The controversies of Washington, DC: government shutdown and no more Redskins

There is mounting evidence that the GOP’s hopes of taking the Senate in 2014, which seemed high a few months ago, are diminishing by the day.

Arriving in Washington, DC to start a fellowship at the Library of Congress, I have found myself a victim of the US government shutdown – locked out of the library and forced to join the ranks of aspiring screenwriters in Starbucks. With most of the furloughed government workers based in the nation’s capital, the effects of the shutdown are more apparent in DC than any other city. National monuments and public parks are shut and joggers who venture in risk being fined by overzealous rangers.

Yet the place is hardly reeling. The bookshops, bars and coffee shops are brimming and native Washingtonians note with pleasure that the traffic is much improved. One innovative federal worker has used the enforced holiday to compile an exhaustive database of happy-hour drinks prices inside the Beltway. Meanwhile, the conservative shock jock Glenn Beck and a team of Tea Party supporters kindly volunteered to clean the National Mall over the weekend, descending en masse with rakes and plastic bags.

The devil makes works for idle hands. The last shutdown, in 1996, was also the occasion of Bill Clinton’s encounter with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky. As the Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone reminded me, though, one forgotten outcome of that saga was that Clinton’s approval rating went up 20 points – albeit only after Republicans began impeachment proceedings.

It is that echo – of an American public fed up with partisan politics going one step too far – that resounds through the current imbroglio. Polling figures make it emphatically clear that the Republican Party is bearing the brunt of the blame.

While the Republican leadership in the Senate (a minority) seems willing to countenance a deal, those in the House (who boast a majority) have been playing hardball. It was the latter’s insistence that they would approve a spending bill only if severe dents were made in Barack Obama’s health-care reforms that first led to the impasse. For the most conservative representatives – referred to by some as the “Hell No” caucus – brinkmanship remains the order of the day.

Obama has responded by abandoning direct negotiations with the congressional Republicans, and now all hopes are pinned on the White House striking a deal with the more moderate Republican leadership in the Senate. The chances of a “grand fiscal bargain” between the parties are remote; this debate is not over and is likely to be revisited in six months’ time. What is most likely in the short term is a sticking-plaster solution, along the lines of the deal that ended the previous crisis over the debt ceiling in 2011.

Essentially, this would involve Senate Republicans agreeing the terms of a new bill with the White House – as seems likely – and forcing it through the House with the acquiescence of a sufficient number of Republican votes to make an overall majority. Those Republicans who do support a deal can expect a severe backlash from the right of the party.

Indeed, the gap emerging between Republicans in the House and the Senate is in many ways a sign of the deeper chasm that has been opening up in the heart of the GOP and threatens to swallow it. In recent years, a redrawing of electoral boundaries in Republican-held districts (gerrymandering, in effect) has created a new dynamic in the party, whereby local Republicans are often well protected from a Democrat challenge but face a hard battle in the primaries, where activists have the initiative and the Tea Party is the most effective mobilising force.

The price of local dominance has become national credibility. The type of uncompromising message that works in a Republican primary does not translate well to the circumstances of general elections, which are usually won on the centre ground. There is mounting evidence that the GOP’s hopes of taking the Senate in 2014, which seemed high a few months ago, are diminishing by the day. If it has been so irresponsible in control of the House, it is asked, how can it be entrusted with control of the Senate, too?

Ruffled feathers

Another ongoing squabble in DC, undoubtedly of more interest to its inhabitants, concerns the town’s beloved American football team – the Washington Redskins. The Redskins’ owner, Daniel Snyder, is coming under pressure to change the name of the franchise on the grounds that it is offensive to Native Americans, for whom Redskin – as opposed to other appellations such as “Chief” or “Brave” – has pejorative connotations. Snyder remains defiant that he will not rename the team and points out that most Native Americans polled say they are not offended. But the issue will not go away. Obama has come out in favour of a change. More important, in a “half-time essay” on Sunday Night Football, the influential NBC anchor Bob Costas made a strong case that the name was indeed offensive and it was time find a new one.

In a bifurcated city – with affluent suburbs but some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the US – what does unite Washingtonians is their football team. The downtown bars were packed on Sunday night as the Redskins attempted to kick-start their stuttering season against their great historical rivals, the Cowboys, in Dallas. Hopes were pinned on the star quarterback Robert Griffin III (affectionately known as RG3), who continues his comeback from reconstructive surgery on his knee. Despite glimpses of his former brilliance, RG3’s game collapsed in the final quarter and Dallas held on for a victory.

However, the rising star on the DC sports scene is a real “football” player: DC United’s goalkeeper, Bilal “Bill” Hamid. Despite being in a team cut adrift at the bottom of the table, he was superb against Philadelphia Union in a rainy Saturday-night game at the RFK Stadium. He will be in the English Premier League before too long.

The US Capitol building in Washington, DC. Image: Getty

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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