Richard Reeves

Here We Go Again, Running Against Washington

WASHINGTON -- Here we go again. A Southern governor has said that you don't need experience in Washington to be an effective president.

This time, in the tradition of Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, it is Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. Carter and Clinton were wrong about that, and so is Bush.

I love the sound of Washington-bashing as much as anyone and I know it is a pretty good route to the White House. But I've seen and heard too much of it since Carter traveled that way in 1976, to be followed by a former governor, Ronald Reagan of California, in 1980, and Clinton in 1992.

That run of governors in the White House -- interrupted only by Bush's daddy -- shows the potency of outsider-ism as a campaign issue. But it ignores the fact that those governors, playing to national hostility to Washington, were ignorant, foolish and pathetic for a couple of years -- more, in some cases.

Carter ended up blaming the American people for his governance problems and was not re-elected. Reagan, who inherited welcoming anti-tax and pro-military constituencies in the capital, ended up with lower job approval ratings than even Carter had after two years. Clinton blew national health care and ended up facing a mean and hostile Congress after his first two years.

Now Gov. Bush. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah attacked his fellow Republican in a candidates' debate last Monday night in Phoenix, saying: "I really believe you need more experience before you can become president ... you should be vice president with me."

By the next day, Bush obviously felt he had to defend himself, saying he saw no advantage to Washington experience: "These guys ... have spent a lot of time in Washington. It sounded like to me that being in Washington wasn't a very conducive thing, wasn't an attractive feature to being a nominee. ... Everybody was attacking Washington."

Well, everybody is always attacking Washington. In 1830, Alexis de Tocqueville, traveling in the new United States before writing "Democracy in America," wrote that one of the odd things about our politics was that so many candidates won control of the government by attacking it.

In recent elections, those attacks have backfired on the winners, not so much because of Washington's hostility to outsiders, which is real enough, but because candidates have trapped themselves in their own rhetoric, building a winning constituency by promising to clean up the stables of Washington. In fact, of course, Washington is a place, both arrogant and insecure, that wants to be loved by those winners. If Attila the Hun won election, the locals here would wear bearskins.

Clinton, you may remember, ended his first 100 days in office by saying: "I must say there's a lot I have to learn about this town."

Indeed. Outsiders victorious come to Washington using automatic transmissions. But this is a stick-shift town. It's not hard to learn to use a gearshift, but the time it takes to learn is usually just about the same time as it takes for the glow of victory to fade away.

Small things, but a lot of them, are what do in outsiders. Washington, like any corrupted court, is about small favors and revenge. The locals in this company town -- whether in the Congress or the bureaucracy -- rarely confront presidents on big things. Their thinking, I believe, is that big things usually fall of their own weight or die by a thousand cuts.

The first problem for outsider presidents is that their campaign staffs try to prevent the boss from letting anyone else into the inner circle. Worse than that, winners cannot know enough people to appoint to the hundreds of offices that can make or break a new administration. The world's greatest innovator or cost-cutter may not be willing to pull up stakes and move from, say, Dallas to Washington for the privilege of being paid a fraction of outside earnings and having the press and prosecutors treating them as proto-criminals. So the outsiders usually have the choice between other outsiders who may or may not know how to use the Washington transmission system, or pick insiders who know the system but do not want to follow the highways laid out by a new president.

That, more often than not, is the first problem -- but by the time a president figures that one out, it is usually too late. That may be true of George W. Bush, and if it is he should go home to talk to his daddy to find out why there is something dangerous about dismissing Washington before you learn to drive it.

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