The Republican presidential candidates campaigning in Iowa these past many months (and now on their way to New Hampshire to do much of the same) agreed on one thing: they all ran against Washington – not only Barack Obama’s Washington, but “Washington” in the generic sense of the term and all that that term has come to represent. This, they calculate, is good (and cheap) campaign policy because it appeals directly to the instincts of the American people and, in a way, they are right. Like so many before them, this Republican field is banking on the time-honored notion that when Americans hear the word “politician” they think intransigence, self-interest, graft, pandering, moral slipperiness and egomania; or, to put it in the vernacular: lying, cheating, and stealing.
There is something of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense language of Jabberwocky in the idea that to win, politicians need to run against politics (how would we greet the surgeon who didn’t believe in surgery or the investment banker who saw no profit to be made in investment?). But American political history is filled with stories where such contradictions worked to the nation’s advantage: through the regulation of business, FDR saved capitalism for the capitalists; by reducing the federal bureaucracy, Ronald Reagan showed how government, which he disdained for its unworkability, can actually work.
Nonetheless, as we enter into the thick of the 2012 campaign it pays to look a bit deeper at this phenomenon. Yes, Americans have an inherent distrust of politicians (just as they do of journalists), but as the Gallup Poll tells us each year, they remain at the top of the list of their “most admired people” in the world (Obama and Hillary Clinton are one and two in 2011’s results), even if that can be explained more for the hope that we place in them than in the results they produce.
In truth, Americans possess no undifferentiated hatred toward politicians or the political process; they possess undifferentiated hatred towards politicians who demonstrate themselves to be incompetent and towards a political process when that process fails. What the people want, what they seek, what they will embrace if offered to them, is the politician who knows how to make the machinery of the federal government work, who possesses the skills to oil the Congress and the executive branch to function with a commitment to a common purpose, and who has the energy and can-do spirit to achieve that purpose.
To say this is not simply to indict the message from the present Republican field, no matter how much each of them wants to run from Washington and embrace a truly astonishing level of ignorance (like Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann) or disdain for fundamental principles of American governance (as in Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that judges come before Congress to defend their decisions.) In fact, it is just as much, if not more, an indictment of the president himself. An article in last week’s New York Times described President Obama’s reputation as cool and intellectual (no surprise there) and the increasing feeling around town that he is disinterested in the glad-handing and face-to-face bartering that we associate with politics and that many in Washington would agree is the actual lifeblood of politics.
The picture accompanying the story showed Obama, alone, climbing the stairs to Air Force One on his way to Manchester, New Hampshire, which artfully illustrated the writer’s point. It has always been common practice that a president traveling from DC to one of the states would ask a member of that state’s Congressional delegation to accompany him. That is the kind of perk that develops good will, courts advice and leads to the eventual exchange of favors. But in what is a pattern for his presidency, no New Hampshire pol accompanied Obama.
When he golfs, which does often, he does so with lower level aides, no members of Congress. Indeed, this president seems to dislike politicians as much as those running to replace him do, preferring instead to spend time with his family and old friends from outside the political profession. Okay, in a way it may make him seem more genuine and likable, but Obama’s vocabulary apparently does not include the word “schmooze.”
It made me think, in contrast, to a famous picture of Lyndon Johnson when he was Senator Majority Leader in the 1950s. The Texas pol was never known as a man of grace, charm or the life of the mind the way that Obama may be (far from it). But in this famous snapshot, the future president is leaning none-to-nose with Rhode Island senator Theodore Green in a body language that suggests that Johnson wanted something from Green and, damn it, he was going to get it. Insiders referred to it as the “Johnson treatment,” what one of the most famous Washington journalists of the day, Mary McGrory, once described as a “potent mixture of persuasion, badgering, flattery, threats, reminders of past favors and future advantages.”
I don’t think I would have liked Johnson personally, and I would be willing to bet that Senator Green was not a fan either, but at least when it came to domestic policy (let’s put Vietnam aside) Johnson, as president, did know how to get things done and in a day like our own, when both the president and the leaders of Congress seem incapable of breaking stalemates, twisting arms, forcing conclusions, finding compromises and getting Washington to focus on the common good, we need some of those skills brought to bear on our present predicament. For my vote, at least, and I think for that of many more, it is the candidate who runs towards Washington not away from it, that we need now.
Todd Brewster is the Director of the National Constitution Center’s Peter Jennings Project and the Center for Oral History at West Point.