Strange Days in Washington

Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers listens to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers listens to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). He was complimentary of Miers as she began making courtesy rounds at the Senate, Oct. 3, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

There are strange stirrings in Washington these days. Consider what unfolded after President Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court:

• Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid praised the choice.

• Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas threatened to vote against her.

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• And Rush Limbaugh went into such a tizzy that Vice President Dick Cheney had to be dispatched to calm him down.

There were plausible explanations.

Reid had recommended Miers to the president, presumably viewing her as a choice Democrats could tolerate, if not embrace. So he could scarcely come out screaming when the president chose her.

And as for conservatives, Miers was an unknown at a moment when true believers were counting on someone with a clear record of supporting their causes (and opposing abortion). So, the skittishness from Brownback, Limbaugh and others on their side made sense, too.

Yet, the reaction from Democrats and Republicans was the latest piece of evidence that both political parties are floundering, in a way — unable to maintain a unified front or a coherent message, struggling to find cohesion.

Nobody wants elected officials to act like robots, beholden to their party and ready to react predictably to anything. But elected officials can be independent thinkers, while also following leaders who set a vision, agenda and message, and bring others on board.

Right now in Washington nobody seems to be doing that. The major parties seem erratic, looking hard for their soul — and for credible leadership.

Two of the top Republicans in Congress are wrapped up in ethical questions. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had to come before the cameras to explain a stock sale that is now under investigation. And House Majority Leader Tom Delay has been indicted for political money laundering and conspiracy.

Exactly a year ago, Mr. Bush was campaigning at a ski resort in New Hampshire and ruminating on the topic of leadership.

"For all Americans, these years in our history will always stand apart," he said. "There are quiet times in the life of a nation, when little is expected of its leaders. This isn't one of those times. This is a time when we need firm resolve, clear vision, and a deep faith in the values that makes this a great nation."

Mr. Bush was speaking about the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the culture of global terrorism he believed was threatening the country and the fact that the United States was involved in a war abroad. His message to voters was that in a time of testing, he had risen — and could be trusted for another four years.

A year later, those challenges are still front and center. Add a new one — a massive natural disaster on the Gulf Coast. This is no "quiet time." A lot is expected of leaders right now. And Americans don't think they're delivering.

A recent Newsweek poll found that 40 percent of Americans approve of the president's handling of his job, and 32 percent approve of the way members of Congress are performing. And so far, neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to be offering people much reason to change their opinions.

The Democratic ticket struggled to show much "resolve" or "vision" during the last presidential campaign, and the party's leaders still seem to be having a hard time. Senate Minority Leader Reid was busy this week qualifying his initial, glowing praise of Harriet Miers, saying he's not certain he'll actually vote for her.

His counterpart in the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, is still recovering from a colossal embarrassment relating to the Hurricane Katrina postmortem. She called on Democrats to boycott a committee that was hearing testimony from former FEMA director Mike Brown, branding the panel a Republican-choreographed whitewash.

Instead, Republicans came out swinging at Brown. As it happened, only a few Democrats who defied Pelosi were on hand to query Brown, witness the fireworks and learn something about what was wrong at FEMA.

On the Republican side, a majority of Americans no longer see the president as a strong leader in the wake of his handling of Katrina. Even before that storm, public confidence in him was eroding along with support for the war in Iraq.

Katrina was an unthinkably massive catastrophe — the kind that, if Mr. Bush was right, should have challenged leaders to rise to the occasion. Over the past month, at least, it would be hard to say anyone has done that in Washington.

Whether voters retain faith in their leaders and believe they were simply overwhelmed by circumstances — or, whether they want to give new faces a try — are questions for 2006 and 2008.

As always, much could change in short order. But for the moment, it would be hard for incumbents on either side to borrow Mr. Bush's pledge from his campaign ads last year: "Steady leadership in times of change."

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