Woodruff: Animosity Abundant in Washington


From almost any vantage point, Washington looks pretty dysfunctional right now.

I spent the first part of this week in Clovis, Calif., next door to Fresno in that state’s fertile Central Valley, working on a story to air on the tenth anniversary of September 11th. Most of my conversations were (happily) not about the debt ceiling, but when Washington came up, the almost universal reaction was a shake of the head, a roll of the eyes and a comment similar to the man who asked me, “What has happened to that place?”

If the view was exasperation from a distance of 3,000 miles, it was also mixed with disbelief 225 miles away from Washington, in New York City. There, a well-known financial executive, a longtime Republican, told me in a phone call, “the whole thing is a joke.” He quickly noted, “They’ve got to get something done; they can’t let the country default.” But, he added, “they’re acting like children on both sides — no one talks to the other.”

I’ve covered Washington through six administrations, and don’t remember a time when the animosity was as thick as it is now. Even when Ronald Reagan blasted Jimmy Carter for “selling out” the United States by returning the Panama Canal to Panama, or when Democrats lambasted Reagan for cutting programs for the poor, or when Republicans and Democrats went after one another over taxes, and the war in Iraq, under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, there was still a sense that at the end of the day, the two sides at their core had respect for one another.

In fact, until the early part of the last decade, it wasn’t uncommon to see Republicans and Democrats sitting together over a meal, or a drink or a cup of coffee, even as they debated their differences. But now, the overwhelming message is that the other side is somehow illegitimate, so any thought of working together, much less compromising, would be “selling out,” practically tantamount to treason. I’m sure it’s happened, but it’s now hard to imagine a member of Congress loyal to the Tea Party movement sitting down for a conversation with a Democrat, even a moderate one.

If that is the new normal in Washington, it will be a long season — for the debt ceiling, this round or any future one — for the budget, for votes on trade pacts, energy legislation, health care and on and on. Fasten your seatbelts.