Paul Pillar

Running Against Washington

Denigrating or opposing the federal government has long been a theme of many American political campaigns, even for candidates who would like to head that government. This year the theme seems to be getting voiced in an especially full-throated manner. The fact that we have been watching a primary contest among candidates hoping to unseat an incumbent president obviously has a lot to do with that. The influence of the Tea Party movement on the Republican Party is also a major contributing factor. Whatever the combination of causes, even candidates who have been deeply embedded in, and politically or financially enriched by, the Washington establishment—Messrs. Gingrich and Santorum come to mind—talk as if they have never had any thing to do with that establishment. The presidential candidate who can most plausibly claim not to be a creature of Washington, Mitt Romney, makes much of that concept as one of the things that sets him apart from others still in the race.

I see no particular pattern among the forty-three men who have held the presidency that correlates being or not being a Washington insider with being a good or a bad president. In any event, many presidents have had mixed resumés that would make it difficult to categorize them as either insiders or outsiders. But some other observations come to mind while listening to this year's anti-Washington rhetoric.

Past or present occupancy of an office in the federal government should not be considered the defining characteristic in determining what sort of relationship someone has had with that government or with the Washington establishment. Two articles about Romney in Monday's newspapers underscore that observation. One describes the very large role that well-established Washington lobbyists play in Romney's campaign and as advisers to the candidate. The other article concerns Romney's performance in heading the Salt Lake City Olympic organizing committee in 2002. The picture the article conveys is mixed, with some testifying to Romney's solid and energetic leadership and others saying that his main contribution was in restoring respectability to a committee that had a public relations problem but was not on the verge of collapse. What caught my eye in this account was that one of Romney's biggest accomplishments as head of the committee was in successfully lobbying the federal government (against the opposition of Senator John McCain and other Republican leaders) for what became the biggest federal funding for any Olympic games in U.S. history, either winter or summer. The federal subsidy for the Salt Lake City games tripled on Romney's watch from $200 million to $600 million. The turnaround expert from the private sector turned around this enterprise with big help from what usually would be called a federal bailout.

Another observation is that making the federal government work well involves some realities of governing that would be hard to learn anywhere else. This is partly, but not entirely, a matter of government being fundamentally different from corporations. Donald Rumsfeld has spoken of how much more readily he could make things happen as chief executive of the pharmaceutical firm G.D. Searle than he could as a cabinet secretary, where leadership is necessarily much more a matter of compromise and dealing with competing interests. Even the more hierarchical parts of the federal government itself do not prepare one fully for leadership in the presidency. Harry Truman said of his successor Dwight Eisenhower, “He will sit here and he’ll say, Do this! Do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the army.”

The management of the nation's affairs in foreign relations, where the handling of competing interests becomes even more complex, is even more a matter of on-the-job training than with domestic affairs.  The large majority of things each presidential administration does in foreign policy, especially after the first few months in office, are reactions to problems and threats rather than anything that could have been foreseen during the presidential campaign.  

Vaunting detachment from Washington has other downsides. Some longtime observers and former members of Congress have observed that one reason for the bitter partisanship and acrimony that has become routine on Capitol Hill is that fewer members today feel part of a Washington community. There is less socializing with those on the other side of the aisle, and thus less of the comity that this encourages, than used to be the case. More members today have a sense of community only with home constituencies, to which they repair between sallies to do battle in (or against) Washington.

Then there is the problem that being against something doesn't necessarily provide a clear idea of what one is for.

There certainly is something to be said for fresh ideas and fresh approaches, but that is not the same as railing at the federal government. Running against Washington is another pattern in American politics that is a net minus, rather than a plus, in choosing good presidents and good policies.