In 1962, Casey Stengel, the longtime manager of the New York Yankees, came out of retirement to lead the New York Mets, an expansion team. That season the Mets lost an astounding 120 games — which is within about 20 games of what Stengel used to win with the Yankees — and prompted him to ask a memorable question: “Can’t anybody here play this game?” That very question can now be asked about Washington.
I found myself channeling Stengel last week when, incredibly, John Boehner, speaker of the House and leader of his party, had to abort a vote he himself had called because he lacked sufficient Republican support. This brought a rare expression of sheer wonder from a former Republican speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert. “You don’t ever bring something to the floor without the votes,” he told National Journal.
The vote was supposed to be on a tax bill Boehner unironically called Plan B, which, as my colleague Dana Milbank pointed out, is also the name of the morning-after pill. Maybe for that reason — one cannot underestimate the level of stupidity in Washington — 26 Republican members of the House said they would vote no. Boehner thereupon called off the vote and sent the House home for Christmas. Maybe he’ll use the time to learn how to count.
Washington has been reveling in its own history of late. The Senate last week took time off to watch Steven Spielberg’s magnificent “Lincoln.” To Spielberg’s credit, he depicted a president who did more than grandly free the slaves; he got an anti-slavery constitutional amendment through Congress, one recalcitrant member at a time. Lincoln cajoled and arm-twisted and even, we may suppose, bought the occasional vote, not with cash but with jobs and contracts. Few politicians will sell their soul, but they will on occasion sell a vote real cheap, sometimes out of sheer affection for the president.
Abraham Lincoln is Barack Obama’s hero, and the president seemed to invoke Honest Abe when he promised to do something about guns. In the movie, Lincoln says that as a wartime president, he is “clothed in immense power.” Obama said he will “use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens” in preventing gun tragedies. The words, the phrasing — all redolent of Lincoln. The outcome, the past being prologue, will not be Lincolnesque. It will be an Obama muddle.
Spielberg knows what Obama does not. His Lincoln is in incessant negotiations with Congress and the rest of the Washington power structure. He does more than make grand speeches. But Obama is a grand speech sort of guy. After his reelection, he said he had won a mandate. He actually hit the road again, asserting a mandate to raise taxes on the rich. He is right to want to do that, but his mandate is chimerical, made of rhetorical filigree that evaporates in the intellectually arid atmosphere of congressional districts that voted tea-party Republican.
Some 15 Republicans won in congressional districts that Obama carried — whose mandate is that, anyway? — and other Republicans triumphed in districts where Obama is considered an alien creature. One of those who refused to support Boehner’s Plan B was Tim Huelskamp of Kansas. He won with — this is no typo — 100 percent of the vote. (He had no Democratic opposition.) Try telling him about mandates.
As it does with Lincoln, Washington now reveres Lyndon Johnson. Much of this is due to Robert A. Caro’s latest volume, “The Passage of Power,” and its tales of how Johnson knew how to squeeze out every last congressional vote. Caro tells how Johnson basted the crusty Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. of Virginia, slathering him in praise and promises that Byrd knew would be redeemed. Johnson won titanic legislative victories, but he did so one vote at a time. He was a creature of Congress. Johnson left the Senate with a gaggle of friends and the experience to change history. Obama served in the Senate too. He just came and went.
Obama and Boehner are co-pilots steering us toward the fiscal cliff. Their respective jobs are beyond them. One talks over the head of Congress, the other called for a vote he couldn’t win. The thing’s on automatic pilot — automatic spending cuts, automatic tax increases: automatic debacle. The stock market fell. Next, jobs will be lost. Boehner went home to Ohio, and the president went to Hawaii for a vacation . . . from what? Only the ghost of Casey Stengel remains in town: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”