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October 21, 2014

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Even in stars’ presence, politics grabs the spotlight

Celebrity arrived in Washington last week in the most unlikely places.

Baseball superstar Roger Clemens settled into a chair at the witness table for a House hearing on the steroids investigation.

Bono eulogized Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California, Congress’ only Holocaust survivor, with an a cappella version of “All You Need Is Love.”

Miss America joined reporters and politicos at the 64th annual Congressional Dinner.

Yet politics always emerges as the star in Washington, even in the face of bling.

Case in point was the showdown over Democrats’ first major snub of a White House war policy since taking power in 2006.

House Democrats were running out the clock on the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was set to expire Saturday at midnight.

Nothing seemed able to push Democrats back into line to support the eavesdropping bill — not Bush tossing barbs down Pennsylvania Avenue nor Republicans storming out of the chamber in a mass protest (minus Nevada Republican Rep. Jon Porter, who empathized with his colleagues’ mission, but not their action).

The wiretapping bill includes a key provision many on the left despise — legal immunity for the telecoms for their alleged role in eavesdropping on Americans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid drew intense criticism for enabling the bill to pass the Senate. But the House defiance opens the door to his hoped-for compromise.

Michelle Richardson at the American Civil Liberties Union said the Democratic base is ecstatic over the party’s show of strength. “They are not buckling,” she said. “For the first time, they stood up to the president on a national security issue and the public is cheering.”

But skeptics say Democrats have a long way to go before the party retakes the lead on matters of war.

The story line that Democrats are weak on terrorism will not easily go away, even as polls show voters leaning toward them instead of Republicans on national security.

Washington faces enormous challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in rebuilding a tired military. William Galston, a former Marine sergeant and Clinton administration official now at the Brookings Institution, said Democrats need a more unified message than the haphazard approach seen in last week’s showdown if they want to dominate the debate.

Yet Republicans have their own problems with voters on security. The party’s presumed presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, suggests a 100-year presence in Iraq that even Nevada’s Sen. John Ensign, a party leader, has been hesitant to embrace.

Just back from the Middle East, Ensign says Afghanistan is the new Iraq — and in need of a troop surge.

Ramping up the war effort will be a difficult sell in an election year when most Americans want the troops to come home. Ensign believes more troops will be necessary unless coalition forces take a more aggressive stance against the Taliban.

The war and the economy will be pivotal issues in House races in Nevada.

As state Democratic Party leader Jill Derby considers a rematch against Republican Rep. Dean Heller in Nevada’s 2nd District, these topics must be on their minds.

A source said Derby is “leaning toward running, and she plans on making an announcement” this week about her political future.

Derby downplayed that, saying she is still deciding whether to run — though she expects to make up her mind soon. “I’m looking at it pretty hard,” she said. “I’m not going to wait until March.”

In the crowded ballroom of the Ritz Carlton, even as Miss America and actor Ted Danson posed for snapshots at the Congressional Dinner, the dominant currency of Washington stole the show.

Lawmakers onstage delivering one-line zingers about other lawmakers filled the mental swag bags at the first event of the capital’s annual party season.

Celebrity appearances, coupled with the media’s coziness with the establishment, have given Washington’s prom nights a bad rap. (In reality, there was barely a handful of celebs at last week’s dinner.) The New York Times famously dropped out of the party circuit after last year’s spectacle at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Reporters and politicos breaking bread is ethically awkward enough, even in the name of relationship-building. We do it in doses.

But celebrity adds another level of discomfort for reporters, who remain outsiders at heart, card-carrying members of nothing.

We may marvel at Clemens’ skills on the diamond or mentally croon with Bono in the Capitol, but in the end, we’re not here to mingle with the beautiful people. We’re here to get the story.

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