City on a Hill: House of Jokers

March 26, 2015

Georgetown might have flamed out of the 2015 NCAA tournament last weekend, but for the rest of Washington, D.C. the madness of March drags on.

Only the players in this game—6 foot 5 Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) aside—don’t tower over the rest of us. There are no referees. Fouling is the norm. The drama unfolds not on polished courts hemmed in by enthused spectators but in courts of law, atop pre-2016 soapboxes, and on the floor of Congress. Instead of a sphere of brown leather, it’s the future of the country that dribbles every which way.

This game isn’t basketball—it’s American politics. And American politics has had a rough month. Let’s tally the brackets:

March 3: Congressional Republicans and the divisive rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu face down a ticked-off President Obama on the subject of the ongoing Iranian nuclear negotiations.

March 4: GOP senators try and fail to overturn President Obama’s Keystone XL pipeline veto.

Also March 4: Right-leaning legal challengers to the Affordable Care Act advocate scrapping the law on a technicality before the Supreme Court.

March 8: Republican senators double down, penning an open letter to Iranian leadership to undermine progress toward a deal.

March 11: Hillary Clinton, presumed Democratic presidential nominee, faces down a suspicious public during a press conference following revelations that she maintained a private email account as Secretary of State—selected contents of which she made public, the rest of which she deleted.

March 18: The GOP wrangles with Obama again, this time pressuring federal judges to keep the court-ordered injunction that’s currently stalling the president’s executive action on immigration.

March 23: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the man who brought you the 2013 government shutdown and a mid-filibuster reading of Green Eggs and Ham, announces his candidacy for president.

So on, and so forth. If politics is the game, then everyone—from Congressional Republicans and right-leaning federal judges to Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton—seems to be playing it pretty poorly. March madness indeed.

And while it’s normally enough to instant-replay each inexpert play, gaffe, and bad decision point by sordid point, jaded cynicism masks the more abstract problem: a deep, and deeply concerning, lack of seriousness among certain Washington policymakers—including our leading 2016 would-be presidents.

But what is seriousness, really? After all, Cruz gravely compares climate change activists to the “flat-earthers” of Galileo’s day. Clinton contritely admits “it would have been better” if she’d avoided using a personal email account. And Jeb Bush, another likely 2016 presidential hopeful, channels the priggish apoplexy of Bibi in belittling President Obama’s foreign policy as “schoolyard antics.”

But let’s not mistake words for action or action for seriousness. Rhetoric in place of real solutions is a classic bait-and-switch. But in an age where audiences salivate over shows like House of Cards, which plays on atavistic fears about our politicians’ backroom-dealing, backchanneling, and back-stabbing, the real wolf in sheep’s clothing is the political joker. Whether denying climate change, flippantly undermining voter trust, or inflating lackluster resumes with fatuous claims, our political jokers fight the fights that matter to them (like the next election cycle) without fighting the fights that really matter. They play the game on the clock without sparing a thought for the tournament, the season, or the future of the league.

In basketball, a game’s outcome is the aggregate of everything that happens—or doesn’t—courtside. In politics, things run in reverse: the envisioned goal comes first, day-to-day actions follow. But this formula is increasingly violated. Obama’s “Don’t Do Stupid Shit” foreign policy strategy institutionalizes a fear of the future. Republicans contest Obamacare, block immigration reform, and deny global warming without proposing alternate solutions to these serious problems. They hold their tongues on Ferguson and income inequality because they’re focused on 2016 instead of on 2043, the year the Census Bureau estimates whites will become a national minority. Though their Iran letter explicitly references the shortsightedness of American politics, most Republicans seem hardly aware of it—certainly not those running for president. Political jokers don’t just treat meaningful debate, factual responsibility, and the nation’s future as objects of ridicule; they turn themselves into laughingstocks too.

This lack of seriousness isn’t new. But the severity of the problems our nation must address—and the severity of the consequences of failing to—has changed. On climate, healthcare, immigration, and inequality, we need politicians who acknowledge, engage, and lead seriously, on the basis of serious fact. Volume doesn’t echo through the ages; good policy does.

The whole thing almost makes you long for a Frank Underwood—the tactics might be ruthless, but at least he takes himself seriously. In today’s political landscape, it’s far better to be deadly serious than not nearly serious enough. And while he might lie, coerce, and play dirty to get to the top, at least he has the decency to look us in the face.


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