Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington




Norman Ornstein beat me to it! Last Monday, the intrepid resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute had a column on the op-ed page of the Washington Post entitled “Defending the Insiders: Change in Washington? Not Without Them.”

Ornstein was concerned about the rhetoric of this presidential campaign – and many that have preceded this one – that the winners will ignore Washington “insiders” and purify the government process to bring “change,” however that may be defined.

If that, in fact, is what Obama or McCain plan to do, they are almost certainly doomed to failure.

Many readers of this column probably fall in some way or another in the broad Washington insider category. These are the people who know how the clock ticks, how the machine runs, how to get things done. They include the rich and famous lobbyists, government affairs consultants, high-level officials, former political appointees and elected officials who linger on in Washington, think-tank intellectuals, and tens of thousands of people who can be roughly defined as the skilled technicians of the governmental process.

They can be found all along the political spectrum, and most of them talk to each other regardless of their politics. They often lunch together at the Palm, or the Caucus Room, or the Capital Grill, or down and dirty at the Tune Inn on Capitol Hill. (If you know where the Tune Inn is – then you are one of us!)

They are the mechanics who know how things run. And most of them (I admit not all) are actually honest and ethical!

For a candidate to say, and mean it, that he/she is going to ignore Washington insiders and bring a totally fresh and new team is to admit that he/she is going to begin failing from the start.

It would be like someone saying that he needed to rebuild his car from the ground up, but refused to hire and mechanics or engineers because “they are part of the problem.”

I have seen that happen many times in my life here in Washington. When Jimmy Carter arrived in town, he and his staff aggressively stayed away from the insiders, even from those who wholeheartedly agreed with where he was trying to take us. This is one of the reasons that historians rank Carter as one of the more ineffective presidents.

It is the definition of irony that many of these new Carterites are now some of Washington’s consummate insiders.

I remember as a key congressional staffer in a couple of issue areas where my bosses agreed with the president and were trying to get the White House staffers to recognize our support and willingness to help them with the issue. They wouldn’t even have lunch with us – in the House cafeteria, no less! As Ornstein points out, Bill Clinton had the same kind of problem in his first year.

The next president will be facing extremely complex problems in both domestic and foreign policy, which will require carefully built coalitions of skilled people with a wide spectrum of beliefs. This is not a job for amateurs, who may have trouble finding the restrooms on Capitol Hill.

“Bureaucracy,” politician,” and “insider” are often used as pejorative terms; but you can not run a government without them.

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