Bruce Reed on Washington's Warring Subcultures

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In early 2004, the real-estate-fueled economy was chugging along, Iraq had yet to collapse into sectarian war, FEMA’s post-Katrina failures were still a glimmer in Michael Brown’s eye, and most liberals thought the biggest problem with the Bush administration was its politics—not its ability to get the job done. But veteran Democratic policy adviser Bruce Reed saw the real problem: Bush’s inner circle had too many political hacks and not enough policy wonks. Putting on his cultural anthropologist hat, Reed dissected official Washington’s two dominant subcultures and why they scorn, but ultimately need, each other.

S
trip away the job titles and party labels, and you will find two kinds of people in Washington: political hacks and policy wonks. Hacks come to Washington because anywhere else they’d be bored to death. Wonks come here because nowhere else could we bore so many to death. These divisions extend far beyond the hack havens of political campaigns and consulting firms and the wonk ghettos of think tanks on Dupont Circle. Some journalists are wonks, but most are hacks. Some columnists are hacks, but most are wonks. All members of Congress pass themselves off as wonks, but many got elected as hacks. Lobbyists are hacks who make money pretending to be wonks. The Washington Monthly, the New Republic, and the entire political blogosphere consist largely of wonks pretending to be hacks. The Hotline is for hacks; National Journal is for wonks. The West Wing is for wonks; K Street was for hacks.

After two decades in Washington as a wonk working among hacks, I have come to the conclusion that the gap between Republicans and Democrats is as nothing compared to the one between these two tribes. We wonks think we’re smarter than hacks. Hacks think that if being smart makes someone a wonk, they’d rather be stupid. Wonks think all hacks are creatures from another planet, like James Carville. Hacks share Paul Begala’s view that wonks are all “propeller heads,” like Elroy on The Jetsons. Wonks think the differences between hacks and wonks are as irreconcilable as those between the Hutus and the Tutsis. Hacks think it’s just like wonks to bring up the Hutus and the Tutsis.

In every administration, wonks and hacks fight it out. The measure of a great president is his ability to make sense of them both. A president must know the real problems on Americans’ minds. For that he needs hacks. But ultimately, he needs policies that will actually solve those problems. For that he needs wonks.

President Bush has husbanded some big policy changes through Congress—a testament to his considerable political skills. Unfortunately, his policies seem to be better at causing problems than solving them. The economy can’t create jobs despite hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus. The reconstruction in Iraq is going over like a remake of Ishtar. The price tag of the new Medicare law is soaring even faster than prescription drug costs. With a record $521 billion deficit, Bush has just presented what might be called the Justin Timberlake budget, ripping off the taxpayers and pretending it wasn’t on purpose.

Democrats are understandably eager to blame all these epic failures on ideology. To be sure, Bush is running perhaps the most partisan and ideological White House in the modern era. But the longer I watch this White House, the more convinced I become that ideology is just a convenient rationalization for why the president’s agenda isn’t working. The real reason is darker and more disturbing: the Bush White House is so obsessed with the politics of its agenda that it never even asks whether it will work.

Journalist Ron Suskind first sounded this warning in January 2003, in an extraordinary Esquire interview with John DiIulio, the brilliant academic who had resigned from Bush’s faith-based initiative the previous year. DiIulio told Suskind, “There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you’ve got is everything—and I mean everything—being run by the political arm.” As if to prove the point, the White House got DiIulio to disavow the allegations as soon as they became public.

Suskind’s new book about former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, The Price of Loyalty, is one long lament on the same theme: the administration’s complete disregard for evidence. Every White House worries too much about politics. What DiIulio and O’Neill most tellingly reveal is how little this White House worries about anything else.

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The great irony is that the political equilibrium of the nation’s capital depends on both wonks and hacks, but the two groups can’t even communicate because the hack and wonk dialects have so few words in common. I learned this first as a campaign speechwriter and later as a White House policy geek, when I was sometimes called in to translate. In 1993, I went to a meeting with some of the president’s top communications strategists to plan the signing ceremony for a bill that had just passed the Congress. A wonk had to point out that under the Constitution, if the president fails to sign a bill within ten days while the Congress is adjourned, the bill is pocket vetoed and does not become law.

On the other hand, Paul O’Neill is naive to wish for an upstairs-downstairs divide, where wonks make all the decisions and hacks get to spin them. As a wonk, I would be the last to suggest that my fellow propeller heads have all the answers. I spent Clinton’s first term across the hall from Ira Magaziner, architect of the administration’s health care plan. The road to Ira’s office was paved with good intentions.

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The secret of Bill Clinton’s success was that he was the biggest wonk ever to hold the presidency, with political gifts that no hack could equal. He said he would cut the deficit and boost the economy, and he did. He said he would put more cops on the street to lower the crime rate, and he did. He said he would end welfare as we know it in a way that wouldn’t hurt those in the system, and he did. Clinton was his own best policy adviser, by far, yet he also would have been the greatest political consultant in the history of the world’s second oldest profession.

Presidents don’t have to be super- wonks, and George W. Bush certainly never promised to be one. But in the end, Bush’s undoing may be that he has planted his flag so firmly on one side of the wonk-hack divide. Sooner or later, the fate of every White House comes down to the way the president thinks.

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From “Bush’s War Against Wonks,” March 2004. Bruce Reed is the CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council.

 
 
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