By Marc Ambinder, GQ
After eleven years living in Washington, D.C., part of me is just sick of this swamp. The superficial commentary, the power-driven egoists, the fake smiles, the obsession with image. That's why I'm moving to Los Angeles.
But seriously: I've think I've learned a bit about how things work here, and while my observations are by no means earthshakingly profound (as Newt Gingrich might adverbialize), they are based on experience doing business here.
1. Consistency is not a terribly interesting or useful proxy for effectiveness in a politician, and yet it seems to be the value held most high -- or the value that, because someone is most easily able to convince you that someone else lacks it, becomes important. Politicians and the media haven't developed the vocabulary to explain how positions evolve.
2. Sex influences culture a lot more than Washington wants to think it does. Not sexuality...we can control sexuality, because it's a scientific construct. But sex. Primal, hormonal, sex. It saturates the arts, entertainment, business, even education. Washington still is afraid to argue about sex (which of course has a political dimension) clearly; it is still wedded to the conventions of the 1970s, when politics was more powerful than sex, not vice versa. Washington remains very conservative when it comes to setting the terms of the debate about abortion, contraception, homosexuality, the ubiquity of self-pornography, prostitution, the hook-up culture, but seems operationally very liberal when it comes to indulging.
3. I don't use drugs, and I've never even tried marijuana. I don't know whether drugs, or some drugs, should be legalized, regulated, or whatever. But it seems crystal clear to me that the adults here still can't figure out how to debate this very important subject, which (if the issues are framed right) has the potential to change, for the better, the way that politicians handle social issues. But it's still a third rail.
4. Other than sex and tribalism, Washington feeds off gullibility. The best political consultants are the ones who instinctively understand human psychology and how to manipulate it. Individual preferences are scrunched together and simplified, and then amplified, in order to serve a purpose, but this manipulation is not really a dark art. By participating in politics we permit those with whom we identify to manipulate us, to make us happy, sad, angry, and scared.
5. The Dems just barely have an actual political party organization, thanks to the president's re-election campaign. And labor is no longer its financial base, not even (if you'll pardon) its labor base; gays, Jews, and tech form the party's three-legged financial platform now. But Republicans have no party. It's a PINO -- a Party in Name Only, and the name "Republican" is especially unpopular. But what's there cannot exist without catering to the interests of Christian conservatives. (I don't think the party can be more tolerant of gay people because such a large percentage of the people whose ideas matter are anti-gay.) Despite the fact that these parties barely hold together, the tribalism that now defines our politics broadly has come to define our identification with just about everything that politics touches. Identities (the Republican Party, the Democratic Party) are much more factions vying for supremacy within rather than interests with overlapping goals vying for control of what's outside. They have to go somewhere, and the much augured third party ... of isolationist economically-libertarian social conservatives... never seems to materialize, even when the two party system is as degraded as it can get.
6. The politico-media culture is obsessed with The Meta-Narrative, as if Baudrillard is enjoying a neo-American reconnaissance. When something happens, it is often much easier to place it into the context of a metaphor that captures something simpler to understand, often by applying a level of analysis that takes the thing out of its real context and Meta-izeses it. When Rush Limbaugh says something, the debate often turns on the people who have written about what he said; their motives and judgments are questioned more than his; somehow it becomes more important to ask "Why David Axelrod isn't slamming Bill Maher for calling Sarah Palin the C-word" than it is to keep Limbaugh's original action under a microscope. I think this happens because it's easier to question someone's motives by accusing them of tribal bias than it is to question their judgment, which treats them as the human beings they are.
7. Rachel Maddow's observation about "drift" is right on. Washington allows things to happen simply because that's how they've always happened, which often obscures larger things (like a significant increase in executive power, say) that are happening at the same time. Washington can be vibrant, but not when it drifts.
8. One of the biggest divides both between and within the Democratic and Republican factions today is the distinction between one's philosophical orientation and one's operational/temperamental orientation. Arguably, there is a much narrower gap between the Republican Party's philosophical and operational orientation than the Democratic Party's. That is, the GOP has moved hard to the right philosophically, and the willingness of party leaders to adhere to that philosophy while governing has increased. Democrats tend to (for better or worse) separate the party's values from the values of governing, leaving liberals frustrated. Their complaint goes like this: how come conservatives get to live their ideals, but Obama wouldn't, say, even allow the single-payer health care option a seat at the table.
9. Democrats have this problem: I am not the first person to notice the huge gap between what we think government does and what it actually does. But it seems to be enormous today, and its absence is noticed everywhere in the city. The theory is that we have no idea where our tax money goes; it is so widely distributed, or distributed to other people that we many of us perceive government to be off doing something else, probably something wasteful. We only notice government when it inhibits us; when a small business confronts a new regulation. Most of us don't notice (because it's invisible) when government programs allow us to sleep well at night. We never really worry that airplanes are going to crash, or that trucks with hazardous materials that trundle by each morning are going to explode; or whether the electricity is going to be on today, or whether the Internet is going to be "on," or whether the breakfast food we eat is going to poison us, or whether a bridge is going to collapse as we drive to work, or whether, if we have a heart attack and no health insurance, the ER doc isn't going to give us an ECG. Obviously, sometimes these things happen, and maybe the private sector can play a larger role than it does. But they would happen all the time if the silent machinery of government weren't working pretty well.
10. New ideas and new arguments still have force, and still matter. You may disagree profoundly with Charles Krauthammer but his arguments carry force. The White House is obsessed with getting E.J. Dionne, Jr. buy-in. And all isn't lost. The city isn't irretrievably broken; there is a great young forest of intellectuals who are maturing now and who will change politics for the better. Younger Republicans seem to understand that the party won't survive unless it re-embraces governing principles. We may still have to suffer for a decade of these dudes first, though.
And finally, a style tip. On one of my first days at ABC News, my boss, Mark Halperin, laid down a rule. "Never, ever go anywhere without a coat and tie," he said. "You never know when you'll be called in to see the White House chief of staff or an agency head." At the time, I highly doubted that any such person would call me. I was lucky enough for eleven years never to be caught unawares, but my luck ran out yesterday, precisely 15 minutes before I intended to cross the line separating the District of Columbia from Virginia and begin my cross-country road trip. A person I'd been trying to see for a long time just happened to call, and asked if I could stop by his office. Timing wasn't a problem, but my clothes were. I was wearing, basically, a blue T-shirt and shorts. And so, into the meeting I went, looking like a beach bum. Lesson (finally) learned.