By DANA MILBANK
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — As the world bid farewell to Nelson Mandela, the most revered figure of our time, Washington kept its focus on the things that really matter: Why did President Obama shake hands with Raul Castro at the memorial service? What was up with the sign-language interpreter at the memorial? What did Hillary Clinton think of George W. Bush’s paintings when he showed them off on Air Force One?
And, most of all, was Michelle Obama really miffed when her husband posed for a “selfie” photo with British Prime Minister David Cameron on the camera phone of Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark? Technically, it wasn’t actually a “selfie,” which is a photo taken of oneself. This one was taken by the Danish leader on her phone.
The “selfie” criticism of Obama was more a complaint that he was being self-absorbed at a time when he should have been remembering Mandela. “He’s taking selfies!” pronounced Rush Limbaugh. “He’s thinking about himself.” The great gasbag of the airwaves went on: “This is about Barack Obama assuming Mandela’s place as a great whatever on the world stage. That’s what the soap opera is. The whole week here is about Obama. It’s not about Mandela anymore.”
A great whatever? Whatever, Rush. If we’re going to start condemning officials for putting self before official duties, we’re going to have a most crowded docket. Washington is Selfie City. Our first Selfie should be awarded to Sen. Ted Cruz. The Texas Republican was so self-centered that he staged a one-man walk-out at the Mandela memorial service when Castro spoke. Never mind that Mandela had preached the virtues of reconciliation: Cruz was going to use the memorial to reaffirm his anti-Cuba bona fides.
Let’s also award a Selfie to Sen. Marco Rubio. The Florida Republican, who alienated conservatives by supporting an immigration compromise, saw a chance to restore his standing among the tea-party set by racing to announce his opposition to the budget deal worked out by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., another likely 2016 candidate. Ryan justifiably scoffed that Senate Republicans such as Rubio “don’t have the burden of governing.” A Selfie should also be bestowed on Michael Needham and his Heritage Action group, which condemned the budget compromise even before negotiations ended.
Such reflexive hostility is good for fundraising, but it comes at the expense of a functioning government. Heritage and similar groups well deserved the scolding House Speaker John Boehner gave them Thursday: “I think they’re misleading their followers. I think they’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be. And frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility.”
Boehner correctly blamed such groups for the failed strategy of shutting down the government, and he said he couldn’t fathom “why conservatives wouldn’t vote for” Ryan’s compromise (it passed with all but 62 Republican votes). Perhaps Boehner should ask Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, another Selfie recipient this past week.
McConnell cut a profile in cowardice when his office announced that he would oppose Ryan’s budget deal. McConnell is facing a primary challenge from a tea-party rival, Matt Bevin, who made his opposition to Ryan’s compromise a campaign issue. And so McConnell earned himself a Selfie: He declared himself opposed to the deal, knowing it had enough votes to pass anyway.
To be bipartisan in our Selfies, let’s grant one to Vice President Biden, who held a Skype chat Wednesday on immigration that was billed as a chance for everyday Americans to question the Obama administration. But it turns out the questioners were recruited by Skype and approved by the White House — meaning that only those likely to further the administration’s interests were allowed to speak.
But Biden will have difficulty trying to out-selfie Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who attempted to elevate his own profile with his caustic questioning of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a hearing Wednesday. Shimkus said talking to her was “like talking to the Republic of Korea.” Shimkus evidently wasn’t aware that the Republic of Korea is actually South Korea, a democracy.
Honorable Selfie mention goes to House Republican leaders, who left town for a lengthy holiday break without passing a new farm bill and without extending unemployment benefits for the more than 1 million Americans set to lose theirs on Dec. 28. Lawmakers taking an extra-long vacation while jobless Americans lose everything three days after Christmas? That’s how we roll in Selfie City.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays. Email him at email@example.com.