Nobody Knows What They're Doing

In his Washington Post column today, Ezra Klein makes an important point about politics generally and Washington in particular that I think isn't widely enough understood. He calls it "the myth of scheming," and what it amounts to is that in politics, things don't operate they way do in the movies. Or to put it less charitably, nobody knows what the hell they're doing and everyone is bumbling around blindly:

This is the most pervasive of of all Washington legends: that politicians in Washington are ceaselessly, ruthlessly, effectively scheming. That everything that happens fits into somebody's plan. It doesn't. Maybe it started out with a scheme, but soon enough everyone is, at best, reacting, and at worst, failing to react, and always, always they're doing it with less information than they need.

That's been a key lesson I've learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly implementing long-term schemes.

Democrats fear Grover Norquist's Monday meetings, the message discipline across Fox News and talk radio, and Focus on the Family. Republicans believe the press corps is out to get them and Hollywood has dedicated itself to providing crucial air support. People are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unified and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities.

But they're not. This city may be rife with plans, but no plan survives first contact with Congress. Nothing will disabuse you of the myth of scheming faster than listening to key congressional staffers speculate on the future of a bill. Communication between various political actors — a crucial ingredient in any serious plan — is surprisingly informal and inadequate. Members of Congress and their staffs don't really have access to secret, efficient networks of information. Instead, they read Roll Call and the Hill and The Washington Post and keep their televisions tuned to cable news, turning up the volume when a colleague involved in a bill they're interested in appears on the screen. Then everyone sits around and parses what they just heard with all the intensity of a 13-year-old boy analyzing a hallway conversation with a crush.

I worked for a few years in advocacy, and during that time I went to lots of meetings where scheming was supposed to take place. Sometimes they were actual scheming meetings, but more often they were preliminary meetings to plan for future scheming, or scheming to scheme. Sometimes I'd come away saying to myself, "That went really well, I think this might amount to something." But more often my response would be, "Jeez, nobody in this town knows anything." It wasn't that the people weren't smart, or didn't have some area of policy expertise about which they knew a great deal. But when it came to identifying a specific political goal and mapping out a strategy to achieve it that incorporated an understanding of the variables that could affect the outcome and stood some chance of success, everybody was casting about in the dark. On more than one occasion, I found myself in a room with a bunch of people—congressional staffers, advocates, or the like—who worked on a particular issue but had no idea how to go about achieving some critical component of the political strategy that would enable them to achieve their goals. I'd have to restrain myself from shouting, "Wait a minute—you people don't know how to do that? But this is your thing! How can you not know?"

In other words, I came to the meeting believing that the scheme was already in place, or at least that everybody would have no trouble coming up with the scheme, but it turned out that there was no scheme, and that everyone had only the vaguest idea of how to go about putting a scheme together. That's in large part because politics is so incredibly complex, and the more meaningful your goals are, the more complicated it is to achieve them. So the way a lot of people respond is by making their goals smaller and more incremental. If you say your goal is just to bring attention to the problem of toenail fungus among Des Moines-area teens, you can write a report on the fungus, have your press people do a press release and make some calls, and then there might be a story on one of the local news stations about it. Mission accomplished! The fungus is still there, but you can show your board a clip from the news and assure them that you're making a difference. But if you want to, say, solve global warming or reverse the decline of labor unions or break the news media of its he said/she said habit or solve childhood obesity or stop a war, that's a whole other kettle of fish. And if there are other people actively trying to stop you from achieving your goal, then it gets complicated.

That isn't to say there aren't some people who can scheme successfully, but usually they have narrow, focused goals. If you're a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs and your entire purpose in life is to open up a new loophole in securities regulation, you can map out a plan to get the legislation written and passed, then implement your plan, and it might work. But the big schemes of the kind that make for dramatic television shows, with lots of moving parts and an exciting denouement, in which the scheme's architect sets it in motion and then sits back as each piece falls neatly into place, steepling his fingers and saying, "Yes, just as I planned"? That almost never happens.

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