The Washington Way: Ignore a Problem Until it Becomes a Crisis

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At some point, everyone in Washington has to earn their keep by proving they can double as an ostrich, shoving their head in the sand and hoping no one can see them. There’s no more tried and true practice in politics than hoping a problem will go away by itself. But that way of life is not durable, and in the end, a ballooning interest payment always comes due. Delayed penance is Catechism, not democracy.

This month, both Republicans and Democrats are facing situations where the reflex is to embrace ostrich behavior. One side did exactly that. The other side may be finally facing their surroundings for what they are.

The Democrats are in the latter group, as Senator Dianne Feinstein announced late Wednesday that she wanted to temporarily step away from her spot on the powerful Judiciary Committee amid growing calls for her resignation. The 89-year-old icon from California has been away from Washington for more than a month, missing 58 votes and counting. But the issue that has made her position untenable is how her absence has left her committee stuck in neutral on confirming federal judges, the one thing Democrats in Congress can currently do to meaningfully advance their agenda.

Feinstein’s declining performance has been atop the most unspoken issues in Washington for quite some time. She’s the oldest member of the Senate and, as such, is given tremendous deference. Still, things need to get done, and there are no signs if or when she might return from an absence attributed to a bad case of shingles.

Democrats, long wary of seeming insensitive or ageist to their colleague, ultimately seemed to be forced into an honest assessment of the situation, led this week by Rep. Ro Khanna, who has already said Feinstein’s compromise solution of stepping down from the Judiciary Committee isn’t enough.

For Republicans, the problem isn’t coming from inside the Capitol, but the ballot box. Earlier this month, an unabashed liberal notched an 11-point victory in a Wisconsin state Supreme Court race that left Republicans stunned and the high court in Democrats’ hands. Janet Protasiewicz ran hard as a champion for abortion rights, capturing a seat that stands to restore abortion rights to Wisconsin. Given the stakes, it’s no surprise that the race ended as the most expensive state court race in American history.

The Republican on the ballot, Dan Kelly, had the backing of the state’s biggest anti-abortion rights groups. Some Republicans took the rebuke as a wake-up call that their hard stance on abortion in a post-Roe world is no longer sustainable, especially with younger voters. Among all voters, roughly 6-in-10 say abortion rights should be legal in some or all cases; look at a map right now, and only 38% of women ages 13-44 live in a state supportive of abortion rights.

But the response from Republicans with any power to adjust their party’s stance has been to instead double-down. A few, like Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina, are trying, and failing, to convince their party that they are setting themselves up for more losses.

For further proof of Republicans’ head-in-the-sand mentality, there was the GOP’s deafening silence to a ruling out of Texas from a Trump-appointed federal judge around so-called abortion pills. Judge Mathew Kacsmaryk unilaterally decided his judgment about a medication used for more than two decades superseded that of the Food and Drug Administration His unusual and aggressive ruling is hardly going to be the final word—an appeals court late Wednesday seems to have put that effort on hold, at least for now—but it did send Republican staffers trying to figure out how their bosses should respond to a ruling that even much of their base thinks is wrong-headed.

But before the critics of denialism puff up their chest and declare the Republican Party the vastly more troubled entity—after all, Rep. George Santos remains a member of the House—it’s worth considering that Democrats are far from completely removing their heads from their sandboxes. They may be finally addressing the Feinstein question, but they still refuse to acknowledge the Biden one. The 80-year-old president is seemingly the anointed nominee-in-waiting for 2024, but his age remains a persistent problem, one that will only become harder to ignore as next year’s primaries draw closer.

And even Republicans may not be as myopic as they seem. This week, as a school shooting in Tennessee and a bank shooting in Louisville prompted another round of Republican gnashing on gun safety, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed an executive order that strengthened background checks for gun sales and told his legislature that he would also sign a red-flag law if it comes to his desk. It was an extraordinary move in a deep-red state, but one that suggests, at least for a fleeting moment, a seemingly intractable issue like the crisis of gun violence doesn’t have to always be framed as a partisan one.

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