Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review and the author, most recently, of Washington 
Journal:
Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.

 (February 2016)

The Collapsing Center

Donald Trump visits a polling station in Manchester, New Hampshire, February 9, 2016

In the first two contests for the Democratic and Republican party nominations, in Iowa and New Hampshire, the voters’ choices reflect early indications that they’re rejecting the “establishment,” the status quo, on their respective sides. The center is collapsing. On both sides, the voters are validating extremes.

A Country Breaking Down

Rescue workers gathered below the Interstate 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis after it collapsed and fell into the Mississippi River and onto its banks during evening rush hour, August 2007
The near-total failure of our political institutions to invest for the future, eschewing what doesn’t yield the quick payoff, political and physical, has left us with hopelessly clogged traffic, at risk of being on a bridge that collapses, or on a train that flies off defective rails, or with rusted pipes carrying our drinking water.

The New Politics of Frustration

Donald Trump with supporters in Biloxi, Mississippi, January 2, 2016

In the presidential campaign, both parties are so divided as to raise the question of whether any victor will be able to govern. The anger, fear, resentment, racism, and frustration that are playing into the current political climate make for a situation prone to undermining our democratic system.

The Big Bush Question

George W. Bush

Though Jeb Bush set out to run for president with the line, “I am my own man,” he has discovered that being George W’s brother is quite a burden. What is arguable about the events of 9/11 is whether they could have been stopped; what isn’t arguable is that George W. Bush didn’t try. The 9/11 Commission avoided assigning individual blame in order to get a unanimous report, and it deliberately avoided saying whether the attacks could have been prevented, though it was apparent that some commissioners believed this to be the case.

Can They Undermine the Deal?

Senators Ron Wyden, Ben Cardin, Charles Schumer, Richard Blumenthal, Cory Booker, and Chris Coons (seated) before a news conference on Capitol Hill to introduce the Iran Policy Oversight Act, October 1, 2015
The Republican Congress’s failure in September to pass a resolution disapproving the nuclear agreement with Iran didn’t mean that the deal was safe.* The president won a major victory when its supporters managed to bottle up the resolution disapproving the deal in the Senate, thus protecting him from having …

Congress: Reign of the Implacables

Representative Jim Jordan, Representative Raul Labrador, both Freedom Caucus members, and others, leave a hearing room on Capitol Hill after a nomination vote to replace House Speaker John Boehner fell apart, Washington, DC, October 8, 2015

Though the turmoil over the House leadership will end at some point, and there will be a presidential election in November 2016, less clear is whether this country will be governable, or whether the inchoate rage felt by so many will be contained. One might wonder how John Boehner survived as long as he did.

2016: From Peculiar to Worrisome

Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul at the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook in Cleveland, Ohio, August 6, 2015

The presidential campaign has gone from peculiar to worrisome. This isn’t only because of who’s ahead in the polls at the moment, but also what an accumulation of polls and anecdotal evidence tell us about the state of the electorate, and what that portends. Of big concern is whether there can be any mediation between the “governors” and the stronger-than-ever anti-government forces. Will whoever is elected be able to govern?

The Iran Deal Goes to Washington

Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Charles Schumer, and Bob Corker, Washington, DC, March 3, 2015

I can find no one on the side of the nuclear deal with Iran who thinks that it will have majority support in either the Senate or the House of Representatives, which means that the president will veto what Congress sends him. Therefore, beneath all the rhetoric, the realists here are looking for one thing: whether there will be enough votes in either chamber—one-third plus one of the members—to uphold that veto.

2016: The Peculiar Election

Jeb Bush at a campus at Miami Dade College, Florida, June 15, 2015

There are numerous uncertainties about what will happen on November 8 of 2016, but one thing is not in doubt: it will be a very peculiar election, and not just because there are, as of now, so many candidates. It’s also that some candidates were running before they announced. And it will almost certainly be the most expensive election in history, with the wealthiest in the land able to have more influence than ever.

How Money Runs Our Politics

Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson—who spent at least $92 million to support ­Republican candidates in the 2012 election—waiting with his wife, Miriam, for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress, Washington, D.C., March 2015
With each election come innovations in ways that the very rich donate and the candidates collect and spend increasingly large amounts of money on campaigns. And with each decision on campaign financing the current Supreme Court’s conservative majority, with Chief Justice John Roberts in the lead, removes some restrictions on money in politics.

Iran: The Deal on the Deal

 Senators Ben Cardin and Bob Corker, Washington, DC, May 7, 2015

Inevitably, there was much self-congratulating last week when the Senate adopted by an overwhelming bipartisan majority a proposal that would allow Congress to vote on whether to approve a final nuclear deal with Iran. But the Corker-Cardin amendment was actually quite circumscribed in its reach and import.

Big Dangers for the Next Election

A civil rights activist at a march outside the Alabama State Capitol commemorating Bloody Sunday and protesting Alabama’s new voter identification law, Montgomery, March 2012
While people are wasting their time speculating about who will win the presidency more than a year from now, growing dangers to a democratic election, ones that could decide the outcome, are being essentially overlooked. The three dangers are voting restrictions, redistricting, and loose rules on large amounts of money being spent to influence voters.

Iran: The Senate Strikes Back

Senator Bob Corker, outlining his proposal for a congressional vote on a nuclear deal with Iran, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, right, Washington, March 3, 2015

A vote by Congress to reject an Iran deal could lead to an end of diplomatic efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and a possible Israeli military attack on Iran. The president could veto a negative resolution, but even if he weren’t overridden, the fact that there’d been a vote against it would seriously hobble his ability to implement the agreement without congressional interference.

The Republicans: Divided & Scary

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with, from left, Republican Senators Roger Wicker and John Barrasso and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn at the Capitol, January 2015
As the new Congress gathered in early January, we were treated to news story after news story about how the Republicans, now in control of both chambers for the first time in eight years, were set to prove that they could “govern.” This was more than an exercise in public relations, though it was that as well. Republican leaders knew they had a problem.

‘Selma’ vs. History

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. at the Capitol after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, August 6, 1965

By distorting an essential truth about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King over the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Selma has opened a very large and overdue debate over whether and how much truth the movie industry owes to the public.

The Firing of Chuck Hagel

President Barack Obama announcing the resignation of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, November 24, 2014

The White House is stuck in a policy that has very little chance of working, putting the president and his national security aides in real peril. And Chuck Hagel, who watched all this with dismay, became the odd man out.

Why the Republicans Won

President Barack Obama at the White House, August 4, 2014

Never in memory has a midterm election been turned against a president so cynically as it was by the Republicans this year. Scott Brown was among those who made the comprehensive and efficient charge that ISIS was bringing Ebola into America over the Texas border. In exit interviews voters told pollsters that ISIS and Ebola were reasons they voted for Republicans.

Obama & the Coming Election

President Obama with Republican congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner at the Capitol, Washington, D.C., February 2013
Thus far, interest in this year’s midterm elections is in almost inverse proportion to their importance. The most important question is whether the Republicans will gain control of the Senate while retaining their majority in the House.

The Beltway Myth

The Beltway, Washington, D.C.

The time has come to talk about “the Beltway.” The term, a reference to the roadway that circumnavigates the District of Columbia and patches of its Maryland and Virginia suburbs, has long been in widespread use—as if everyone within the isolated island thinks alike, has the same amount of information and the same political opinions, simultaneously. But lately “the Beltway” has also become an epithet, hurled at those who live within it for some real or imagined transgression. As a concept of how information and opinion move between Washington and the rest of the country “the Beltway” is epistemological nonsense.

The Limits of Lyndon Johnson

 Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson and Robert Petkoff as Hubert Humphrey in Robert Schenkkan's Broadway play All the Way

The new Broadway play All the Way presents President Lyndon Johnson dominating Congress and, through a combination of willpower, guile, wit, and near-bribery, browbeating it into passing the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. But this isn’t what happened.

Is Christie Using Nixon’s Playbook?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaking in Chicago, February 11, 2014

On the basis of what we know and what seems conceivable, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is not a Richard Nixon. But there does seem to be a pattern in Christie’s activities, and indications of corruption on a scale that could be unprecedented even for New Jersey. Christie has morphed from a “bully” into a man who has governed by creating an atmosphere of fear and retribution

Obama: The First Term Did It

President Barack Obama speaking about health care at Prince George's Community College, Largo, Maryland, September 26, 2013

Despite all the lamentations about Barack Obama having second-term blues and bad luck, it’s what happened during the first term that matters most. The enormous difficultyObama is having with his signature issue, the health care law, is the shining example of how this can work. Almost everything that has gone wrong with the program was set in motion in the early years of his presidency.

Washington: When Decency Prevailed

Speaker of the House Tom Foley, June 1, 1993

The five hundred people who turned out for this week’s memorial for Tom Foley were there mainly because of what Foley had stood for. Washington, D.C., is a town of people who are very busy or like to think that they are. The country’s most powerful political leaders, some of them bitter opponents of each other, set aside other matters for more than two hours to honor a man whom most Americans had little memory of, and who was not, in this most transactional of cities, in a position to do any of them any good now.

The New Battle for Congress

Senator Ted Cruz, Arlington, Texas, October 22, 2013; Senator Mitch McConnell, Washington D.C., September 24, 2013

Will Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his allies continue to threaten the very workings of the federal government while they pursue a lost cause? In order to stop Cruz, the large majority of Republicans in the Senate and the sizable bloc in the House who voted to stop the shutdown will have to decide that it’s too costly to curry favor with the Tea Party; and business groups and the US Chamber of Commerce will need to demonstrate by deeds that they’re no longer content to leave the dominant influence over Republican nominations to Congress to such groups as Heritage Action and the Club for Growth. Or, perhaps, such groups, and large PACs such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, will decide they have to stop the Tea Party from taking the Republican Party over the falls.

The Stranglehold on Our Politics

Michele Bachmann (left) and Ted Cruz (center) with Tea Party leaders, Washington, D.C., May 16, 2013
Most of the electorate can’t be bothered with midterm elections, and this has had large consequences—none of them good—for our political system and our country. Voting for a president might be exciting or dutiful, worth troubling ourselves for. But the midterms, in which a varying number of governorships are up for election, as well as the entire House of Representatives and one third of the Senate, just don’t seem worth as much effort. Such inaction is a political act in itself, with major effects.

Why Obama Is Not Nixon

References to Watergate, impeachment, even Richard Nixon, are being tossed around these days as if they were analogous to the current so-called scandals. But the furors over the IRS, Benghazi, and the Justice Department’s sweeping investigation of the Associated Press, don’t begin to rise—or sink—to that level. The wise and pithy Matt Dowd, a former Republican operative, said recently, “We rush to scandal before we settle on stupidity.” Washington just loves scandals; they’re ever so much more exciting than the daily grind of legislation—if there is any—and the tit-for-tat between the president and the congressional Republicans over the budget was becoming tedious. Faux outrage is a specialty here.

Obama and the Myth of Arm-Twisting

President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner, February 12, 2013

The nonsense about what it takes for a president to win a victory in Congress has reached ridiculous dimensions. The fact that Barack Obama failed to win legislation to place further curbs on the purchase of guns—even after the horror of Newtown, Connecticut—has made people who ought to know better decide that he’s not an “arm-twister.” Ever since Obama took office, others have been certain about how he should handle the job and that he wasn’t doing it right.

Are the Republicans Beyond Saving?

The spectacle of the Republicans, like teenagers longing to be invited to the prom, floundering about in search of more popularity with American voters, would be comical if it didn’t reflect a near collapse of a workable political system. The Republicans are angry. They had firmly believed that the voters …