Our Humpty-Dumpty Political Class

What you may be noticing as the presidential candidates advance to be recognized is the pained and plaintive tone in which they speak of the political profession. Politics is out of whack! Dysfunctional, if you like! We shout too much! We distrust! We vilify and blacken and stigmatize! We behave like sworn enemies instead of like fellow countrymen!

True. "But I" — insert name — "am bent on putting all that to rights, now that you voters, in your wisdom, have installed me in the White House. Sweetness and trust will reign once more. And into the light of the new day, Americans will stroll hand in hand."

Umm-hmm. On the same day cows give reserve cabernet sauvignon and caviar costs less than popcorn. There is sourness and cynicism in that prediction, and yet, after the St. Valentine’s Week massacre of American foreign policy, it is not easy to imagine American politicians in the mood for reform or reconciliation of any variety.

Blame whomever you like — President Bush, Congressman John Murtha, Vice President Cheney, House Speaker Pelosi. The Iraq debates of last week were a national disgrace: a horror to frighten children, assuming any had the stomach for watching adults embarrass themselves.

It wasn’t that the Iraqi conundrum didn’t and doesn’t need solution. It was that the new, muscle-flexing Democratic majority in Congress had no notion of solving the Iraqi conundrum. You don’t "solve" a war problem by voting primly to disapprove of the commander-in-chief’s latest strategy for ending said war. All that the Democrats aimed at was making their designated arch-foe, George W. Bush, look as incompetent as possible.

That’s what the Valentine’s Week tumult and shouting were about: What can we say, what can we vote on, to diminish the president’s credibility? Start with offering resolutions that instruct him — and the waiting, watching world — that we, the Congress of the United States, regard the guy as a loser. Just what the troops in Iraq want to hear, of course — that Congress thinks them to be risking life and limb, too often losing one or the other or both, in obedience to the commands of a nincompoop.

In the end, only the House passed this lame-brained admonition. Never mind: The message got through. Half the legislative branch, including some members of the commander-in-chief’s own party, think the commander-in-chief knows not what he does. How helpful.

How political, would be more like it. How characteristic of the moral depths to which politics has plunged in the last few years. Our exalted representatives get more joy, it seems, from punching the president in the eye than they would from working out with him, patiently, patriotically, some approach to ending the war that honors American and Iraqi sacrifices alike, and that soothes in some measure the nation’s frazzled nerves.

You have to wonder: Do Democratic leaders ever reflect that chickens come home eventually to roost, that careless words and actions give birth to dangerous, sometimes fatal, consequences?

Possibly they do so reflect. You just can’t always tell by watching.

The problem, a deliciously human one, lies at the heart of our constitutional arrangements. It is that few people, including politicians, can handle enormous power. The second that power comes to them, they start throwing their weight around. They’ve got it, and you haven’t. "Which is to be master?" — Humpty Dumpty’s famous question in "Through the Looking Glass" — is the constant study of too many public men and women. Who’s in charge? Who runs the place? You? Me? Who? The founding fathers, keenly understanding the problem, tried to restrict and offset the exercise of political power, but would-be masters don’t give up easily.

It’s nice enough, perhaps, to hear from presidential candidates earnest talk of medicating our political dysfunction. With the acrid smoke of the Iraq debate still filling nostrils, one has still to wonder: How many of them mean a word they’re saying?