In his wary optimism after the U.S. Senate voted to proceed with debate on dismantling President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act and replacing it with, well, something, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he and his supporters were “not out here to spike the football.”
In this case, the cliched sports metaphor fit.
Politics, more than ever, has come to resemble a depressingly repetitive sporting event: Judging an idea’s worth depends on which team supports it. And the opposing team is — always the New England Patriots.
With apologies to the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, the politician most associated with the phrase “all politics is local,” his sentiment seems increasingly old-fashioned. Elections from school board to state judge are taking on a national sheen, with divisions at the very top of the political food chain — party vs. party, tribe vs. tribe — trickling down.
Political ads in all corners of this sprawling country, with needs as varied as their climates, landscapes and time zones, may toss in a few promises on affordable housing or new roads and schools. But weary and occasionally bewildered local voters are just as likely to see and hear attacks on “values” (the other guys’ are always terrible) and villainous bogeymen who reside thousands of miles away.
At a campaign-style rally in Youngstown, President Donald Trump extolled the virtues of the “American heartland,” a phrase that conjures more than geography. It’s a familiar and everlasting characterization leaned on by politicians of every stripe, one that maligns, by default, all those out-of-control folks who live (and work and pay taxes) on both coasts.
Relative virtue I’ve never understood why standing in the middle of a corn field somehow makes one more virtuous than living in a Baltimore row house, or why milking cows earns more kudos than adjusting a part on an assembly line or working as a teacher or social worker.
The argument also makes little sense coming from a gold-plated New York City billionaire who spent much of his life in a tower that bears his name.
The demonization of the “other” has always worked. Now, though, no one even tries to sugarcoat the contempt with a veneer of civility in the name of national unity.
Many senators in favor of ACA repeal say they are only keeping a promise to their voters, who, in the town halls that some elected officials selectively hold, are expressing second thoughts, especially if their family’s medical or Medicaid coverage is not included in whatever bill follows.
Running against “Obamacare” — named for the hated rival — was good enough then. But what about now? Look at what happened to Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia when they expressed concern about what changes in health-care legislation would mean for their constituents.
Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold said it was “absolutely repugnant” that “some female senators from the Northeast” had been a roadblock, and added, “If it was a guy from south Texas, I might ask him to step outside and settle this Aaron Burr-style.” This was a guy re-elected by double digits in 2016 after settling a previous case of alleged sexual harassment.
Is that an expression of “Texas values”?
Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff got caught on the “wrong” team in his House race when Republicans transformed him — in English and Spanish — into a henchman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and an enabler of the values of “liberal” San Francisco. An ad that tied Democrats, and by extension Ossoff, to the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was too much even for the election’s eventual winner, Republican Karen Handel.
City council races are not exempt. In Charlotte, N.C., where I am based, city council member Dimple Ajmera, who is running in the at-large race after she was appointed to fill the remaining term in a district seat, got tangled up in controversy when she said in a TV appearance that those who “have supported Trump and all his cronies should be voted out of our council. Look at all our Republicans who are supporting Trump. I think they should have no place on city council whatsoever or in the mayor’s race.”
She has stood by her comments, yet explained them in a statement this week: “My remarks on Trump were never to make this about a political party. Instead, it remains about morals and principles, which includes standing up to Trump’s disrespect, disregard and dangerous rhetoric towards women, minorities, immigrants, disabled and the poor. … I started this conversation and I want to be the one to end it with a call to action for unity, mutual respect, care and regard for our neighbors as we tackle very important issues of safety, trust and equity.”
But protesters at this week’s city council meeting took her words as a personal insult. One told The Charlotte Observer: “In a city with such a wide range of beliefs, we had 100,000 Charlotteans who voted for the president. To say we have no place in city government is infuriating.” A regional Republican group had to clean up its own efforts to take advantage when its criticisms of Ajmera were marred by commenters throwing ethnic slurs at the candidate, who was born in India.
Were “Trump values” on display at the Boy Scouts of America national jamboree in West Virginia this week? In a speech about virtues, the president valued one, loyalty, above all others before he bragged about himself, trashed opponents, including former scout Barack Obama, and wandered off script into a shaggy dog tale that involved a rich guy’s potentially R-rated hijinks on a yacht.
While some observers were outraged, others, including scouts from the Trump administration standing behind him, seemed to like it just fine. It’s so much easier to root for your team than to appreciate the virtues of folks you can’t take the trouble to know.
Call it an American value.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.