajority in the Senate, he got to play the role, however briefly, of a prime minister. “Until Scott Brown,” McCain says, “there was no bi-partisanship. They figured, ram it through, pick up a couple of Republican votes along the way, or maybe not. But I know bi-partisanship when I see it. And that’s not bi-partisanship.”

Snowe puts it a little more generously. “I said to the president, ‘The good news is you have 60 votes, and that’s the bad news, too.’ ”

To those beyond Washington, Snowe’s decision not to vote for the final health-care bill may have seemed puzzling. It did not, after all, have a public option, the most publicized sticking point for many Republicans. But that’s not how it looked to those who watched Snowe at close range. She worked with Democrats for months, and she was the only Republican to vote for the health-care bill when it left the Finance Committee. But Harry Reid offered a far more liberal version of the bill on the Senate floor. He knew Snowe probably wouldn’t agree to it. “I think they recognized they had 60 votes, and that empowered them to concentrate on the members of their caucus, rather than make specific policy concessions to a Republican,” she says. “So it ended there.”

Obama ran on a platform of transformation, saying he’d effect huge changes both in policy and partisan culture. But it’s possible that you can’t have both.

Before the health-care vote, Wyden had had his low moments during this Congress. “Right before all the snow fell,” he says, “I remember I felt like everything had gotten so distorted—I’d listen to constituents and realize they couldn’t make hide nor hair of the health-care bill.” On those dispirited occasions, he did what any former college-basketball player would do: put on his jeans, left the Senate, and walked to a nearby playground to shoot hoops. Now, he’s obviously elated. But not deluded. “Let’s just state the obvious,” he told me on the day of the reconciliation vote. “The climate after health care will be more challenging.” Yet he pointed out that in the middle of all the partisan stagecraft, he and Gregg are still working on their bi-partisan tax bill. Snowe is working on a bill with Jay Rockefeller about cybersecurity. (It passed in the Commerce Committee the first day of Vote-o-Rama.) People are still managing to find areas of agreement. Maybe not on climate change or immigration. But tax policy and cybersecurity are hardly trivial. And Wall Street reform has a decent shot. “I still think ideas-driven politics has a place,” says Wyden, “as tough and exasperating as this is.”

And in fact, something interesting was happening on that final day of Vote-o-Rama: Senators were finally, at long last, interacting with each other. It’s been a long time since they’ve all been down there at once, spending so much time on the floor. And suddenly, they were listening to one another, as banal as their speeches often were. When the chamber got too loud, senators would call for order so that their colleagues could be heard; when the final roll was called, Harry Reid was so distracted by the proceedings that he initially voted “no”—the second time he’d made such a mistake—and set off a ripplet of laughter.

“Last night was one of the most cordial evenings I’ve had here in a long time,” said Coburn the next morning. “I talked with Sheldon Whitehouse, Al Franken,” both Democrats. “I spent 30 minutes visiting with Harry Reid!” (Who’ll have to spend the fall accounting for his vote on Coburn’s Viagra amendment, no doubt.) Even the ludicrous amendment spree, some of his colleagues were saying, had its value, as a perverse form of sport. At the very least, they were arguing face-to-face, rather than through press releases and talk radio. “I enjoy the fight,” McCain confessed to me. “Ted Kennedy and I used to enjoy the fight. We’d go nose to nose, but there were other things we’d agree on. Ever see Ted Kennedy fight?” I told him I had. He’d work himself into high dudgeon, then smile at his foes once the cameras were off him. “Well, yeah,” said McCain. “We believed that a fight not joined was a fight not enjoyed.” It may be the preferred mode of nursery-school children. But at least they weren’t sitting at home.


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