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The Year Washington Lost Its Mind

And I found my calling

Illustration By Andres Guzman

The summer of 1993 was one of the moments—which have occurred with increasing frequency in the years since—when Washington, D.C., appeared to be losing its collective mind. Bill Clinton’s budget proposal was sinking toward possible defeat, which, all sides agreed, would functionally end his infant presidency. Maybe this is the mental trick that magnifies the events of our youth, but it seemed, and still seems, like the most compelling political drama I had yet witnessed, at the age of 21.

Or maybe my sense that the political system was on the verge of collapsing was compounded by living in a house that was itself on the verge of collapsing—a decrepit place near the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor that had probably qualified as shabby 30 years before, and had decayed well below that standard since. There, my under-employed friends and I would watch congressional debates on C-SPAN nearly every day, passing around The New York Times the way most college students would share a joint. My attempts to spend the summer in Washington by securing an internship had failed. I decided to spend the summer telling people I was a freelance writer, which was sort of true. I sold one article (about a sociology professor hounded out of teaching his course for offending his left-wing graduate students) to Reason magazine, the proceeds of which ($500) financed a summer of nerdery.

During that largely forgotten summer drama, Republicans had whipped themselves into a state of prerevolutionary terror at Clinton’s plan, which raised taxes on the rich, eliminated unjustifiable budget subsidies, and increased support for the poor. Cars sported bumper stickers turning the “C” in Clinton into a Soviet hammer-and-sickle. The Wall Street Journal editorial page covered the budget saga with a series labeled "THE CLASS WARFARE ECONOMY," decorated with guillotines. Hysteria ran up and down the socioeconomic spectrum. The Heritage Foundation prophesized that “the Clinton tax hike will fuel more federal spending, destroy jobs, undermine America’s international competitiveness, reduce economic growth, and increase the budget deficit.” (Squeezing five incorrect predictions into a single sentence is an impressive feat of propagandistic concision even by Heritage’s august standards.) No Republicans, not even the handful of moderates who then still clung to life, voted in its favor.

Against this unmitigated rage, the center and center-left, whose priorities Clinton’s program reflected, could muster at most sullen ascent. The Economist called Clinton’s plan “class warfare” and “laughable.” Democrats in Congress relayed their dissatisfaction through the media constantly, often in tones of moral censure.

This was the confounding, Yeatsian backdrop against which the August 9 issue of The New Republic landed in my mailbox. The day it arrived, I sat on the porch of that group house, on the sofa my roommates and I had purchased for $5 from the Zen Buddhist Temple annual yard sale, and turned straight to Michael Kinsley’s TRB. His column appeared after a sabbatical that had come to feel interminable. Kinsley crystallized weeks of infuriating drama. The conventional wisdom that Clinton’s budget was failing because it did too little to reduce the deficit, Kinsley argued, was backward. In reality, elites were upset that they were being asked to bear the largest share of the sacrifice. And so, in order to tank the plan, the self-interested rich, from Jay Leno to the business lobby, were exploiting Clinton’s responsible call for the middle class to share the pain of deficit reduction. It was an object lesson in sublimated class interest—a Marxian analysis applied to a centrist policy dispute. Reading the column produced a feeling of cathartic revelation, when an author unlocks an understanding that you had felt yourself circling around but had never been able to articulate.

Readers of The New Republic have described this sort of experience to me many times, but few of them followed it to the obsessive lengths I did. Merely devouring the new issue in one sitting the moment it arrived did not satisfy me. Night after night as I headed to the library to study, I would warm up to my task by reading a few copies of the bound galleys of old issues, and usually find myself three hours later still engrossed in the stacks. I applied for the magazine’s summer internship before my senior year and was turned down. That year, I helped found a heterodoxical left-of-center student-run journal of opinion that bore an extremely close topical, ideological, tonal, and stylistic resemblance to The New Republic. I applied for the internship again after I graduated. They turned me down a second time.

I wound up getting an internship at The American Prospect. (My writing samples caught the eye of its precocious managing editor, Jonathan Cohn.) In some ways this was an even more suitable position, as the Prospect was then something of a journal for journalists obsessed with The New Republic. It was founded in 1990 largely to provide a home to liberals disaffected with this magazine’s rightward turn under Andrew Sullivan. One of the Prospect’s co-founders, Bob Kuttner, was (and is) a classic labor liberal who had fallen out with Andrew.

The New Republic’s history of intramural conflict was apparent to any reader, but only close working contact revealed the depths of the animosity. Bob had particular disdain for Mickey Kaus, an especially enthusiastic advocate of a then-fashionable doctrine called “neoliberalism.” During the 1980s and 1990s, the neoliberals waged war against the “paleoliberals” (as their enemies called them) over welfare reform, deficits, and economic populism in general. He provided me with an exile’s perspective on the once-great institution, which I not-so-secretly continued to regard as still pretty good. While at the Prospect, I honed my skills and applied for The New Republic internship a third time, finally with success. Bob accepted my defection with impressively good humor, sending me off with a final warning to beware of Mickey.

Upon arriving at my new home, I began frenetically attempting to make myself indispensable. Mickey immediately began calling me “Bob Kuttner’s spy.” In addition to his bitter personal and ideological animosity for Bob, Mickey was plagued by the fear that his enemies conspired to obtain advance warning of his article topics. (To what use they would put this knowledge, only he understood.) My loyal service as intern, without a hint of leaking, did nothing to assuage his suspicions.

Mickey could not seem to even look at me without seeing the dark hand of his enemy, whom he mentioned nearly every time we spoke. One time, Mickey simply looked at me, flustered, and stammered, “B ... Bob Kuttner,” and hurried off down the hall. Another time, he told an editor his next article topic as I sat nearby at my desk. He looked at me and warned, “Don’t tell Bob Kuttner.” As he walked off, I picked up the phone, and said, in a stage whisper, “Get me Bob Kuttner.” He wheeled and gazed suspiciously. (It should be noted that, when you picked up the phones in the office, you got a regular dial tone, not an operator standing by to connect you to Bob Kuttner, or anyone else.) Meeting his gaze, I darted my eyes back and forth in mock guilt and slammed the receiver. He got the joke. I think.

As both Bob and Mickey suspected, I wasn’t of either of their camps. I found myself somewhere between them, attracted to both the populism and the deficit hawkery. In the years since, the Democratic Party has gravitated to essentially this same point on the spectrum—technocratic center-left policy coupled with election-year attacks on the wealthy. Ironically, Clinton’s 1993 budget, which provoked resignation among even its supporters at the time, set the ideological template—as did Michael Kinsley. Back then, Mike angered both the populist left, with his emphasis on deficit reduction, and the plutocratic right, with his irreverent treatment of the rich. Whatever the limits of this approach as a policy blueprint, as a political formula, it has won.

One of the odd things about my love affair with The New Republic, now into its third decade, is that I fell in love with the place at a moment when people were falling out of love with it. But that was part of its appeal. Here was an irreplaceable institution in American intellectual life. It could be hated but not ignored. It was filled with fights because it was worth fighting over.