Commentary Magazine


Topic: House of Cards

Hillary’s Bet: Voters Want More ‘House of Cards,’ Less ‘Veep’

One of the central plotlines in Denis Johnson’s latest novel, The Laughing Monsters, is of a couple of rogue NATO-aligned troublemakers attempting to sell stray uranium to some misfits pretending to be Mossad. The book portrays Westerners as cynics seeking to exploit the post-9/11 global security scramble for profit. I thought the plot was basically silly, but it has seemed less so with every new story about the Clintons. With the latest revelation about the Clintons profiting from the sale of uranium to shady characters, needless to say, The Laughing Monsters seems not silly at all but almost restrained and minimalist compared to what Bill and Hillary Clinton have actually been up to.

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One of the central plotlines in Denis Johnson’s latest novel, The Laughing Monsters, is of a couple of rogue NATO-aligned troublemakers attempting to sell stray uranium to some misfits pretending to be Mossad. The book portrays Westerners as cynics seeking to exploit the post-9/11 global security scramble for profit. I thought the plot was basically silly, but it has seemed less so with every new story about the Clintons. With the latest revelation about the Clintons profiting from the sale of uranium to shady characters, needless to say, The Laughing Monsters seems not silly at all but almost restrained and minimalist compared to what Bill and Hillary Clinton have actually been up to.

This raises a question: As much as Americans like their dark and cynical political fantasy, are they really ready to elect the Clintons and make it a reality?

One comparison to which the Clintons are often subjected is the Underwoods of the American adaptation of House of Cards. But I find this one unconvincing, not least because the Clintons don’t (despite some imaginative conspiracy theories) go around killing those who pose an obstacle to their accumulation of power. When it comes to House of Cards, truth really isn’t stranger than fiction.

But House of Cards does provide at least a useful discussion point because it seems to represent the dark fantasy of American politics. President Obama himself likes to joke that he wishes real life were more like the dead-souled politics of House of Cards. As Time reported in 2013: “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama told tech industry leaders. “It’s true. It’s like Kevin Spacey, man this guy’s getting a lot of stuff done.”

It’s Obama’s version of Tomfriedmanism: every so often, a bit of ruthless authoritarianism is worth the further decay of freedom and democracy.

Of course, in real life, Washington D.C. far more closely resembles HBO’s Veep, in which those in power are awkward and bumbling and, well, human. There is perhaps something reassuring in the House of Cards model in the belief that things are a certain way because powerful people want them to be that way. But there is, in fact, not really such a thing as presidential stability, and often the more stable it looks from the outside the more it truly resembles a Jenga tower. (A good example is FDR, the closest thing since Washington that America has had to an indispensable man. Only in death did it become fully clear the democratic rot over which FDR presided.)

But the House of Cards frame is useful for another reason: while the Clintons are obviously not cold-blooded killers, they are unlike any other family in American politics. And as Hillary runs for president, she will be asking the country to vote its dark fantasies into reality. Do Americans like House of Cards for the escapism, or do they secretly wish life was really like that?

There is reason to think they’re beginning to get uneasy with this. As our John Podhoretz noted earlier today, according to Quinnipiac a majority of voters don’t think Hillary is honest and trustworthy, including 61 percent of independents. Here’s Chris Cillizza on those numbers:

That’s a remarkable set of findings — and speaks to the divided mind the public has about the Clintons broadly and Hillary Clinton specifically.  There’s a widespread belief in her capability to do the job she is running for. There’s also widespread distrust in her personally.  People admire her but don’t know if she’s honest.

And that is the central problem for Clinton with this series of stories today. It affirms for people that there is always some piece — or pieces — of baggage that come with electing the Clintons to anything.  It’s part of the deal.  You don’t get one without the other.

Make no mistake: Forcing people to decide whether Clinton’s readiness for the job outweighs the fact that it’s always something with these people is not the choice the Clinton team wants on the ballot in November 2016.

If it’s not the choice the Clintons want people to make, then they’re really not so confident that America’s ready for Claire Underwood. But there’s an argument to be made that such questions are fully irrelevant to the actual election.

For example, Democrats are mostly going to support Hillary, and Republicans will generally be happy to stay on their side of the dividing line. And Democrats are not going to vote Republican just because Hillary is dishonest and untrustworthy. In that Quinnipiac poll, she beats each major Republican candidate. The point is not that those numbers can’t or won’t change but that the same voters who say she’s untrustworthy and dishonest would still pick her over the other guy.

And without a serious Democratic primary challenger, Hillary can continue to rally support based on the premise that it’s either her or the Republicans. The GOP might hope for voter apathy come Election Day, but how many Democrats will stay home when they have another chance to make history?

Clintonian corruption is not a disqualifying factor to a great many voters–at least not yet. But on the other hand, the Quinnipiac poll was taken before the latest revelations that the Clintons were personally enriched by steering American strategic resources into the hands of the Russians (and thus the Iranians) when Hillary was secretary of state. There might be a limit, in other words, to how much voters are willing to stomach. And Hillary’s already making them queasy.

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‘The West Wing’ vs. ‘House of Cards’: Finding Truth in Fiction

The third season of the American adaptation of House of Cards is coming in for some harsh reviews. It earned them–this season was a mess. There were many contributing factors to this, but surely one of them was the fact that Frank Underwood began the season as president. That is, his rise to power was inherently more dramatic and interesting than his actual governing. In following this plot point, it earned some comparisons to The West Wing. But that’s unfair to The West Wing, and the reason has to do with what Americans see as dramatic when it comes to governing the United States–how we prefer to see ourselves and our political debates reflected back to us on the television screen.

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The third season of the American adaptation of House of Cards is coming in for some harsh reviews. It earned them–this season was a mess. There were many contributing factors to this, but surely one of them was the fact that Frank Underwood began the season as president. That is, his rise to power was inherently more dramatic and interesting than his actual governing. In following this plot point, it earned some comparisons to The West Wing. But that’s unfair to The West Wing, and the reason has to do with what Americans see as dramatic when it comes to governing the United States–how we prefer to see ourselves and our political debates reflected back to us on the television screen.

Over at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Seth Masket sets out to show why, as the headline has it, “‘House of Cards’ is the worst show about American politics. Ever.” What he appears to mean is that House of Cards is the least-realistic show about American politics. He makes a convincing case. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that these shows are all unrealistic in their own ways. They’re fantasy. And although House of Cards plays out as The West Wing’s evil twin–meaner, edgier, and cynical–The West Wing, while cheesy, gets certain things right. Those things are not exciting, but they contain more truth about American politics than most competitors.

The West Wing was a liberal fantasy version of American politics with a Democratic president. But the fantasy was not about eliminating the competition or bulldozing Congress. The fantasy was defeating the GOP in the battle of ideas, and for it to be a true battle, conservative arguments had to be engaged and overcome with better arguments. It was intended to be a fair fight, and a civil fight, with battles the left didn’t always win.

There are three examples that stand out to me, though I imagine there are plenty more.

The first that comes to mind is an ongoing debate between presidential speechwriter Sam (played by Rob Lowe) and Mallory, who Sam is trying to woo. Mallory is the daughter of the chief of staff, Leo; to make trouble for Sam, Leo gives Mallory, who is a public-school teacher, a position paper Sam wrote defending school vouchers. Mallory is livid (the word “fascist” makes a couple of appearances). They go back and forth a few times throughout the episode, and have the following exchange (via West Wing Transcripts):

SAM

Mallory, everything that you’re saying makes sense. I just think that the state of urban schools is such that if you can save even one kid…

MALLORY

[stands] You can save more than one kid.

SAM

Tell me how.

MALLORY

By asking Congress to approve, not just a little, but a lot more money for public education.

Sam laughs.

MALLORY

What?

SAM [stands]

Public education has been a public policy disaster for 40 years. Having spent around four trillion dollars on public schools since 1965, the result has been a steady and inexorable decline in every measurable standard of student performance, to say nothing of health and safety. But don’t worry about it, because the U.S. House of Representatives is on the case. I feel better already.

MALLORY

[beat] Wow.

And again later:

SAM

It occurs to me Mallory, that you attended a private primary school, a private high school and a private college.

MALLORY

What’s your point?

SAM

Well, just that liberals have no problem with rich kids going to expensive private schools, that doesn’t undermine public education. And liberals have no problem with middle-class kids going to parochial schools, that doesn’t undermine public education.

MALLORY

Hang on!

SAM

The idea that letting poor public school students choose private alternatives would destroy public education is simply contrary to our experience.

Sam finally reveals later on that the position paper was “opposition prep”–Sam’s not pro-school choice, he’s just arguing that position for debate prep. Then he tells Mallory his real opinion on education reform:

Mallory, education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. School should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

Now, who has the stronger position here? Is it the side that points out how government has failed public education and how money hasn’t solved the problem? And that liberals only seem to oppose private education for those who can’t afford it? And that the liberal position that school choice for poor students undermines education in America is not only unproven but contrary to the evidence we have?

Or is it the one that insists more money is necessary, a lot more money, because “schools should be palaces” and somehow “free” to taxpayers who are paying for it? And who hasn’t figured out how to get the money for this scheme? It’s incoherent, it’s unrealistic, and it flies in the face of the data on the subject, to say nothing of basic fairness. But it’s the liberal position. And on The West Wing, it loses the argument.

Another example: Josh, a presidential advisor, is being asked by his assistant, Donna, why Democrats oppose the Republican plan of giving back the budget surplus in tax relief:

“We have a $32 billion budget surplus for the first time in three decades.”

“Yes.”

“Republicans in Congress want to use this money for tax relief, right?”

“Yes.”

“So, essentially what they’re saying is they want to give back the money.”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t we want to give back the money?”

“Because we’re Democrats.”

“But it’s not the government’s money.”

“Sure it is, it’s right there in our bank account.”

Later in the episode, Donna reopens the argument:

“What’s wrong with me getting my money back?”

“You won’t spend it right.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s say your cut of the surplus is $700. I want to take your money and combine it with everybody else’s money and use it to pay down the debt and further endow social security. What do you want to do with it?”

“Buy a DVD player.”

“See?”

“But my $700 is helping employ the people who manufacture and sell DVD players. Not to mention the people who manufacture and sell DVDs. It’s the natural evolution of a market economy.”

“The problem is, the DVD player you buy might be made in Japan.”

“I’ll buy an American one.”

“We don’t trust you.”

“Why not?”

“We’re Democrats.”

And the third example occurs when the (Democratic) White House political team initiates efforts to come to a grand bargain to save entitlements. They need Republican buy-in, and they’re willing to make tough concessions if the Republicans match them each step of the way. But they’re encountering suspicion on the part of Republicans in Congress, and the Republican they really need, the guy who could lead such an effort on the right, is not in Congress anymore. A staffer asks one of the presidential advisors what happened to him. The advisor responds:

Josh and I wrote a TV ad that destroyed his career. We figured if we won his seat, maybe a half dozen others, got more Democrats in Congress, we’d be able to get something done around here.

To recap: the first example is a liberal losing an important argument, and badly. The second is some welcome self-awareness, on the part of Democrats writing and consulting on the show, that some of their policies sound awfully ridiculous when you say them out loud. And the third is contrition, an acknowledgement that the throw-grandma-off-the-cliff advertising Democrats do whenever Republicans want to reform an entitlement and are willing to take political risks to do so erodes trust and paves the way to crisis.

Now, obviously these are exceptions on the show, not the rule. The Democrats usually won. But the point is that shows about American politics display their un-realism in different ways. House of Cards was unrealistic in a deeply cynical way. The West Wing was unrealistic in a naïve way. But the naïve way ended up being closer to home because it at least spoke the language of American politics. House of Cards doesn’t.

I also chose those West Wing examples for another reason. In the first and third examples, the problem doesn’t get solved at all; in the second the Democrats’ position shows that sometimes power trumps principle. There are limits to pretty words and fair play.

Neither The West Wing nor House of Cards is a realistic depiction of American politics. But the America of The West Wing was at least recognizable, especially if you were paying attention.

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GOP ‘House of Cards’ Problem, Part Two

Some right-wing bloggers are jumping on a new interview with a former David Duke aide as proof that the allegations that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise spoke to a racist group affiliated with the former Ku Klux Klan leader were misleading if not downright inaccurate. If so, all those (including me) who have called for Scalise’s resignation as the number three person in the House GOP leadership were wrong. But while the story may not be quite as clear cut as we originally thought, those claiming that this is just another liberal media hit job on a conservative are off base. Scalise’s judgment is still very much in question, as is his continued utility to a Republican Party that doesn’t need any additional burdens in its efforts to restrain Barack Obama’s imperial presidency.

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Some right-wing bloggers are jumping on a new interview with a former David Duke aide as proof that the allegations that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise spoke to a racist group affiliated with the former Ku Klux Klan leader were misleading if not downright inaccurate. If so, all those (including me) who have called for Scalise’s resignation as the number three person in the House GOP leadership were wrong. But while the story may not be quite as clear cut as we originally thought, those claiming that this is just another liberal media hit job on a conservative are off base. Scalise’s judgment is still very much in question, as is his continued utility to a Republican Party that doesn’t need any additional burdens in its efforts to restrain Barack Obama’s imperial presidency.

As I noted earlier in the week, Scalise’s problem arose from the revelation that he spoke at a conference of a white supremacist group in 2002 connected to the odious Duke before he entered Congress. While Scalise said he couldn’t recall the event and opposed the group’s beliefs, he nevertheless apologized for speaking to the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO). Scalise claimed he wasn’t aware of the connection to hate but was merely addressing what he thought was a constituency group. One of Duke’s associates, Kenny Knight, told the Washington Post’s Robert Costa on Tuesday that he had arranged the appearance with Scalise, whom he described as a neighbor and a friend.

“He was my neighbor,” Knight said of Scalise, who was serving as a state representative at the time of the conference. “I asked him to be the first speaker before the meeting kicked off.”…

“This all came about because I organized the EURO meeting for David Duke as a courtesy after he had moved to Russia. I’ve known David for 40 years so I did him a favor. As part of that, I decided to ask Steve, our local representative, to come by and say a few words before the conference started,” Knight said. “He agreed, believing it was going to be neighbors, friends, and family. He saw me not as David Duke’s guy, but as the president of our civic association.” …

“Steve came in early on the first day of EURO, spoke for about 15 minutes, and he left,” Knight recalled. “He didn’t hear David speak remotely to the crowd.”

While this was not evidence of Scalise’s support for the hate group’s ideology, it was nonetheless a damning indictment of his judgment in choosing to associate with it and enough to justify calls for his resignation. Though, as I also noted, he was probably being judged by a different standard than President Obama has been for his 20-year membership in a church run by a hatemonger like Rev. Jeremiah Wright or for treating Al Sharpton as his chief advisor on race, Scalise was nonetheless guilty of making a critical error that could handicap his party’s efforts to govern effectively. Fair or not, he had to go.

But now Knight, the same person who dropped the dime on Scalise, is trying to undo the damage done to the majority whip. Knight told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that Scalise actually spoke at a meeting of the Jefferson Heights Civic Association, not Duke’s EURO. In this version of the story, Scalise spoke to the Civic Association two and a half hours before the racist conference although it was at the same hotel and apparently involved some of the same people.

Is this enough to get Scalise off the hook? At least as far as many on the right are concerned it is, and some right-wing bloggers are treating the whole thing as the moral equivalent of Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia rape hoax. But the problem with this assertion is that it rests on the word of an entirely unsavory character that is now claiming that Costa got the story wrong when he interviewed him. But this strains credibility. Costa is a good reporter and, far from a product of the liberal media bias establishment, is a veteran of National Review. It’s more than likely that Knight’s second version of the story is merely an attempt to walk back quotes that got a conservative into trouble rather than the truth. At best, Scalise still compromised himself by his involvement with some not-so-attractive customers.

Yet with most of his GOP colleagues, including House Speaker John Boehner, already standing by Scalise, this muddying of the waters may be sufficient to allow him to weather the storm and to hope that eventually the media will tire of the story and leave him alone. If he were a liberal Democrat, that might happen. But since Scalise has already apologized for the mistake that some of his defenders are now lamely claiming never happened, you can bet that Democrats will be beating the House GOP up for this as long as Scalise remains in the leadership. Indeed, irrespective of the doubts that have been raised about Scalise’s level of culpability, liberal organs like the New York Times are already running specious features about David Duke’s influence on the Republican Party in the South, in spite of the fact that the GOP and its grass roots wants nothing to do with the rabid extremist hater.

It may be that Steve Scalise will hang on to his post as majority whip, a job that most Americans only know about from the fact that it was the starting point for the villainous protagonist of Netflix’s House of Cards series. But the last thing Republicans intent on showing that they can use their control of both houses of Congress to govern effectively is a plot line that will allow liberals to smear them as racists. Scalise committed no crime but he probably knew he was skirting the line of respectability when he spoke to what may or may not have been a hate group in 2002. No one said politics is fair. Like it or not, Scalise is going to be a liability to the GOP for as long as he remains in office. It’s up to Boehner to decide if he wants to spend 2015 going toe-to-toe with Obama and the media with this kind of a handicap.

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To Play the King: Bibi’s Gamble

The second season of the original House of Cards trilogy revolves around the British prime minister’s open feud with the king of England. The Crown is supposed to be apolitical, or at least nonpartisan, and eventually Prime Minister Francis Urquhart bests the king in the court of public opinion. The plot culminates in Urquhart visiting the king to demand he abdicate the throne.

The plot would be more realistic (though less dramatic) if it took place in a parliamentary democracy that is not a monarchical system, where the ceremonial head of state may very well clash with the head of government because he is likely to come from within the political sphere, not hover above it like a royal figurehead. Such is the case in Israel, where the president–currently Shimon Peres–hasn’t much power except one important decision: his blessing must be sought and received for the formation of a governing coalition.

The general practice is that the party that wins the most seats in the preceding Knesset election gets the nod. But the fragmentation of Israeli party politics has made this less than a sure thing. Peres is retiring after his term is up, and the race to succeed him has taken a strange turn. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to avoid a House of Cards-like situation where he must contend with a political animal. Yet while Urquhart’s ploy was to dethrone a king to “save” the monarchy, Netanyahu had a different idea: get rid of the presidency altogether.

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The second season of the original House of Cards trilogy revolves around the British prime minister’s open feud with the king of England. The Crown is supposed to be apolitical, or at least nonpartisan, and eventually Prime Minister Francis Urquhart bests the king in the court of public opinion. The plot culminates in Urquhart visiting the king to demand he abdicate the throne.

The plot would be more realistic (though less dramatic) if it took place in a parliamentary democracy that is not a monarchical system, where the ceremonial head of state may very well clash with the head of government because he is likely to come from within the political sphere, not hover above it like a royal figurehead. Such is the case in Israel, where the president–currently Shimon Peres–hasn’t much power except one important decision: his blessing must be sought and received for the formation of a governing coalition.

The general practice is that the party that wins the most seats in the preceding Knesset election gets the nod. But the fragmentation of Israeli party politics has made this less than a sure thing. Peres is retiring after his term is up, and the race to succeed him has taken a strange turn. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to avoid a House of Cards-like situation where he must contend with a political animal. Yet while Urquhart’s ploy was to dethrone a king to “save” the monarchy, Netanyahu had a different idea: get rid of the presidency altogether.

This was too clever by half, but there was logic to it. Netanyahu has presided over an unusually stable term as prime minister. Part of that is due to his political instincts and part to the fact that his Likud resides at the precise point on Israel’s ideological spectrum so as to maximize public support. The country is center-right, and so is Likud. The Israeli left has been in freefall since the collapse of the Clinton parameters and the second intifada, and the effort to draft disgraced former prime minister Ehud Olmert–egged on by American journalists who suffer from Bibi Derangement Syndrome far more than the Israelis who would actually have to live under another Olmert administration–collapsed as expected.

That means the main intrigue has been who Bibi’s coalition partners will be. The truth is, he doesn’t care too much, because the Israeli political equilibrium virtually guarantees that his coalition partners will usually include some religious/ethnic minority representation and a secular nationalist party, with some room for token peace processers like Tzipi Livni. All Netanyahu really cares about is that he presides over that coalition, the outlines of which have remained remarkably stable in recent elections.

That leaves one real threat to Netanyahu’s premiership: the president, because theoretically the president could simply offer the ability to form a governing coalition to the head of one of the other major parties. This can be more democratic than it sounds: Livni, after all, bested Netanyahu in the vote count in 2009 but couldn’t form a coalition. Yet the only reason she won the election was because the public assumed Bibi’s Likud had it in the bag and so they shifted some votes to other right-of-center parties to ensure a center-right coalition led by Likud. And that’s what they got.

Netanyahu is apparently concerned that he could be a victim of the right’s own success. That is, there are so many right-of-center vote-getters that it’s conceivable a coalition could be formed without Netanyahu’s Likud at the head of it. It’s probably a long shot, but it’s the one way a restless right wing could get around Netanyahu’s hold on power.

His plan, then, was to find a way to delay the presidential election so he could get through the Knesset a bill that would abolish the presidency and make the leading vote-getter automatically the prime minister. Just a few years ago, such a move would have kept Netanyahu out of the Prime Minister’s Office. Not so today.

But in practice, the plan ran aground. Such a bill would have approximately zero percent chance of passing. So while it’s understandable that Netanyahu would want this, it’s difficult to picture a way for it to happen. It should be noted that an Israeli president meddling in party politics is far from unheard of. This is easily forgotten because the post is currently held by elder statesman extraordinaire Shimon Peres, who is 90 and has been fighting for Israel since before Netanyahu was born. Peres revels in the ceremonial job, and he’s more than earned it. He is also a man of the left.

The primary threat to Netanyahu comes from the right, not the left. That is, if a right-winger with an axe to grind were to win the presidency, he might be tempted to empower one of Netanyahu’s rivals. Peres has no desire to elevate anyone to Bibi’s right. The race thus far has been a bit nasty, with allegations of long-ago misconduct already chasing Likud’s Silvan Shalom from the contest. Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, and Hatnua’s Meir Sheetrit are among the candidates for the election, currently scheduled for June 10.

Netanyahu’s gamble will probably not do him any lasting damage. But neither does it seem to have been worth the trouble. Bibi is no Francis Urquhart, and he is not up against royalty. The man most likely to get in Benjamin Netanyahu’s way remains, it seems, Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Don’t Mourn the Passing of Robert Strauss’s Washington

The death of Washington fixer extraordinaire Robert Strauss at 95 this week is being noted as a reminder of a bygone era that has vanished from the scene. Strauss was, by any standard, a remarkable figure in 20th century American political history. The Texas-born lawyer founded Akin Gump, one of the capital’s most powerful law firms and played a pivotal role in Democratic Party politics for decades. He helped elect one president—Jimmy Carter—was a friend to several others, including Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and served both Democrats and Republicans in high office.

As the appreciations that have been written about his life have all agreed, he was a unique “character.” His keen political instincts, colorful language, and smooth manner helped him amass great influence and allowed him to play both ends against the middle throughout his career. Strauss was said to have embodied a Washington where partisan differences were muted. His D.C. was the sort of place where Republicans and Democrats might have used some sharp elbows on each other on the floors of Congress and on the campaign trail. But they could always relax with each other and, more importantly, do business and cooperate behind the scenes to advance Strauss’s perennial agenda of “making the government work.”

But while Strauss deserves credit for his rise from obscurity as the lone Jewish boy in a small Texas town to the toast of Capitol Hill, we should not be mourning the passing of his Washington. For all of his gifts, Strauss exemplified a kind of politics that was, at its heart, unprincipled and, above all, self-interested. Pundits lament the hyper-partisan nature of D.C. politics today in which ideologues on both sides of the aisle dominate and often make compromise impossible. But the notion that we were better off in an era when “go along to get along” produced a government that was unaccountable and worked primarily to help enrich political elites at the expense of the taxpayers is the product of a dangerous kind of amnesia.

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The death of Washington fixer extraordinaire Robert Strauss at 95 this week is being noted as a reminder of a bygone era that has vanished from the scene. Strauss was, by any standard, a remarkable figure in 20th century American political history. The Texas-born lawyer founded Akin Gump, one of the capital’s most powerful law firms and played a pivotal role in Democratic Party politics for decades. He helped elect one president—Jimmy Carter—was a friend to several others, including Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and served both Democrats and Republicans in high office.

As the appreciations that have been written about his life have all agreed, he was a unique “character.” His keen political instincts, colorful language, and smooth manner helped him amass great influence and allowed him to play both ends against the middle throughout his career. Strauss was said to have embodied a Washington where partisan differences were muted. His D.C. was the sort of place where Republicans and Democrats might have used some sharp elbows on each other on the floors of Congress and on the campaign trail. But they could always relax with each other and, more importantly, do business and cooperate behind the scenes to advance Strauss’s perennial agenda of “making the government work.”

But while Strauss deserves credit for his rise from obscurity as the lone Jewish boy in a small Texas town to the toast of Capitol Hill, we should not be mourning the passing of his Washington. For all of his gifts, Strauss exemplified a kind of politics that was, at its heart, unprincipled and, above all, self-interested. Pundits lament the hyper-partisan nature of D.C. politics today in which ideologues on both sides of the aisle dominate and often make compromise impossible. But the notion that we were better off in an era when “go along to get along” produced a government that was unaccountable and worked primarily to help enrich political elites at the expense of the taxpayers is the product of a dangerous kind of amnesia.

Even if his ability to enrich himself and his clients by positioning himself at the public trough is inherently unseemly, the tale of Strauss’s gleeful ascent up the greasy pole is nevertheless a good story in which it is hard to root against him. Strauss’s allergic reaction to ideology has caused more than one writer to compare him to the protagonist of House of Cards. That seems a bit extreme (no one has accused Strauss of murder, let alone the kind of political skullduggery that the fictional Frank Underwood commits) but in an era in which we have grown tired of ideologues, perhaps it’s understandable that there is nostalgia for a time when a fixer could sit down with party leaders and make a deal that both sides might profit from. Many of us are weary of people like Ted Cruz, with their uncompromising approach to politics that might, at least occasionally, be improved by a touch of Straussian pragmatism.

Yet a chorus of querulous Cruz clones endlessly bickering on points of principle would far better serve the nation than a new generation of Bob Strausses orchestrating things from the sideline. There was something profoundly wrong about the influence of figures like Strauss and not just because, as Michael Kinsley famously wrote of him, he was “99 percent hot air.” Rather it was because a political system dominated by men and women who clearly believed in nothing and whose primary motivation was to game the system prevented accountability and ultimately undermined democracy itself.

We sometimes forget that it was the reality of a Washington in which Strauss was not an outlier that gave rise to the revolution on the right led by New Gingrich in the late ’80s and ’90s and then eventually to today’s Tea Party. Americans may not want their government to be shut down over partisan quarrels, but they also understand that a Congress and a D.C. establishment that eschews ideology is one that is in the pockets of the lobbyists rather than working for the people. It’s OK to chuckle at the colorful anecdotes being recounted today of Strauss’s influence peddling and bipartisan deal making. But let’s never be so annoyed with the Ted Cruzes of the world that we think we’ll be better off with a return to his Washington.

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House of Cards? Obama and Democracy

Nobody should blame President Obama for enjoying the Netflix political thriller House of Cards. Indeed, the show’s millions of fans (including me) probably sympathized with the commander in chief when he pleaded for access to advance copies of the series’ second season that is due out next year when high-tech execs (including the head of Netflix) came to the White House to discuss important issues, like how to build a functional website. But I wasn’t quite so amused by the president’s much-quoted remarks in which he purported to envy the ability of the show’s villain Frank Underwood to do what he likes.

 “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama joked at a meeting with tech CEOs on Tuesday, according to a White House pool report.

We’re supposed to chuckle at this comment and regard it as an understandable expression of frustration by the president at the inability of Congress to do its job. But I’m afraid this crack tells us more about Obama’s way of governing that it does about the fact that neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can teach Frank Underwood much about passing legislation. The fact is, for five years Obama has sat in the White House and acted as if he had as little interest in accommodating the positions of his political foes as Underwood does. The problem isn’t that the West Wing and its congressional allies aren’t as “ruthlessly efficient” as the wicked Underwood, it’s that he has as negative an attitude toward the normal business of democracy as the character played by actor Kevin Spacey.

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Nobody should blame President Obama for enjoying the Netflix political thriller House of Cards. Indeed, the show’s millions of fans (including me) probably sympathized with the commander in chief when he pleaded for access to advance copies of the series’ second season that is due out next year when high-tech execs (including the head of Netflix) came to the White House to discuss important issues, like how to build a functional website. But I wasn’t quite so amused by the president’s much-quoted remarks in which he purported to envy the ability of the show’s villain Frank Underwood to do what he likes.

 “I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient,” Obama joked at a meeting with tech CEOs on Tuesday, according to a White House pool report.

We’re supposed to chuckle at this comment and regard it as an understandable expression of frustration by the president at the inability of Congress to do its job. But I’m afraid this crack tells us more about Obama’s way of governing that it does about the fact that neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can teach Frank Underwood much about passing legislation. The fact is, for five years Obama has sat in the White House and acted as if he had as little interest in accommodating the positions of his political foes as Underwood does. The problem isn’t that the West Wing and its congressional allies aren’t as “ruthlessly efficient” as the wicked Underwood, it’s that he has as negative an attitude toward the normal business of democracy as the character played by actor Kevin Spacey.

That sounds a little harsh so let me specify that, as much as I disagree with most of his policies, I haven’t joined the tin-foil hat brigade. I am not accusing the president of enacting wicked conspiracies aimed at subverting every notion of decency in a cold-blooded putsch to achieve total power as Frank does. Nor do I think he got to the White House by cheating or sabotaging his opponents as did Francis Urquhart, the protagonist of the far wittier but less darkly thrilling original British version of House of Cards.

But I do think that throughout his presidency he has demonstrated a studied contempt for the business of democracy. Not since Jimmy Carter have we had a president who was as uncomfortable working with members of Congress of his own party, let alone those from the opposition. Even more to the point, this is as top-down an administration as any in recent memory. Foreign policy has been largely dictated from the White House, as have efforts to push priorities in other areas. Partly this reflects the president’s high opinion of himself and his distrust, if not disdain, for the opinions of others. As his cabinet choices have shown (especially in his second term), with a few prominent exceptions (Hillary Clinton being one), this is a president who prefers yes men and women to strong leaders running departments. The echo chamber in the West Wing that has made it insensible to the opinions of Congress or the pubic when it comes to the president’s pet projects is a reflection of this attitude.

It should be noted that in the show, Underwood has shown a dogged talent for negotiation that Obama lacks, even if, in the end, the character gets his way more by underhanded tactics than give and take. But he shares the president’s desire to have his own way at all costs. In the program’s fictional Washington where the anti-hero can do as he likes, “ruthless efficiency” can be achieved. But in the real Washington, Obama’s desire for acclimation of his every ideological whim is always bound to be frustrated by a constitutional system of checks and balances that allows the views of the minority to be heard and even at times to stop those of the president and the majority.

The genius of the American political system is that it is antithetical to “ruthless efficiency” because it was set up to thwart would-be presidential dictators, congressional majorities, and even the fleeting sentiments of public opinion as expressed in the House of Representatives (elected every two years) and not to let them run roughshod over their opponents.

The president may want us to think his talk about envying Underwood was entirely humorous but, contrary to his less comical public statements about Congress, the trouble with Washington in the age of Obama isn’t that too many voices are heard but that we have a president who listens to no one but himself and an inner circle that seems to be afraid to contradict him. While efficiency would be nice, what the country needs is a president more inclined to work with Congress in the normal, non-dramatic manner that gets the best results in the Capitol, not the ruthless fantasy Obama harbors.

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