I'm from Washington, and I'm here to help

Sunday, October 17, 2010

by Michael Long

Here's the problem with Washington, D.C.: We assume everything is about politics.

We're not the only folks with this problem. Everybody reaches first for what they know. When the house makes funny noises in the middle of the night, the plumber will tell you it's the pipes. If he's wrong, the cost is a couple of hundred bucks and a wasted day.

But here in Washington, the damage from our mistaken beliefs is potentially limitless. We hear of a problem, and our tools-at-hand are not flashlights and adjustable click-stop wrenches but the levers of society itself. Therefore, when Washington screws up, it is often of epic proportion. Think TARP. Think "the stimulus." Think Nixon's wage-and-price controls and LBJ's plan to eliminate poverty (which sits at the same rate now as then, last I checked).

A plumber's big mistake might flood your basement. The Washington equivalent (let's go with a recent example) has doubled more than two centuries of national debt in a single year.

When a plumber wrecks the place, he apologizes, cleans up, and leaves you a calendar and a swell refrigerator magnet. But when Washington makes a hash of something, a vocal plurality of elected overlords call you an ignorant ingrate for complaining, then declare the disaster a down payment on a bargain. Because people who believe in the power of Washington believe in its power to fix everything, evidence notwithstanding.

I'm being a little unfair, painting with such a broad, bipartisan brush, so let's clear that up. For the last 20 months, the actions out of Washington have been defined, wholly and without exception, by the Democrats. They have controlled the House, the Senate and the Presidency, and therefore (until the election of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown) could have passed any piece of legislation whatsoever without a single Republican vote, contrary to their cries of obstructionism. Just to put that rarely mentioned bit of reality on the table. This doesn't make Republicans right or popular, nor does it atone for their profound mistakes from 2004 through 2008. But it makes Democrats inescapably disingenuous about who's been driving the big bus lately.

The complementary delusion to Washington omnipotence is the claim that a vote for a candidate or a party is a vote for ideology. If people had voted in 2008 for liberal ideology, they wouldn't care that unemployment stands stagnant at 9.6 percent and federal spending is at an all-time high. They'd be cheering the implementation of liberal ideas. And they're not. They voted not for liberalism, but for a cool-looking, cool-acting, cool-sounding guy named Barack Obama who promised answers to real-world problems.

That's what people usually do. We cast our votes far more often on the basis of habit, character and marketing than on a candidate's general approach to governance. In 2009, only half of American adults could name the three branches of government (it's executive, legislative and judicial, though we also would have accepted Curly, Larry and Moe). It is pure self-deception for a politician to assert his election is a mandate to implement his every belief. The claim of a mandate has only one purpose, to provide a little intellectual-sounding cover for imposing ideas that nobody would have voted for, had they heard them in the first place.

The lesson for politicians is simple: If you get in office, do what works, not what you wish would work, and if what you're doing doesn't work, try something else. Remember, you got elected to solve problems, not to inflict your genius on the rest of us. You got here less for your big ideas than for your cool name or clever campaign, and almost certainly because you were a little less rancid than your opponent. Now that you have your hands on the wheel, do what you were elected to do, not what looks like fun. Remember, the rest of us are in the backseat. Whip us around too much and we'll give somebody else a shot. Don't believe me? Watch how it turns out for the current crop come November.

Michael Long is a Southeast Missouri native who currently serves as a speechwriter and consultant in Washington D.C. He teaches speechwriting and public relations in the graduate school at Georgetown University. He can be reached at www.MikeLongOnline.com.

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