Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Outsiderism vs. Getting Things Done

I've been listening to The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House (2014) by Chuck Todd. Todd is a real insider journalist, the political director of NBC News and moderator of Meet the Press, so judge what he says accordingly.

In Todd's telling almost everything Obama did wrong during his first term came from lack of experience and a refusal to do things in the time-tested Washington way. Obama and his closest aides came into office determined to change the way Washington works. A symbol of this was their opposition to earmarks in spending bills, the traditional way politicians brought home the goods for their districts or states. To Todd, all the problems Obama has had getting bills passed can be traced back to this rigid unwillingness to make sausage like an old-fashioned pol. The Tea Party Republicans who took over the House after 2010 had a similar rigidity and an identical hatred of earmarks, and the result was complete legislative paralysis. Limited by their own rules, neither side had anything to offer that the other wanted. Todd also places some blame on Obama's famous lack of interest in schmoozing and making friends and all that back-slapping stuff. Todd doesn't make this the centerpiece of his narrative – as I said, he thinks Obama's real problem is highminded rigidity – but he clearly thinks Obama could have found some Republicans to make friend with if he had tried.

That was probably too negative a way to begin. Todd obviously admires much about Obama, including his intelligence, incorruptibility and concern for the nation. Todd is also very good on the challenges faced by the administration, from terrorism to the birthers. But he also obviously thinks Obama could have accomplished even more if he had relied more on friendship and deal-making and less on intellect and high principles.

If Todd has a hero, it is Joe Biden. Biden was friends with everyone and this sometimes enabled him to reach deals with Republicans when Obama could not. The best case of this came when Obama was trying to get the START nuclear arms reduction treaty through the Senate, which required 67 votes and therefore some Republican support. In Todd's telling, the Obama people were in a White House meeting, with Harry Reid on the phone from Capitol Hill, strategizing over whether Reid should schedule a vote on the treaty when they didn't have enough Republican votes securely locked down. Biden comes in, says, "Harry, schedule the vote, I'll get you the votes you need", goes back to his office, gets on the phone to his old Senate friends, and eight hours later has all the pledges of support necessary.

From this inside perspective much turns on how well the West Wing is run and thus on the ability and personality of the chief of staff and a few other key players. To Todd, it is imperative that these people be Washington pols with decades of political experience and large networks of connections. In the way he tells the story, things like who was invited to the meeting and who called which Congressman first determine the fate of the Republic. I have never been sure how seriously to take this sort of stuff. Sometimes it seems to me that there is a whole lot of scurrying and posturing and so on and in the end what happens is what everyone expected at the beginning. But one person who absolutely agrees is Obama. When he picked his cabinet and senior staff in 2008 he disappointed his more Hopey/Changey backers and friends by selecting mainly veterans of the Clinton administration or other Washington insiders. Todd, of course, thinks this was exactly the right thing to do, and he attributes much of Obama's success to the presence around him of professionals like Hillary, Robert Gates, Timothy Geitner, and Rahm Emanuel.

This has made interesting reading in the midst of this crazy election season. From every side (well, except Hillary's) we hear that insiders are the problem, that Washington professionals can't be trusted, that we need new blood and new ideas and a radical change in how Washington operates. And here is Chuck Todd, vastly knowledgeable about recent Washington history, saying that even Obama was too much of a moralistic outsider to really operate effectively in the capital. From his perspective the notion of a Sanders or Trump administration must be laughable. Or maybe terrifying.


Anonymous said...

The fourth volume of Robert Caro's biography of LBJ is another testament to the effectiveness of Todd's kind of politics. He presents a case that LBJ was able to get most of JFK's legislative projects passed because, for example, LBJ knew how to manipulate things past stubborn committee chairmen, how to schmooze, and how to trade water projects for votes on civil rights (as he certainly did with Everett Dirkson).

In general, it seems to me that in the absence of a genuine political movement shared between the White House and the majority in Congress, this really is the way you have to get things done. It's also not clear to me what's so morally bad about it. In fact I suspect a lot of what bothers people about schmoozing and earmarks isn't schmoozing and earmarks, but the passage of legislation they don't like by means of schmoozing and earmarks.

G. Verloren said...

I sometimes wonder what would be required to actually remove "insiderism" from politics. How exactly would one go about replacing the "country club culture" of politicians needing to go around padding egoes and making underhanded deals in order to accomplish anything?

The only place I can ever even think to start is the old Venetian republic, where positions of very great power came with equally draconian limitations and punishments for failure. I sometimes wonder if perhaps we made being a member of congress onerous in its limitations, might it not weed out the cronyism and the corruption and the shady dealing and all the rest, and end up drawing only the genuinely committed who are willing to sacrifice for the good of serving the country.

What if we did things like prohibit private spending on campaigns, and instead just give qualifying candidates pre-determined government stipends useable only for the purpose of the campaign? Now everyone in the race is on an even footing, and outside parties can't buy favors and influence. How about if we required distinctly separate legislative proposals to be voted on separately, preventing "riders" from being snuck into the law without their having to face scrutiny on their own? How about if we required congress to be in session for the vast majority of the year, allowing recesses only for extreme emergencies and punishing absentee members with removal from office for failure to perform the duties of their station? How about if we restricted members of congress to a predetermined salary, and prohibited them from receiving all other forms of income? How about if we required them to live in specially designated government housing? Et cetera, et cetera.

John said...

Experience at the state level with term-limited, badly-paid legislators is that when they don't have the experience or knowledge to run the government they become the pawns of other insiders who can, mainly permanent state bureaucrats and lobbyists. When my father was a lobbyist in Richmond he wrote several pieces of legislation for Republican friends. These days we also have these nationwide lobbying shops run by groups like the NRA that supply friendly state legislators with pre-written laws.

Anonymous said...

It's still not clear to me what's bad about insiderism itself. Insider Henry Kissinger gave us (more or less) the coup in Chile and the opening to China. That the former was a bad idea and the latter a good one has nothing to do with the insiderishness or lack thereof with which they were pursued.

My impression is that the charge of insiderism is usually manipulative: it's an effort to broaden the opposition to a given move beyond those who are opposed to the move in principle by misdirecting the issue to the way things are done rather than the things themselves.

Then I suppose there's also ressentiment--but should we give that much play?

John said...

Insiderism may lead to a narrowing of ideas, in that everyone on the inside mainly knows other insiders and shares their perspective. Thus the shock of Republican insiders when Trump turned out to know their voters better than they did. In the extreme case you get something like the rise of Chavez in Venezuela, for which the background was a decade of insider squabbling between two insider parties who completely lost touch with the national majority.