Richard Reeves

Why Washington Doesn't Work Anymore

WASHINGTON -- What killed bipartisanship in the governing of America? Basically, I think, it was the jet plane and Blackberries. In fact, those two mechanical marvels may break up the whole nation into, say, 350 million countries. A country for every man, woman and child.

Why can't the representatives of we, the people, agree on even the things they agree on? The answer is that they don't know each other. In the old days there was a community called Washington -- or maybe just Georgetown -- where Republicans and Democrats lived together. They carpooled. They had dinner with each other and exchanged visits and presents on holidays. Their kids went to school together, played ball together, dated each other.

No more. First came the jets, closely followed by demands from constituents that their representatives and senators come home three or four days a week. Instead of dining with each other, they had to go to lunch with the Rotary or the Kiwanis or the Chamber of Congress, then head for a church dinner or two. They were invited anywhere two Americans gathered in the name of democracy -- and they have to go or think they have to go.

Then came the Blackberry, and politicians, like most everybody else, became prisoners wearing the numbers in their contact list. I remember the moment I realized what was happening. I was doing some research in the Library of Congress and as I walked out I saw, across the greensward by the Capitol, men and women walking in circles talking on cell phones. They were my friends and colleagues, the Washington press corps, a corps no more.

There had been a shooting inside the Capitol and instead of talking to each other the way we used to do, pooling information, all the reporters were talking to their bosses back in the office. Those bosses, editors and news directors across town, were getting their information from television and thought they knew more than the people on the scene -- or on their cell phones.

Pack journalists no more in a city where social networking is anti-social.

If there are packs of any kind in Washington now, it is the packs called party caucuses in the House and Senate. They are packed in a room and told what to do. That works better for Republicans, who seem to be playing a new kind of zero-sum game. That is, the sum of their "Yes" votes are zero if the Democrats are for something. The Democrats are a little less unified. They are packed into a room and told what their leaders or the White House will give them or take away from them for their vote.

In The New York Times last Monday, the paper's media correspondent, David Carr, did a column about anti-society, pointing out that The Washington Post was dropping a column by Sally Quinn called "The Party." Washington parties, of course, used to be quite the thing with liberals and conservatives actually bumping into each other -- and, sometimes, into ideas as well.

Carr ended the column with a quote from a colleague who asked Eric Cantor, the House Republican whip, what he would do if he were invited to a party at the White House. "I would," he answered, "take the opportunity to press the president on why he thinks it's better to ignore the public."

Added Carr: "Thanks for that charming bit of repartee, congressman. Now would you pass the crudites?"

So it goes, or doesn't go. Soon enough, the party pack and hacks will split up and go back to their states and districts full-time to campaign. They will blame the other side for the frozen spectacle of government as virtual reality. If anyone asks what the other side is like, they will be stumped because they don't know anyone on the other side.

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