Washington Traps

Why Republicans should be irresponsible and impolite.


I knew things had changed when I saw Al D'Amato on Nightline and he started talking about privatizing air traffic control. Al D'Amato, heretofore a hack extraordinaire, had latched on to an esoteric free-market policy idea developed by…my boss.

Then things got even weirder. I ordered a transcript of that Nightline, which I'd only seen the end of. And lo and behold, in between discussions of Whitewater subpoenas, this same Al D'Amato started ranting about how the government won't let you say "within walking distance" in real-estate ads. Now that's an esoteric regulatory issue nobody ever talks about in public–nobody that is except…me. (See last month's editorial or various newspaper columns.)

When Al D'Amato has to bone up on substance–and Ted Koppel solicits his opinions on spending cuts and regulatory reform–something has definitely changed. And when a porkbarrel pol like D'Amato appears to be getting his ideas from REASON, we have entered a whole new world.

Or so it has seemed since November 8.

A year ago, the Clintons were getting ready to nationalize health care, Bob Dole was rushing to help, and Newt Gingrich was murmuring support. The only members of Congress you could count on to defend freedom over Clintonite "security" were economists from Texas, one for each house. Now Dick Armey is going to be House majority leader and Phil Gramm is all over television drawling such heretical sentiments as, "Why should we want to go halfway in the wrong direction?"

Why, indeed? And yet, until recently, that was exactly the plan. Which is why, despite a certain giddy delight at the triumph of people who speak the language of limited government, I'm not convinced. The culture of Washington is desperately trying to reassert itself, and the Republican upstarts should beware its traps.

The most dangerous is the "responsibility" trap. Here's how Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) explains it: "It's easy to be a critic. I mean, Sam Rayburn said that any jackass could kick down the barn, but it takes a real carpenter to build one…[W]hen you see the Republicans having the responsibility of governing, it's going to be different."

But "responsibility" in Washington doesn't mean living up to your commitments, sticking to your principles, or bearing the consequences of your actions. It means not rocking the boat. It means minding your manners. It means treating government like a dinner party.

Washington's governing class has two basic modes of behavior: campaign mode and dinner party mode. In campaign mode, you're allowed to say just about anything about your opponent, no matter how nasty. But everyone knows that it's all a game, that the rough rhetoric is for the benefit of the voters. It isn't serious.

When the campaigns are over, Washington enters dinner party mode–often literally. At a dinner party, the polite guest will avoid confrontations with his or her fellows. Three days after the election, when I found myself seated at a table full of reeling academics, we discussed such safe questions as whether easy absentee voting would increase turnout. It was the political equivalent of small talk.

That's fine for a real dinner party. But Washingtonians apply the same notions of politeness outside the dining room. A year ago, they were rolling their eyes at the uncouthness of Gramm's and Armey's opposition to ClintonCare. Now they're baffled at what Gingrich might mean by, "I am very prepared to cooperate with the Clinton administration. I am not prepared to compromise."

If Gingrich is responsible, really, he'll stick to that promise amid the inevitable cries of "gridlock." Such cries can be intimidating in a town where most people honestly believe that Congress is like a widget factory–that its productivity depends on how many new laws it passes.

The great advantage of the Republican Contract With America is that it gives the new Congress lots of laws to pass–laws that, on the whole, roll back government. And if the Republicans want to give Bill Clinton brain lock, they can send him even more bills that will be popular with the public while offending Democratic interest groups: to limit the Endangered Species Act and federal wetlands regulation and pay affected landowners compensation; to abolish the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; to scale back the Americans with Disabilities Act; even to force the Postal Service to refund postage on undelivered mail.

Washington has still more traps for the Republicans, however. They could lose sight of long-term policy in a quest for short-term political scalps; his Nightline appearance notwithstanding, D'Amato still cares more about scandal than privatization. They could buy into new poll-driven "crises," like the alleged demand for health-care reform. They could try to please constituent groups, notably the religious right, with divisive social legislation rather than broadly popular economic reforms. They could decorate the tax code with new loopholes, making a future flat tax difficult to pass and disruptive to people's plans. They could blink when faced with the consequences of their platform–the laid-off Hill staffer or the former welfare mother who can't find work. They could be embarrassed by characterizations of their supporters as "angry white males" or "business."

Some of their allies, and most of their enemies, would make the best the enemy of the good, blocking any talk of cutting taxes or spending until the Republicans introduce a complete overhaul of Social Security. They would be wise to hold off; after a couple more years of having Sam Donaldson, Bob Kerrey, and Alice Rivlin beg for Social Security cuts, a new Congress might actually be able to pass them without facing an armed revolt.

"Let's Make Welfare as Hard to Get as a Building Permit," goes the bumper sticker, and welfare is only half that story. The public is tired of being bossed around. For the Republicans to succeed, they'll have to remember that–especially when Washington starts telling them to be "responsible."