Dear John, Barack, Sarah and Joe,
You have come a long way, gang, and two of you are going all the way. Congratulations. All four of you say you are going to change Washington. Here in the nation’s capital, we are not convinced.
For starters, let us take earmarks. They run in the thousands. They may be dented by a new administration, but they will not be stopped. Bringing home the pork is largely why we, as voters, send our senators and representatives to Capitol Hill. Earmarks have become a clumsy redress for the indifference of the central government to local need. They have become the palpable evidence of our tax dollars at work. We cannot sense the value of a missile shield in Eastern Europe, but we can measure the stop-and-go traffic on our way to work.
If all politics are local, so are all earmarks. The courts have said that the president is not entitled to a line-item veto. Ergo John McCain, unless you can substitute a funding initiative that Congress will agree to, or you are prepared to shut down the government often, your promises will go unfulfilled. (Check the shutting-down-the-government option with Newt Gingrich,)
Then, friends, there is the permanent alternative administration: the think tanks. These are the intellectual halfway houses where ambitious public servants park between tours of duty in government. Their influence is pervasive, subtle and continual. Every administration leans on think tanks which agree philosophically with it. And here is always a think tank which is particularly close to every administration. For Ronald Reagan, it was The Heritage Foundation; for Bill Clinton, it was The Brookings Institution; and for George W. Bush, it was the American Enterprise Institute.
The epicenter of neoconservatism, The American Enterprise Institute provided the Bush administration with ideas, personnel, moral support, and rationales for the invasion of Iraq and the formulation and promotion of the troop surge. Vice President Cheney has been especially close to AEI. His wife, Lynne, is a fellow there and many old colleagues inhabit its halls on 17th Street. They include Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Lawrence Lindsey and David Frum. You have to admire the place and its initiative in seducing an entire administration.
Growing in influence on the conservative side, and waiting for a friend in the White House, is the Cato Institute, which has been strengthening its roster of libertarian/conservative thinkers.
Meanwhile, the liberal Brookings Institution is churning out policy papers on everything from education reform to Pakistan. A team of powerful liberals is ready to take Barack Obama by the hand and lead him down the path of liberal righteousness. Already Brookings experts are advising the Obama campaign, including Susan Rice, Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Of course Strobe Talbott, Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, is president of the think tank and the nation’s leading liberal columnist, E.J. Dionne, Jr., hangs his hat there.
The point is not that the think tanks are bad but that they are powerful, and they generate the ideas of government. Remember you may not be interested in them, but they are interested in you. The press tends to point to the lobbyists of K Street as controlling Washington. The lobbyists influence Congress, but the think tanks influence an administration.
Finally, White House hopefuls, there is the bureaucracy: permanent, entrenched and bloody-minded. The civil service approaches each new administration with skepticism and often hostility. With every administration, the bureaucracy gets a new senior management team in the form of political appointees (secretary, deputy secretary, assistant secretary, etc.). Often, the bureaucracy frustrates these appointees from the get-go. Many a cabinet secretary has had to bring in a small group of loyalists in order to wage war on the larger staff. One agency head told me that she felt she could only confide in her chauffeur and her secretary.
You two lucky victors in this presidential contest will learn that it is easier to invade a faraway country than it is to reform the Washington establishment. Orthodox or maverick, liberal or conservative, Washington is waiting for you.