At a recent breakfast in Napa, a doctor confessed that he was totally upset and distraught because of our national politics. I advised him, based on my more than a quarter-century in Washington, D.C., just to stop watching the TV news and talk shows. Everyone at the table chuckled, but I was serious.
Especially in these days of instant comment and analysis of every permutation and combination of presidential and congressional antics, it’s useful to step back, take a deep breath, and recognize that big things change – if they do at all – slowly.
It is doubtful that we will ever get in this Congress any overhaul of Obamacare. The Republicans just don’t have the political strength to navigate the turbulent waters between the Scylla of conservative rejectionists and the Charybdis of Medicaid-minded moderates. The votes aren’t there, especially in the Senate. And in the background is a policy-free White House that would simply like to declare victory and move on.
Tax and financial reform is similarly dubious. The administration’s budget proposal is laughably unserious and packed with funny numbers. We are years away from getting a substantive discussion of tax deductions and simplification.
Overseas, we are likely to stumble along on almost every front. Even as we ruffle our relations with our European allies, there’s no way we will get mysteriously chummy with the Russians. The Iranian nuclear deal will meander along, at least for now.
Washington reporters note that Donald Trump throws frequent tantrums, just like a child. But that means there’s little stability in his positions; they’ll change along with his moods. Trump is not the first leader to be criticized for immaturity. He’s just dangerously so.
One of Winston Churchill’s generals, who worked with the great man daily throughout World War II, said that Churchill was a “child of nature.” Historian Max Hastings wrote that “he had an undisciplined mind, the source of a cornucopia of ideas, some brilliant, others absurd.” But not only was Churchill animated by one overarching idea – to defeat Hitler – he surrounded himself with big personalities who both spoke up and spoke back to him.
So far, with Trump we haven’t found a similar coterie of strong men (and women) willing to battle him on policy positions. This is becoming an egg-shell White House, where staff and Cabinet members gingerly tip-toe around major issues.
Churchill wrote books; Trump doesn’t read any. Churchill’s antics were framed against a backdrop of intellectual thought and achievement. Trump just blusters. And tweets.
What that means in a policy substance free White House is that breathless reporters will pounce on today’s political gossip and staff leaks as being inherently meaningful. They must know that today’s headlines contradict yesterday’s and will evaporate by tomorrow.
So feel free to take the summer off. Close up your mental shop and read a beach book novel. The whispers and rumors of the next three months will, by the crisp days of early autumn, have proved to mean very little.
To the extent that the House and Senate investigations of the Trump White House, plus that of former FBI director Robert Mueller, come up with anything serious or useful, we won’t know during the hot and humid days of this Washington summer.
It must be grand right now to be a news producer or bureau editor in Washington; there are rip’n’read stories every day. But that doesn’t mean they are meaningful. Or that we should pay attention. The metaphoric ship of state turns slowly. Sure, it can be jostled by a tsunami of troubles that appear suddenly. But that’s rare.
What could dramatically go wrong in a major way this summer? Trump could have a health scare. After all, he’s an obese septuagenarian who gets no exercise, eats a lousy diet, and has a long-haired personal physician who can’t write a brief medical report without typos. Abroad, the lunatic regime in North Korea could launch an uncontrolled missile that inadvertently lands south of the 38th parallel or in Japan. Or, most seriously, we could be hit by a terror strike like those in London, Manchester and Paris.
But absent major – or tragic – instances like these, this summer should pass uneventfully. Read a book and not the headlines. Watch an opera or a Broadway show and not CNN or MSNBC. Focus on the developing grapes in our vineyards. School’s out soon, enjoy life.