Dan Simpson / Fall is for football

But foreign crises and presidential politics intrude

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Labor Day in Washington isn’t a bad time to take stock of where we are as a country, figuratively shaking the beach sand out of our shoes and facing the mildly appalling issues that face us every fall. (I don’t mean the Steelers or the Washington football team whose name must not be spoken.)

Among the first subjects that come into discussion among The Capitol people — I deliberately use “The Hunger Games” term for them — is the 2016 presidential election. There is recognition that the Hillary Clinton juggernaut is in motion even though it is only mid-2014.

The Clintons are everywhere, including Chelsea, giving up her $600,000-a-year NBC job to have a baby, assuring the family succession from Bill, to Hillary, to Chelsea, then to the baby, making the Tudors look like pikers by comparison.

There are people — there are Democrats — who are not excited about a Clinton candidacy. I found her uninspiring as secretary of state, unwilling to take on tough issues — Israel-Palestine negotiations, the Iran nuclear/​economic sanctions stalemate, neither the Iraq nor the Afghanistan wars, or knotty U.S. relations with China or Russia — for fear of getting her paint scratched in advance of a possible presidential bid. John Kerry has showed himself to be much less risk-averse, to his credit and America’s advantage.

On the other hand, no one seems to have any bright ideas as to who might be the Democratic candidate if not Ms. Clinton. Names mentioned include Govs. Martin O’Malley of Maryland and Andrew Cuomo of New York, but there is little enthusiasm for them, or for Vice President Joe Biden or California Gov. Jerry Brown.

The Republicans inspire even less certainty, interest or hope. Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas are generally considered to be, respectively, crazy and intellectually challenged. The Republicans’ 2012 vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, seems a heartless automaton. And despite whatever efforts they mount to avoid it, the Republicans are expected to display in 2016 another clown show of possible candidates, as they did in 2012. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are tanned, rested and bloated with right-wing-nut campaign funds.

When I point out to Washington types that it’s only 2014 and in 2006 no one was taking Barack Obama seriously, they look at me with expressions that say, “Poor Pittsburgh provincial.” Even though the important midterms are only two months off, the main game in Washington remains 2016. (Don’t they realize that Nov. 4 presents a golden opportunity to get rid of most of the hated do-nothing Congress?)

At a wedding reception Saturday, I took the case of Ferguson, Missouri, to deliver an eloquent “Get out the vote” lecture to two probable nonvoters. They agreed, but delivered in return a “crazy white liberal” look and probably will continue not to vote.

Action on critical domestic issues is stuck. Immigration reform is obvious, even to Republicans perspicacious enough to see death through demographics looming for their party if they continue to stick their fingers in Hispanic voters’ eyes. But the temptation to appeal to jingoist whites among their campaign contributors remains too strong a motivator.

Tax reform, for individuals and corporations, screams out to both inversionist-minded companies and wild-eyed anti-inequality types like me as needing badly to be done. But there is no stomach for taking on hard work like that among America’s largely bribed, entitled and self-obsessed legislators and political technicians.

Foreign affairs is so populated by monsters that both parties fear it as a campaign issue. Here is a short list of ghastly issues: Ukraine, Iraq-Syria, Israel-Palestine, Pakistan-India, Ebola and disintegrating Africa.

President Obama is amusing himself at the moment by threatening to make members of Congress vote on whether to bomb Islamic State facilities in Syria and Iraq. They are torn between wanting to look tough on Islamist terrorists and being caught dragging America into another expensive, stupid Middle East war. If Mr. Obama’s hopes to stay out of another such war, he is absolutely right to say he won’t launch one unless Congress agrees and it is preceded by the construction of an international coalition.

The other big issue — Ukraine and Russia — I see as a local Eastern European matter. Russia is to Ukraine as the United States is to Mexico. Imagine Americans’ reaction if U.S. actions toward Mexico — the Alamo and Texas independence, the Mexican War, the Gadsden Purchase — had been accompanied by foreign economic sanctions against the United States and threats of war by Great Britain, France, Russia and the (then-nonexistent) Organization of American States?

Americans now should be eternally grateful that Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the European Union, and keep it like that.

Let’s let this fall be characterized by falling leaves, football and sensible elections, not by our country being dragged into another war, profitable only to the arms industry, rich people and the Pentagon.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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