Tilting at Windmills

November/December 2012 Woodward’s folly … Romney’s hardship … Finishing what Clinton started

By Charles Peters

President, dictator, whatever
In the long parade of books on the topic of what Obama could or should have done, which began with Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men, the silliest of all has to be Bob Woodward ‘s The Price of Politics. The problem with all of these books is that their authors are beholden to unreal expectations, and have little or no idea of the diffculty of getting sixty votes in Mitch McConnell’s Senate, or of the near impossibility of dealing with the right-wing Republican majority that has ruled the House since 2010.

Woodward expected Obama to “bend Congress to his will.” Think about those words. Their hint of macho bombast becomes more obvious when you change the object of “bend” from a group to an individual. Say, a woman. Would Woodward say “he should bend her to his will”?

So, in the end, he got what he wanted
By the way, the issue under discussion in the Washington Post excerpt of Woodward’s book is whether Obama could avoid a two-step solution to the debt crisis, meaning that Congress would authorize a one-time increase of the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011 but the country would have to address the issue again this year during the heat of the fall campaign. The remainder of the excerpt sounds like the effort was a total failure. Only in the penultimate paragraph do we learn that a few days before the deadline “House Republicans dropped their insistence on the two-step plan.”

In a recent article in the New York Times, “Despite Democrats’ Warnings, Private Medicare Plans Find Success,” Robert Pear wrote that “private plans have helped hold down costs and have satisfied most beneficiaries.” Just how these private insurancee plans have cut costs remains a mystery, however. And the mystery deepens seven paragraphs later when Pear at last discloses that Medicare has actually “paid private plans more than it would cost to care for the same patients in the traditional government- run Medicare program.” In other words, private plans have cost the government more, not less.

The wrong reward
Last month, I praised Michael Grunwald’s for telling the positive story about the stimulus program. I noted that he also told what was wrong with it. The story of the Department of Energy’s Claire Johnson illustrates both the good and bad, and in telling it, Grunwald displayed knowledge about how government works that is rare among Washington journalists, whose high sophistication about politics is often accompanied by abysmal ignorance of bureaucratic culture.

The Obama stimulus program gave the Department of Energy’s Office of Weatherization $11.3 billion for the weatherization of low-income homes and related efficiency efforts. The trouble is that the George W. Bush administration had little interest in the office’s work and had therefore used it as a dumping ground—what insiders call a turkey farm—for marginal or incompetent but hard-to-fire employees, hoping to get rid of them by budget cuts or program elimination, the only efficient way of removing unwanted civil servants.

The office, thus ill-equipped to carry out its new mission as part of the stimulus program, was limping along weatherizing homes at the rate of 30,000 a year when Claire Johnson took over. She managed to inspire the remaining good employees as well as enough of the marginal ones to raise the rate to 30,000 a month. In the process, however, she annoyed the timeservers who refused to be inspired. They leaked emails to the department’s inspector general, showing that Johnson had cut corners in hiring her deputy. The hiring process, she explained, was “just too slow.” Of course she was telling the truth; it is far too slow and is one of the major problems of government. Nonetheless, she was fired.

Contract killers
I have complained that the Obama White House’s ignorance of the federal bureaucracy is equal to that of Washington journalists. But there are signs the White House is doing better. I was heartened to see two recent reports in the Washington Post that suggest the White House may be catching on to the Beltway bandits who have been picking the government ‘s pockets for years. The titles of the articles are as follows: “Purge of Consultants Beats Goal as Obama Seeks Cuts” and “Suspensions, Debarments Jump 73 Percent in Federal Contracting in 2011.” If you doubt that such actions are needed, consider that in the last decade, the amount of money devoted to government contracts has doubled and the number of contracts that are for consultants has quadrupled.

Wonder why …
“Concerns Raised About Student Loan Defaults” was the headline in a recent issue of the Washington Post. The accompanying article by Nick Anderson reported that the leading factor in an increase in defaults was loans to students attending for-profit colleges. Interestingly, the article did not mention that Kaplan Education, a Post subsidiary and long a cash cow for the entire company, is a major player in the for-profit college business.

The civilian elite
I’m glad to see that the very liberal Christopher Hayes, in his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, joins in the growing concern about the separation of America’s educated elite from the rest of the country, with the worst example being its failure to share in military service. This has been a cause of this magazine for more than forty years, one that other journalists and writers have been slow to share—the meritocrats seem to have treated Vietnam as a permanent excuse for not serving in the military. But better late than never, especially coming from a promising young thinker like Chris Hayes.

Too many nukes
The Washington Post’s great Dana Priest recently came up with another revealing report, this one on our aging nuclear stockpile. She points out that the cost of maintaining these weapons has increased 133 percent since 2001 and is destined to soon grow at an even higher rate. I have a solution to the problem: radically reduce the stockpile. Why not cut it to 1,000 or even 500? That’s still enough to devastate more of the world than we could ever possibly want to devastate.

The missionary position
Back to military service. Mitt Romney supported the war in Vietnam, and even took part in a counter-demonstration to the peace rallies that were being held on the Stanford campus when he was a student. But instead of joining the military, he claimed an exemption available to Mormons for their missionary service. This might have been justified had he served in some Third World backwater, but Romney was a missionary in France—not exactly a hardship post. You may have seen the photograph of him lolling on a French beach inside a heart-shaped drawing in the sand.

Finishing what Clinton started
Allowing gays to serve openly in the military is one of Barack Obama’s greatest accomplishments. Now the Pentagon, according to the Post’s David Crary, “says repeal has gone smoothly, with no adverse effect on morale, recruitment, or readiness.” In August, Tammy Smith became the first openly gay general. As with Obamacare, the president did what even politically skilled Bill Clinton tried but failed to do.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.


  • Roger Keeling on November 04, 2012 5:34 PM:

    Mr. Peters, you're in fine form this month. Your point about the proliferation of government contractors during the Bush Administration is particularly important, I think. The GOP has claimed this as a way to "privatize" government functions -- that is, gain the economies and competitive benefits of the marketplace for public tasks. But the reality is that it has been nothing more than a backdoor means of reinstating the 19th century spoils system. The public is so sadly ignorant of history that most folks have no idea what a vital reform the establishment of the professional civil service was, and hence no idea how perverse it is for a major political party to try to destroy it.

    And I am so glad the magazine has returned to a format where we can read your column AS a column, rather than as an annoying series of links. I believe quite a few folks (including me) had complained about that, so thank you for listening.

  • berttheclock on November 07, 2012 9:46 AM:

    Hmmm, "Reigning in Wall Street". Yes, many on WS do believe they reign. Perhaps, with the election of Senator Warren, more real "reins" will be put in place to stop many of those rulers of wealth.

  • zandru on November 07, 2012 1:34 PM:

    I second Mr. Clock: it's "reining in". Although in a few years, it WILL be "reigning", and future etymologists will have no clue as to the origin of the phrase.

  • buddy66 on November 09, 2012 7:48 PM:

    I watched Allen G. one day at lunch in the San Francisco State cafeteria, after a speaking/reading/chanting session at that school, surrounded by hangers-on and autograph-seeking students clamoring for his attention. He had more time for helping Peter Orlovsky's severely retarded brother maneuver the intricacies of unwrapping a packet of crackers that came with his chicken soup. Allen's concerned patience was obvious, his kindliness manifest in the moment.

  • Steve on January 13, 2013 12:47 PM:

    I'm not sure why Mr Peters is so gung ho about military service.

    Why would anyone serve in an organization whose sole purpose seems to be to engage in illegal and immoral activities?

    Vietnam was an illegal and unjustified war.

    Afghanistan was largely unjustified.

    Iraq? Don't make me laugh.

    Rather than more serving in the military, I'd rather see fewer.

    As in zero.


  • Ed Pritchett on April 18, 2013 9:31 AM:

    I would respectfully disagree. If this country adopted universal service for all after high school for even just two years, and it would have to be for Everybody, no exceptions for class or wealth. Then perhaps we could temper our national blood lust bulleted above a bit since at any moment such decisions would involve the sons and daughters of the decision makers as well. It reserve war making as the last option of policy instead of casually being one of the first.