In July of 2011, an argument broke out on an Amtrak train stalled in Delaware. The anecdote reveals a lot about how Mark Leibovich and The Club see government, and the rest of us. (More)

This Town, Part III: “Anarchy in the Quiet Car” (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at Mark Leibovich’s new book This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital. Thursday we began with the webs of conflicted interests that D.C. insiders call “Suck Up City.” Yesterday we saw how Leibovich’s research sparked a Beltway mini-firestorm that in which a Capitol Hill staffer was shunned, fired, forgiven, and rehired in a span of months. Today we conclude with whether ordinary Americans can make a town that works for itself also work for us.

Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine. He was previously a national political correspondent for the New York Times and a political style writer for the Washington Post. He lives in This Town and claims to read The Economist, but also admits to lying about it.

“Somewhere in godforsaken Delaware”

An argument on a train, in Leibovich’s words:

In July 2011, the Amtrak train I was riding broke down between New York and D.C., somewhere in godforsaken Delaware. All power was lost. We were without AC. It was hot. The bathrooms stank. People were cranky. The situation presented a philosophical/ethical dilemma. Do the rules of the Quiet Car apply aboard a grounded train? Some thought no, and spoke freely on their cell phones; others thought yes, glared at the alleged offenders, and in some cases yelled. A few yelled back. A third constituency urged peace. People kept talking on their phones. More stares, more yelling, back and forth. A passenger asked another if there was any news. “Shut up!” shouted a third passenger, a Quiet Car militant. “No, you shut up!” shot back a counterinsurgent. Another attempted a straight answer while another tried to be a comedian, saying they halted Amtrak service to pay down the deficit, and they should have sold off Delaware while they were at it. No one laughed.

It was anarchy in the Quiet Car. And also an apt reflection of the collaborative spirit back in Washington. The debate over the raising of the debt ceiling had been raging between the White House and Congress. It was one week from the August 2 deadline when the United States government would default on its credit obligations. Everyone was arguing, nothing was moving – like our train.

First, on behalf of a deeply contrite nation and especially the state of Delaware – where I’ve never lived but through which I’ve driven many times, and whose corporate statutes I studied at some length in law school – I want to apologize to Leibovich for any inconvenience that “godforsaken” state’s existence may have caused him.

Second, find a better anecdote … because that one has not the faintest bearing on the debt ceiling debacle in 2011, or the one looming now.

“The stupid voters”

In March of 2012, Politico’s Alexander Burns broke one of The Club’s unwritten rules. He told the rest of us what they think about us:

In reality, the contest has been more like a game of Marco Polo, as a hapless gang of Republican candidates and a damaged, frantic incumbent try to connect with a historically fickle and frustrated electorate.

And “fickle” is a nice way of describing the voters of 2012, who appear to be wandering, confused and Forrest Gump-like through the experience of a presidential campaign. It isn’t just unclear which party’s vision they’d rather embrace; it’s entirely questionable whether the great mass of voters has even the most basic grasp of the details – or for that matter, the most elementary factual components – of the national political debate.

Leibovich cites several press critiques of Burns’ column, and adds:

This is, admittedly, seizing on a fat vulnerability of the Politico story. It was nakedly condescending, elitist, self-consciously disdainful. The big centerpiece photo was of Forrest Gump himself sitting on a bench. That is precisely what I loved about the story. It offered one of the most revealing expressions of the dim view that so many residents of This Town have of the American voter. It is a belief held equally by Washington politicians, lobbyists, and certainly journalists. Inasmuch as Politico is a reflection of that local sensibility, it was a story that struck a perfect pitch for This Town.

As did the anecdote about the argument on the train in “godforsaken Delaware.”

“He even owned the president”

Not to pile on, but here’s Leibovich’s summary of the 2012 election:

By the last weeks of the campaign, Bill Clinton owned the country again – the citizenry that had twice elected him, the Republicans who had impeached him, and the Democrats who had disowned him, for a time, four years earlier. He even owned the president, Obama, whom he previously couldn’t stand, and who was now in his debt to a point that he was compelled to make Clinton one of the first people he called when the campaign came to a merciful close.

In fairness, Leibovich isn’t alone. Consider this from The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldberg, written the day after the election:

Barack Obama’s first phone call after his election victory was to Bill Clinton, the man who almost single-handedly rescued the Democratic presidential campaign after it ran into trouble.

And this from the New York Magazine’s Joe Hagan, just this week:

Some make the argument that he single-handedly won Obama reelection with his extraordinary takedown of Mitt Romney at the Democratic National Convention last year.

In fact an incredibly sophisticated and well-organized grassroots campaign made President Obama the statistical favorite all along:

A glance at the popular vote track at Nate Silver’s New York Times website suggests a different theory for 2012. Silver offered his first popular vote forecast on May 31st, projecting President Obama to win 50.6% and Romney 48.3% of the vote. While the track opened somewhat – to 51.6% vs. 47.3% after the Democratic National Convention and again after Romney’s infamous “47% comments” – the final projection almost exactly matched where Silver started.

But The Club didn’t cover or care about the millions of phones being called or doors being knocked. Countless hours spent by hundreds of thousands of volunteers didn’t matter. The Club loved President Clinton’s speech, ergo, that “single-handedly” won the election and President Clinton then “owned” President Obama.

Strangers on a Train

Leibovich reveals a navel-gazing cabal who see the rest of us – if they see us at all – as “stupid voters” out there in “godforsaken Delaware.” The only resemblance between the arguments on that stalled Amtrack train and the GOP holding the debt ceiling and the global economy hostage in order to extract policy concessions, and causing our nation’s first credit rating downgrade, was that both were … arguments.

If you cover the debt ceiling debate as an insider story about “dysfunctional” Washington, then the Amtrack anecdote – while not in the same zip code – at least has the same number of digits. But that only works if you ignore the substance of the policy dispute and focus solely on the process … the argument. And far too often, that’s exactly what The Club do.

Meanwhile, out in Realworldia – including “godforsaken Delaware” – voters aren’t nearly as stupid as The Club want to believe. The seemingly inexplicable conflicts in polling data often reveal a keener understanding of the underlying issues than the stories told by The Club. On Syria, for example, polls showed that Americans agreed the Assad government had used chemical weapons, believed that was unacceptable, and that the U.S. had a duty to act. But, quite reasonably, Americans also feared that a military strike would do more harm than good. Far from irrational, that is a sophisticated application of just war theory.

On the debt ceiling, 62% Americans say failing to raise the debt ceiling will cause “major problems” or an economic “crisis.” That same poll found that Republicans, not President Obama, will take the blame. Yes, a Bloomberg poll found that 62% of Americans want a debt ceiling increase tied to (unspecified) spending cuts. But the House Republican ransom note doesn’t include spending cuts. And as Greg Sargent noted, debt ceiling poll results are skewed by Republican voters who don’t care if the debt ceiling triggers an economic meltdown.

To conclude that voters are stupid, you have to cherry-pick polls for conflicting data points and then make no attempt to understand the conflicts. That is, you have to be both intellectually lazy enough and smug enough to think that one speech at the Democratic National Convention decided the 2012 election, or that arguments over whether to use cell phones in the Quiet Car of a stalled Amtrak train are the same as a policy debate about the debt ceiling.

And if we want a government that works for the rest of us, we must learn to ignore The Club – just as our archetypal voter Fred ignores them – and focus on the grassroots activism that wins elections and enables real change.

The Club won’t know or care that we’re doing that, of course, and they’ll give each other credit for that change when it happens. But Americans know better … even in “godforsaken Delaware.”


Happy Saturday!