Every so often I hear political reporters gripe that the news has become exhausting, that it is impossible to keep track of all the developments in the nation’s capital. And while my reflex is to scoff at the media line du jour, and to observe that journalists have never been so lucky, never had such an incredible and unusual and exciting story unfold before them as the rise and rule of Donald Trump, I confess that the past week has left me unable to catch my breath, too. The commentator in Donald Trump’s Washington resembles a tourist in a foreign city, unsure of which way to travel, confusedly searching for directions, standing at the corner, gazing at the scene, mouth agape.
Toward the end of Vanity Fair’s story on the “woke civil war” at the New York Times came this revealing detail: To assuage employees concerned that the paper is not as progressive and socially conscious as it could or should be, publisher A.G. Sulzberger, opinion editor James Bennet, and others have been “holding office hours” where internal critics speak freely.
In February, Chuck Schumer delivered a lecture at the McConnell Center of the University of Louisville. The center’s namesake, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, listened as Schumer described the Democratic strategy for the midterm elections. “You cannot just run against Donald Trump,” Schumer said. “It is the job of we Democrats to put together a strong cohesive economic group of proposals aimed at the middle class.”
“The heart and soul of the Republican Party belongs to Donald Trump,” writes Lloyd Green. If so, the GOP has an odd way of showing affection. Green cites a lack of Republican criticism of Trump, the president’s continued popularity within the party, and Trump’s rescue of incumbent Nevada senator Dean Heller from a primary challenge. All true. But when it comes to the president’s priorities and the nationalist populist style of politics he represents, Trump and the Republican Congress could not be farther apart.
Almost immediately after the news broke that President Trump intends to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA director Mike Pompeo, media figures speculated that the decision was about Russia. The argument went like this: Tillerson was fired because he had recently criticized the Russian government for its attack using a nerve agent on a former spy living in the United Kingdom. He thereby endangered détente with Russian president Vladimir Putin and so, the critics said, Trump sacked him.
I had to travel to Silicon Valley to be reminded of how much our time resembles the late nineteenth century. Visiting the Stanford campus this week on a Hoover Institution media fellowship, I spoke to professors who view D.C. politics from a distance both critical and geographic. I was startled by how often the Gilded Age came up, unprompted, in my conversations. It was helpful to be reminded that, while the Beltway is obsessed with personalities—Stormy Daniels, Gary Cohn, Robert Mueller, Jared Kushner, and above all Donald Trump—the structural forces that have brought us to this moment are more important and more enduring.
When Paul Ryan launched his “Better Way” agenda in 2016, the idea was to provide a blueprint for the next Republican administration. The man who would lead that administration was skeptical, to say the least. The Ryan agenda, focusing on health care, taxes, military spending, and welfare reform, was resisted and belittled by Donald Trump’s populist-nationalist supporters. But a funny thing happened when Trump won the presidency. It was Ryan’s priorities that shaped Trump’s first year in office.
I’ve been thinking of my friend Jeffrey Bell. Jeff, who died suddenly two weeks ago at age 74, was a Vietnam veteran who shocked the political class when he won the Republican Senate nomination in New Jersey in 1978 and again in 2014. He lost both races, but those setbacks freed him for other pursuits. He was a longtime conservative who worked on the campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Jack Kemp, and who co-founded successful economic and political consulting firms as well as the nonprofit American Principles Project.
Republican Vern Buchanan has represented Sarasota, Florida, in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2007. He won reelection in 2016 by 20 points. He’s a wealthy former car dealer who hasn’t lacked campaign funds. Nor did his son James, who ran in Tuesday’s special election to replace a retiring GOP state legislator from the same area. But James’s story turned out differently from his father’s. He lost to Democrat Margaret Good by seven points.