Here at the great national Vanity Fair in Washington, debate rages -- well, actually, it doesn't rage, it's pretty desultory -- over momentous stuff such as W. Bush's "triangulation" away from congressional Republicans; over whether his "slouching toward Gomorrah" speech in New York is a reprise of Bill Clinton's semi-famous "dissing" of Sister Souljah in 1992; over how the parties are "positioning" themselves on the issues; and over much more that is so far inside political baseball that no right-minded citizen would look up from the baseball playoffs, or even turn over the compost heap, to pay any attention.

One of my most implacable prejudices -- undisturbed by the fact that I have never done more than visit Washington briefly from time to time -- is that the political culture of this city is so phony, shallow, nasty, disconnected from reality and appearance-obsessed that it amounts to a giant, stinking garbage dump. And Washington always obligingly reinforces that prejudice, which is a great saving of mental energy, since it takes a lot of work to change a good prejudice.

The conventional wisdom du jour here is that they might as well discuss the minutiae of a campaign to which the rest of the country is paying no attention, since the government has pretty much solved all the country's problems and has nothing more to do. "What, after all, are the issues in a time of amazing prosperity at home and tranquillity abroad?" inquires one Washington philosopher.

Another sage asks: "Who can talk about crime without noting that the murder rate alone has dropped by about 35 percent since Bill and Hillary moved into the White House? How can anyone talk of reducing the welfare rolls without noting they too have been reduced?"

"I pity this crop of presidential candidates. The nation is prosperous. It is at peace. Crime is down. Problems abound, but crises do not," the second thinker replies in answer to his own questions.

Well, sports fans, there's politics and then there's government. Politics may not touch our lives, but government sure as daybreak does.

Beyond the positioning and image-making, and the endless quest for more money from special interests in order to mount an ad campaign that could elect a can of Alpo president, there is actual governance. And actual governance is quite capable of making our lives nasty, brutish and short.

Back in the real world, where many parents are trying to support their children by working more than one minimum-wage job; where working mothers are often caught between aging parents who need long-term care and children who need day care; where the median income is a little more than $40,000 a year for a family of four, with half the people in this country living on less than that and lots of them on a whole lot less than that; where there is no such thing as affordable housing for the people who are not in the upper part of our hourglass economy -- back in that world, what government does makes a big difference.

That's a world in which there's a crisis every time your fuel pump goes out or your light bill goes up. And in my humble opinion, the reason that so few Washington pundits know or care about that world is because they are themselves a reflection of the fact that the gap between those who are making it in this country and those who aren't is now so enormous -- the gap itself the consequence of government policies -- that those at the top can barely see those at the bottom. Much less do they spend any time noticing how government policies affect the lives of those in the bottom half of the hourglass.

Except it's not the bottom half -- it's a misshapen hourglass in which the bottom part is much larger than the top part. In George W. Bush's Texas (which is theoretically the demonstration project for compassionate conservatism), the poor, for whom this nouveau bleeding heart now affects such concern, just got an increase in their welfare checks. On Oct. 1, the allowance for a woman and two children rose from $188 a month to $201 a month, putting us ahead of Mississippi and Louisiana. We owe that overwhelming increase to the Democrats in the legislature, not to the governor. In South Texas, they're still living in mud-floor huts with no sewers and no electricity.

In other words, there's a disconnect between George Dubya's politics and his governance. In theory, the political press corps is supposed to ferret out this stuff. But they're too busy trying to find out if he ever used cocaine.

I'm sorry. Washington always makes me grumpy.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.