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David Sirota Headshot

Come See the New Exotic Breed of Human Being: The Washington Serious Policy Thinker

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The New York Times has a story on Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT) and how, facing a serious challenge to her seat, she's resorted to some of the most wild-eyed, desperate tactics seen in a long time. The most telling part of the story, however, is not Johnson's nauseating fearmongering - but the Times' characterization of her. It tells you everything you need to know about how the metrics many Beltway journalists use to define who is a Serious Person and who isn't.

Here's the excerpt I am talking about:

"In her 12 terms in Congress -- the longest tenure in the state's history -- [she] has earned a reputation as a serious policy thinker on health care and social programs."

The Times, of course, doesn't tell us who she's "earned" this reputation from, only that she's supposedly "earned" it. In lieu of a source on this characterization, we can only assume that it is the Times' reporter that considers her a Serious Policy Thinker on health care and social programs. And that begs the uncomfortable question - what objective facts can a Washington reporter cite in justifying calling someone like Johnson Serious?

Let's see - first and foremost, Johnson has long been among the top House recipients of pharmaceutical and health care industry campaign cash. For instance, in 2002 she was the #1 recipient of drug industry cash, in 2004 she was #3 and in 2006 she's #3 as well. So we now know that's one of the metrics to being considered a Serious Policy Thinker by Washington reporters: being a lawmaker who is among the top recipients of campaign cash from and most reliable legislative shill for the industries he/she is supposed to be regulating.

Second, Johnson was the author of the atrocity known as the Medicare Part D bill - you know, the one that has led to mass confusion among Medicare recipents; seniors falling into a donut hole and being cut off from coverage; and out of control, budget-busting price gouging by the pharmaceutical industry. So now we know another metric of being considered a Serious Policy Thinker in Washington: being a lawmaker who authors legislation that becomes a national poster child for government waste, fraud, mismangement and abuse, but that hands over billions to the industries that sprayed down that legislative author in campaign cash.

Finally, we ought to also remember that someone's status as a Serious Policy Thinker is never endangered when they publicly embarrass themselves and show themselves to be an idiot or a deliberately dishonest liar on empirical grounds. So, for instance, now that Johnson is airing an I-can't-watch-this-without-laughing-and-crying-at-the-same-time television ad asking her constituents to reject the basic laws of the universe that govern space and time, the Times ignores that, and simply reminds us that she's a Serious Person.

Out in the real world, Serious People are those who actually manage to do things right. You know, they actually succeed in their endeavors, and aren't openly, proudly and happily engaging in selling out their responsibilities and their morals to the highest bidder.

But then, Washington isn't the real world. On economics, Serious Policy Thinkers in Washington are those who push policies that have destroyed the middle-class, and then get up in front of an elite audience and hold court as an expert on alleviating international poverty. The people to be attacked as Unserious by the Beltway Elders are those who dare to defy the money-drenched political process and instead work to represent the vast majority of Americans by pushing for a reform of our trade, labor and wage laws.

On health care, Serious Policy Thinkers in Washington are lobbyists in congresswomens' clothing like Nancy Johnson, who use their Serious Thinking to craft legislation that destroys the most successful health care program in American history. Unserious people are those who dare to even whisper that we're the only industrialized country in the world without some form of government-sponsored health care, and hey, maybe that has something to do with our health care crisis.

On Iraq, as Duncan Black has so adeptly shown, Serious Policy Thinkers in Washington are those like Marshall Wittman, who use nicknames to liken themselves to truly great presidents whose legacy they insult on a daily basis; sit in their wood-paneled offices and write screeds demanding more American troops be sent to die in a war based on their far-fetched theories; and then blithely attacks the vast majority of Americans who oppose the Iraq war as Osama bin Laden sympathizers, expecting us all to forget their own deep ties to fundamentalist right-wing politics. Those treated as Unserious People in Washington are lawmakers like Rep. Jack Murtha (D), who have years of experience in defense policy, whose chests are literally loaded down with combat medals and who say it's time to rethink our stay-the-course policy.

In short, Serious People in our nation's capital are those who engage in the kind of immoral behavior and push the kind of radically extreme policies that in most of the rest of the country would get you thrown out of a bar, kicked in the teeth, or worse. Unserious People are those who decide they have a right to question or - gasp! - run for office against Washington's Serious People.

And yet, incredibly, these same Serious People in Washington turn right around after every election and shed crocodile tears about the public being so cynical about politics. They never bothering to wonder whether they have anything to do with the rot and decay at the core of our democracy.

I wish I had an answer as to how this will change - but I am certain it will. You can only party so long on the deck of the Titanic before the icy cold ocean englufs you. You can only obliviously prance around while Rome burns for a certain amount of time before your house gets torched by flames, too. And ultimately when things get bad enough, the Serious People who continue to destroy this country will be replaced with actual serious people - and then we'll start putting the pieces back together.