Gwen's Take: Making Washington's Abstractions Real

I went to a movie a few weeks ago where we were required to don 3-D glasses in order to view the thing properly. But periodically, I would take my glasses off to see what the screen looked like without enhancement. The screen immediately went fuzzy. I could still see what was going on, but not clearly. So it is in Washington.

I went to a movie a few weeks ago where we were required to don 3-D glasses in order to view the thing properly.

But periodically, I would take my glasses off to see what the screen looked like without enhancement. The screen immediately went fuzzy. I could still see what was going on, but not clearly.


So it is in Washington. Unfortunately, someone neglected to hand out the 3-D glasses to the American people.

Almost anything of import that happens here requires something or someone to bring things into focus. The abstractions demand explanation because they actually affect our lives.

As the equivalent of a cage match fight was unspooling on the floor of the United States Senate, this was a good week for the 3-D glasses. What were the lawmakers fighting about? It was kind of fuzzy.

Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, had vowed to change Senate rules to allow executive branch nominees bottled up for as long as two years, to be confirmed by a simple majority of 50 votes instead of a supermajority of 60.

Unfortunately, someone neglected to hand out the 3-D glasses to the American people.

This would have been the equivalent of applying a little laxative to the constipated Senate process that allowed lawmakers to deny the president his nominees simply by threatening to talk things to death. (Actual filibusters seldom happened, but the prospect of them happening gummed things up quite effectively.)

For the minority in the chamber -- in this case the Republicans -- the 60-vote threshold is a valuable lever that allows them to seek out their own priorities. Democrats appreciate that fact when they are in the minority, too. So changing the rules in that context is the equivalent of going nuclear. (Hence the curious term "nuclear option.")

Majority Leader Harry Reid "is going to be remembered as the worst leader of the Senate ever," Republican leader Mitch McConnell raged.

In the end, it took a rare and secret meeting of the entire Senate to come up with a plan to free the logjam. But the standoff did end up un-sticking things.

The Republicans still have their right to filibuster. Four of the president's seven stuck nominees have been confirmed. And we are on to the next fight.

The 3-D glasses also come in handy when trying to understand simple politics. Take Wyoming.

When Liz Cheney, the former vice president's outspoken eldest daughter, moved from suburban Washington to the Cowboy State last year, it wasn't for the fly fishing. This week she ended any mild suspense by announcing she will challenge the unassuming and reasonably popular Republican incumbent senator, Mike Enzi.

It is not unheard of to challenge an incumbent senator. Bob Bennett of Utah and Richard Lugar of Indiana were forced into unanticipated early retirement when they were challenged by tea party Republicans.

But Cheney's announcement did seem to come as something of a surprise to Enzi, especially since the challenge came from the daughter of a Wyoming native he considered a longtime friend and political collaborator. Enzi seemed stunned. "I thought she was my friend," he told reporters.

Here's where the glasses help. It helps to know Liz Cheney has been an unflagging critic of President Obama who until this week used her perch as a FOX News commentator to rail against Washington deal-making in any form.

It also helps to know that Liz Cheney is perhaps her father's closest political adviser.

Also, if Enzi had been wearing his 3-D glasses, he would have heard Cheney's shot over the bow when she called him weeks ago to say she was even thinking about the race.

It also helped to have a little assistance clarifying abstraction this week when Attorney General Eric Holder spent two consecutive days speaking to historic black organizations -- the Delta Sigma Theta service sorority and the NAACP -- about the George Zimmerman verdict.

The headlines were all about how the Department of Justice would investigate the case, and about the attorney general's declaration that "stand your ground" laws on the books in more than 20 states "senselessly expand the concept of self-defense."

These were very popular speeches in the rooms in which they were delivered. But it required political 3-D glasses to appreciate two things:

The president himself was saying no such thing.

And there is little the federal Department of Justice can do to roll back state laws.

Those 3-D glasses can help with almost anything. They can sharpen the fuzziness on health care, and student loans and many of the other obscure abstractions that often make Washington so exasperating.

At the movies, they hand them to you as you walk in the theater. On television, we provide them free of charge every night on the PBS NewsHour and every Friday on Washington Week.

You're welcome.

Follow @gwenifill

!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?'http':'https';if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);js.id=id;js.src=p+'://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js';fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, 'script', 'twitter-wjs');

Support Your Local PBS Station