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Beltway Version of ‘Groundhog Day’ Makes Us All Feel Jaded

It’s clear from last week’s polls why congressional Republicans decided to blink first in the budget standoff: Their party’s approval rating is at the lowest point in a quarter-century.

They are getting way more blame for the shutdown, and even more than they did back in 1995. Two-thirds agree with the notion that the GOP has put its political agenda ahead of what’s good for the country. There’s a rapidly expanding share of voters who want a Democratic Congress elected next year, a steady approval rating for President Barack Obama — and growing support for the health care law ever since the GOP went all-in to gut it.

Those numbers got headlines because of their obvious impact on the news of the moment. But some other results may prove more important over the long term. They provide good data to back up the complaint — from both outside and inside the Beltway — that “things in Washington really have gotten worse than they have ever been.”

Those hoping to be cheered up by supposed insiders in the know — the type that could be counted on to apply some soothing historic perspective — need to look elsewhere. Asked “When will things get back on track?” these days, the likeliest answer from the people who have been around a while is, “Looks like we’re stuck in this rut.”

An agreement to reopen the government’s doors and pay its bills, but only until the weekend before Thanksgiving, would not change that darkening outlook.

In four national polls since the shutdown began, 17 percent was the average of respondents describing the country as headed in the right direction, an extraordinarily small degree of confidence in the state of affairs. The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal pegged the figure at 14 percent — a plunge from 30 percent a month ago.

Only 17 percent predicted the economy will improve in the next year, and 63 percent blamed their lack of economic confidence on the sense of perpetual standoff between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans.

Still, the same survey also threw a big scoop of bipartisan disdain on the entire Capitol: 60 percent said they would vote to remove and replace every senator and House member, even their local reps — an astonishingly sweeping anti-incumbent sentiment for a Congress where 5 out of 6 members won last time in landslides of at least 55 percent of the vote.

The lopsided view that the system is broken, and that it’s time to fire everyone involved and start over, is plenty consequential coming from the nation’s voters. But if the pollsters did their next round of surveys only inside the Beltway, they would find something more alarming: The body politic has become at least as disgusted with itself.

In my own conversations over the past several weeks with at least two dozen longtime insiders — members,  former members, political players in both parties, bureaucrats, contractors, lobbyists, advocates and journalists — the sentiments were essentially unanimous: They’ve never seen it this bad for so long.

More worrisome still: Very few of them expect the partisanship will recede and the functionality will return during their careers. “This is nothing compared to back in the day,” summarizes the jaded affect these veterans had about breakdowns past. “Not this again,” is today’s plaintive wail of astonished disgust.

There is an unsettling “Groundhog Day” semblance to the capital’s rhythms among the people who have been laboring in this one-industry town since that descriptor was pretty accurate (before the high-tech, financial services, educational and hospitality surges). But instead of repeating the same day over and over again, there is a sense that each politically manufactured crisis is a bit more intractable, consequential and predictable than the last.

Imagine if the same sense of sameness were to infuse the nation’s other most prominent one-industry towns.

What if there was a requirement that, for several months every year, Hollywood could produce nothing but adult movies. All the art directors, gaffers, screenwriters and sound techs would have to set aside their art films, documentaries and blockbusters and spend every day making porn. Initially, it might be an indulgent and potentially lucrative change of pace, and not a little exciting. But soon enough, returning day after day to what’s essentially the same sort of story, with contrived plot and predictable end, would surely become so unrewarding as to become boring.

Or what if there was a rule that, once a quarter, all of Wall Street had to get inside the same investment bubble. All the analysts, traders, partners and back-office drones would stop thinking about the next new thing and devote themselves to playing the hot market of the moment — Dutch tulips, California gold, commercial real estate, Internet startups. At first, the chance to make a killing amid intense competition would seem irresistible. But that exhilaration would be guaranteed to transform into fear as the guaranteed crash drew near.

In both fictional cities, repetition would guarantee that exhilaration is replaced with enervation. And so it is in the profoundly debilitated Washington of this fall.

We’ve been on this endless loop for a long time, and we’re damned tired of it.

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