Interstate 495, which circles the city of Washington DC and its suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, is known more as a state of mind than a piece of urban planning. Better known as the Beltway, the road has become a shortcut around the world for the bubble of privilege and political power that surrounds the federal government of the world’s most powerful nation.
In the 1970s, when Richard Nixon’s presidency fell apart under the pressure of the Watergate Crisis, government insiders assured themselves that things would only get serious when the story got “outside the Washington Beltway.” Since then, the term has become completely derogatory. “Inside the Beltway” means cut off from “real” Americans, or worse, actively conspiring against them. No wonder that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced in 2016 that he was “not an Inside the Beltway guy”.
But what happens in the Beltway affects us all. A poll by the Pew Research Center released this week showed a surge in enthusiasm for American leadership among the population of 16 of America’s traditional Democratic allies. 62 percent now have a positive opinion of the US, compared to 34 percent a year ago.
In some countries the numbers are more blatant: only 10 percent of Germans trust Donald Trump, 78 percent trust Joe Biden. There is a longstanding pattern of Europeans (including Irish) who prefer Democrats over Republicans, but what is more telling is that only 17 percent of respondents in these 16 democracies said the US was a good political example to others.
Like any imperial capital, Washington has its courtiers and cliques, salons and scandals, traders and followers. It is home to the largest and best-funded political lobby industry in human history. It’s also the location of the swamp Donald Trump swore to drain, the Deep State that his supporters still believe stole the presidency, and the blob of foreign policy elites – both Republicans and Democrats – , for which former Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes is responsible, the endless wars of the US in the 21st century.
In the midst of all this power, wealth, and intense politics, Maureen Dowd is one of the most colorful characters. West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, her ex-boyfriend, described her Georgetown home as a cross between the New York Public Library and the House of the Rising Sun.
From the outside, Joe Biden seems to have kept his promise that voters wouldn’t have to think of him every day
The “flaming-haired flamethrower,” former President George W. Bush called “the Cobra,” writes a weekly column for the New York Times, which also appears every Monday in the newspaper.
The last time we spoke for a podcast for the Irish Times Inside Politics on the eve of the momentous presidential election last November, she made no secret of the fact that Donald Trump was there for the New York Times and the US media, terrible for America, but great for the newspaper business.
In an upcoming discussion that will be part of The Irish Times Summer Times Festival, I look forward to finding out what the mood is like in DC now. From the outside, Biden seems to have kept his promise that voters would not have to think of him every day. The political temperature appears to have fallen to a more moderate level. But the events of January 6, when a mob of Trump supporters forcibly entered the U.S. Capitol and ran amok, still cast a long shadow and the world continues to watch nervously.
The question of whether America’s international reputation has suffered lastingly goes beyond the shocks and surprises of the Trump years. Inside and outside the U.S., credible voices are sounding the alarm on issues such as blatant partisanship, electoral repression, and the long-term consequences of a system that has given the party with fewer votes twice in two decades the presidency and which provides more conservative, white rural areas Voters have a built-in advantage in the Senate.
Even before you consider that more than half of Republican voters still believe the “big lie” that Trump actually won the last election and that their hero, even more unrealistic than they are, is telling people that he is August will be reinstated in the White House.
Great claims that Biden would be the Franklin Roosevelt of the 21st century already look exaggerated
Who better to examine it all than Maureen Dowd? Born and raised in Washington, Dowd comes from a staunch Irish-American and Republican electorate (she gives her column once a year to her brother, who supports Trump, as you know). Dowd is both a Pulitzer Prize winner and a grande dame of the urban social scene.
And it’s uncommon among insiders in a politics-obsessed city that it’s apparently happier talking to Kate Winslet about Mare of Easttown than asking House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi about infrastructure spending.
Some will see Dowd leaning on the blue side of the American political divide, but some of her most cutting comments were reserved for the Democrats, such as her barb that 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore exaggerated his empathy to the point of “practically breastfeeding” .
She received her Pulitzer for her highly critical coverage of the behavior of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their cabal during the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to Clinton’s impeachment (though, like Trump two decades later, not his impeachment).
More recently, however, as liberal America is beginning to reckon with Bill Clinton’s behavior toward women, Dowd is faced with allegations that she joined the onslaught against Lewinsky at the time, and points out that her columns exposed the internal Clinton world campaign to discredit the young intern.
When asked about the perception of her own personal politics in 2004, she said: “The only difference is that I switched from democratic readers to ‘Dear Media Whore’ to conservative readers to ‘Dear Liberal Slut’.”
Despite the current lower political volume, this is a key moment for the Biden government. The trillions of dollars in additional spending proposed by the new president have been slashed by an evenly divided Senate in which Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin holds the whip.
Grand claims that Biden is Franklin Roosevelt’s 21st Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell expects Republicans to regain control of both houses of Congress in next year’s mid-term election, pointing out this week that the White House once this happens, zero cooperation on its political program can be expected. Meanwhile, the country remains bitterly polarized and the Republican party is still riveted by Trump.
There will be no shortage of topics to talk about.
Maureen Dowd and Hugh Linehan will discuss Biden’s America and Trump’s legacy as part of the Irish Times Summer Nights Festival on Wednesday June 30th at 7.45pm.
Tickets can be found at irishtimes.com/summerights. A single ticket costs € 50 grants ticket holders access to all events of the festival and further access to view each event after the end of the festival.
Irish Times digital subscribers can purchase tickets at a discounted price of € 25. Just make sure you are signed in before purchasing and the discount will be applied automatically.