Smoke-filled Rooms and Unvarnished Opinions

Photo by Andreas Øverland

The smoking of cigars may be a vice, but it has this virtue: you hear the unvarnished opinions of people in cigar bars, as I did recently.

I frequently slip into Matador Cigars, a cigar establishment in Roslyn. It’s as far from Capitol Hill in attire and accoutrements as I can get. Usually I wear jeans, a ratty shirt and a baseball cap; find a comfortable leather chair, and write. Often I go with my friend, George Tsunis, a prominent national supporter of Democrats.

On the eve of the last government shutdown, the place was packed and Fox News was on the overhead televisions. Then I heard it:

“Let ’em shut down the government!”

“What does immigration have to do with a budget?”

A ringing chorus of expletives directed at various elected officials followed.

Now, those guys — there were no women, thank goodness, given one individual’s anatomical references about one particular female Democrat — and I were there to enjoy a cigar, so I kept quiet. I could have asked what Planned Parenthood had to do with the budget when the Republicans tried shutting down the government, or suggested that if Democratic votes were needed to pass it, then there had to be some compromises. Or asked why Democrats are to blame for a shutdown when President Trump tweeted he wanted one and Republicans have a majority in both the House and Senate.

But, no. I get the frustration. There was a time when Republicans and Democrats actually governed by compromise. When they fought but functioned. When bipartisan was an attribute, not an attack ad in a nasty primary from far left or far right.

What happened? Gerrymandering drew congressional districts to the extreme poles of the electorate, pulling apart compromise. The media — led by an explicit Fox News strategy to be an ideological amplifier of the right — became more echo chamber than news provider. Politicians found gain in tearing down the institutions any democracy relies on to govern.

The Republican Party decided, in 1995, that a shutdown of the federal government to achieve an ideological objective was appropriate. And repeated that strategy in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2016. It was a brilliant strategy. If government can be shut down, why do we need it? Why pay taxes?

That history is indisputably true, but, that day, completely irrelevant to my fellow cigar smokers at Matador Cigars. They just want government to work capably. I don’t think most of them like the idea of uniformed federal agents rounding up and deporting ] children whose parents brought them here when they were infants, who speak perfect English, pay taxes and work damned hard in the only country they’ve ever known.

They want common sense. They want compromise. They want a decent cigar without watching their government falling apart around them.

Steve Israel’s next novel, Big Guns, can be pre-ordered at repsteveisrael.com.