Mike Ross is not exactly what you would call a colorful character, at least not in the context of national political theater. An Arkansas Democrat and five-term congressman, he is an amiable former state legislator and chief of staff to his state's lieutenant governor. Before the past few weeks, it is safe to say that few people outside Arkansas's Fourth Congressional District had heard of him, and you have to have been engaged in the details of the struggle over the president's health-care bill to have heard of him even now. But Ross—who is, inevitably, from Hope—is not a bad way to gauge where real people stand on the big questions being debated in Washington.
And what do I mean by "real people"? Pretty much anybody who is not Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. It is not news that there is often a disconnect between the topical and the truly long--lasting: there will always be human-interest stories or tabloid fare. (It all depends on your point of view. Some people wept when Michael Jackson died; a lot of others groaned because of the inevitable wave of coverage.) What is new, or newish, is the persistent centrality of the trivial in popular political conversation. I know, I know: there is nothing new under the sun, and Jefferson was the target of rumors about his slave mistress two centuries ago. The summer of 2009, however, is beginning to feel a bit like the summer of 2001, when Gary Condit was Topic A.
Barack Obama was supposed to save us from all this, as he was supposed to save us from all manner of sin and wickedness. Alas, we have learned that our 44th president is human after all. His comment that the Cambridge, Mass., police had "acted stupidly" in the Henry Louis Gates Jr. incident elevated and prolonged a story that is interesting and layered but is not, finally, a presidential matter.
Obama's remark led Glenn Beck, a conservative talk-show host, to opine on Fox and Friends that the president is "a racist" who has a "deep-seated hatred of white people," remarks that join the 2008 Republican attacks on Obama as a socialist and Rush Limbaugh's 2009 hope that the president fails as examples of inflammatory and ultimately unhelpful rhetorical turns. And there is always—we hope and trust—former governor Palin, who, leaving office early, chastised the media for making things up (she offered no specifics) and talking about how important it is to "progress America."
The left has its moments, too, of course, and that is why someone like Ross is worth a moment's attention. He is a member of what is known as the blue-dog caucus in the House of Representatives, a group of 50 or so fiscally conservative Democrats. Descended from the boll weevils of the early 1980s—the Democrats who defected from the leadership of Tip O'Neill to support the Reagan tax cuts—the blue dogs got their name, the story goes, from the image of -yellow-dog Democrats being choked blue by their liberal colleagues. It was Ross and his fellow blue dogs who slowed the health-care debate on Capitol Hill by insisting on provisions that would exempt more businesses from the eventual mandate to cover their employees. There were the usual cries that Ross and his colleagues had sold out to the insurance companies, but the deal they struck was overseen by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a pragmatist who wants reform and presumably realized that the scope of the bill needed to come down a bit. Whether the liberal elements of the Democratic majority will go along is uncertain, but they do not have many options unless they want to risk killing reform altogether for the year.
Ross helped push the legislation closer to the center, which is where American policy usually finds itself when all is said and done and cable has gone into replays for the night. Larger, more enduring reform tends to come in times of dramatic moral crisis (civil and voting rights) or when a program (Social Security, Medicare) has universal benefits. One reason Obama's bid to reform health care is proving frustrating is that he is trying to renovate and add onto an existing structure, not build something from scratch, which FDR and LBJ were able to do.
The trimming of the Obama proposal provides fresh evidence for what I believe is an enduring truth: that for many people, politics comes down to three things—protect my job, let me keep most of my money at tax time, and kill the terrorists before they come back. The recognition of that reality is the beginning of political wisdom. It does not mean that there is no hope for great new days in the life of the nation and of the world. But it does mean that those days are few and far between, and their coming requires a more serious political ethos than the one so far in evidence this midsummer.