The cognitive dissonance from the District of Columbia was striking this week, even by 2017’s surreal standards.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans resuscitated health care legislation that was on life support with a motion-to-proceed vote that split the Senate 50-50.
That result, reflecting America’s deep divisions, was broken by Vice President Mike Pence’s tiebreaking vote. Yet Pence was overshadowed by John McCain, the war-hero-turned-maverick-senator, who made a dramatic return after a brain cancer diagnosis to give an impassioned analysis of Congress’ chronic malaise.
“We’re getting nothing done,” McCain stated. “Let’s trust each other. Let’s return to regular order.” But then he voted to proceed when he could have spurred the return to regular order he had just urged.
That anti-maverick maneuver was just one of many incompatibilities by Senate Republicans, who — after years of complaining about and campaigning on Democrats passing a health care bill “to see what’s in it” — voted to proceed without knowing what legislation would actually be debated. On Thursday, a bill was written during lunch, with some senators willing to back it as long as the House didn’t actually allow it to become law. But before dawn on Friday, the maverick rode again, joining Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to kill the “skinny repeal” that would have fattened the ranks of uninsured by 16 million. Voting no “was the right thing to do,” McCain said, living up to Tuesday’s speech.
The week’s incongruities included congressional Democrats, too, who rolled out a repositioning in rural Virginia by featuring New York’s Chuck Schumer and San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi. Among the policies Schumer and Pelosi stressed were minimum wage, corporate concentration and prescription drug prices.
While earnest, the event merely rippled amid waves of White House news, and much of the notice it did get was from the left about leaving out single-payer health care. Others pointed out that the slogan — “A better deal” — sounded less like a rallying cry and more like an ad.
Positioning was probably President Donald Trump’s intent when he hired Anthony Scaramucci, who comes across as a character in “The Wolf of Wall Street” or Thomas Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” as his new communications director.
The move led in short order to the resignations of both press secretary Sean Spicer and, on Friday, chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Spicer’s political tap dancing apparently impressed “Dancing with the Stars” producers, who reportedly want Spicer as a contestant.
Just as Spicer became comic fodder on “Saturday Night Live,” Scaramucci got the late-night treatment, including a “Daily Show” montage comparing his hand gestures and speaking style to Trump’s. The uncanny consistency didn’t stop there: Just like Trump, Scaramucci intemperately took to Twitter to lash out at “leakers” for releasing his financial disclosure forms, which are actually a public record.
Later, in an interview with the New Yorker, Scaramucci vulgarly disparaged colleagues Steve Bannon and Priebus, predicting Priebus’ imminent departure. Scaramucci told CNN that his fraternal relationship with Priebus was like that of Cain and Abel. (And on Friday we learned who was who).
Trump named Homeland Security chief John Kelly to replace Priebus. The former Marine Corps general’s willingness to accept the mission to bring order to Trump’s West Wing confirms his dry-eyed grit.
Trump did his own share of shaming on Twitter, also targeting an insider: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president, who as candidate promised to hire “the best people,” disparaged his own choice as “VERY weak” and worse, which will make it even harder to hire anyone, let alone the best, to take any of the hundreds of unfilled positions.
The president’s provocations weren’t just in 140 characters, but in front of a character-building organization, the Boy Scouts. Trump’s troubling speech on Monday to the National Scout Jamboree included sharp partisanship and hostility to the media that belied the Scouts’ ethos of “helpful, friendly, courteous and kind.” The Scouts’ executive director apologized. The president did not.
On Wednesday, Trump reverted to Twitter to announce a ban on transgender troops in a personnel policy shift that surprised the Pentagon and belied his 2016 tweet saying, “Thank you to the LGBT community! I will fight for you while Hillary brings in more people who will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.”
Concurrently, the people the president brought in threatened these beliefs and freedoms as the Justice Department filed papers weighing against workplace protections based on sexual orientation.
Trump’s transgender troop ban — announced on the 69th anniversary of President Harry Truman’s order desegregating the military — was denounced by Democrats and tepidly met by many Republicans, even though it was reportedly prompted by conservatives concerned over transgender medical costs. But even these members weren’t pushing for the full ban Trump jumped to.
On Thursday, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote that transgender troops could still serve pending official notice from the White House and the secretary of defense. “We will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect,” he wrote, a stance that the commander in chief should adopt toward these brave, selfless Americans willing to fight for our freedoms.
The week’s cognitive dissonance likely will endure. Finding true north from the West Wing and throughout the Beltway will be best accomplished by orienting toward policy, not communication strategies that inadvertently or purposely distract.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.