Thursday, June 19, 2008

Recipe for New Politics

Jim Johnson, who recently resigned from assignment as Barack Obama's VP-vetter-in-chief, is memorable to me not for his insider influence, but for his inside-the-Beltway humor, including one of his favorite recipes: "Palm Steak."

Back when Johnson was Walter Mondale's campaign chief, he made his recipe public, which as I recall went like this: go to Palm Restaurant, get seated, order steak. The Palm, as people with wallets much fatter than mine call it, is a swanky Washington eatery at which I have partaken of the Johnson recipe only when someone else was footing the bill.

His resignation saddened me partly because I knew he was probably an asset to Obama (even though in 1984 Geraldine Ferraro was not such a hot choice), but mostly because it highlights a stupid and annoying political truism that, slogans notwithstanding, is completely off the mark: Washington is the problem.

By "Washington," the unseen people John McCain likes to address as "friends" are said to mean not the actual capital city, not its African American majority which they hardly even realize exists, nor much less the federal employees who stream in from Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

No, the Washington routinely accused in the hustings of being the core problem of the American body politic is an echo-system (pun intended) populated by congresscritters and White House rats, along with slithering lobby larvae and pontificating wonki illuminati, all of whom seek to engage with celebrity media figures in a mating ritual of mutual pandering and preening.

Of course, what most people outside the Beltway rarely realize is that this fauna lives on only due to its parasitical relationship to the worker bees of the capital: the network of professionals touched in some way on a daily basis by the capital's chief sacrament, policy.

This includes the phalanx of lawyers and editorial professionals who make sure the text of laws and regulations is precisely as intended and no more, the army of specialists who explain to the decision-makers the complexities of a million branches of human knowledge, and the participant observation of hundreds of off-camera print journalists of little renown, such as myself, who often spread within the policy hive the information that brings about necessary self-correction.

Let's face it: elected officials haven't run the truly necessary parts of government for years. If they did, things would be immensely worse. There would be no bean counters to remind the Bushies that they do need some taxes, if only to pay their own salaries at a minimum. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers might be running around in Iraq naked, not merely with deficient armor. And pollution standards, such as they are, would never have become practicable.

Crazy things occur to politicians, lobbyists, wonks and even the occasional TV newsreader. Remember Star Wars and the flat tax?

In Britain, the use of thalidomide in the early 1960s as a sedative prescribed to pregnant women to combat the effects of morning sickness led to the birth of children with birth defects such as missing or shortened limbs. That drug was never approved for similar use in the United States thanks to a brave physician I once met, a middle level bureaucrat who fought pharmaceutical companies tooth and nail. (The drug is now used successfully in the USA for treating leprosy.)

What prevented such crazy things was Washington, too.

It's the denizens of that Washington who will have to tell President McCain (cough, sputter) that tax cuts for the rich just have to be rolled back or explain to President Obama that not everything in his program can be accomplished at once.

The recipe for new politics may well involve some of the "old" Washington, that part of Washington that has always worked in the boiler room of the ship of state.
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