The Substance of Things

It was September 2005 when I walked into my editor's office to get my first assignment as a magazine writer. George W. Bush was still president and just beginning his long slide into desperate unpopularity. New Orleans was still underwater, the Astrodome was full of refugees, and the country was just beginning to come to terms with what it had recently learned about itself. Every publication in the country was trying to figure out how to cover the changes Katrina had wrought. My editor sat back in his chair, put his feet on the table, and looked at me. "Why don't you call some people," he said, "and find out what's hot in poverty right now."

That's the Prospect in one sentence. The belief that the correct way to cover the aftermath of Katrina was to look at poverty policy rather than poll numbers. The earnest confidence that social policy could be "hot." I always took that as the magazine's guiding idea: Substance mattered, and it didn't have to be dull or hard to understand. When policy was dull or hard to understand, that was the fault of the writer. My fault, to be specific.

I've written for a lot of publications since then, and usually about policy. So I've heard the same concern over and over: "You sure this isn't too far in the weeds?" When you get too deep into the details of policy, editors call it "getting into the weeds." It's usually said as a bad thing, and sometimes, it is. But the weeds are important, as any gardener can tell you. If you don't know what's going on in the weeds, you don't know what's going on in the garden. The Prospect taught me to watch the weeds.

Health care was all about the weeds. For all the talk of messaging and advertisements and speeches and legacies, the effort was actually dominated by a procedural quirk: Because health-care reform required new revenues, Max Baucus' conservative Senate Finance Committee had primary responsibility for writing the bill, while Ted Kennedy's (and later Chris Dodd's) liberal Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee had very little actual power. If it had been reversed, health-care reform wouldn't have spent months mired in the negotiations among the Gang of Six, and the bill that went to the Senate floor would have included a public option.

Now, of course, all eyes are on the 2010 midterm election. The normal way to cover an election is to cover campaign strategy and attack ads and candidate gaffes and poll numbers. But that's not what my former Prospect colleague Matthew Yglesias has been looking at. Election outcomes are driven by the state of the economy, and the most important driver of economic growth right now is monetary policy, and so he's been covering the 2010 election by relentlessly writing about the Federal Reserve and its relatively weak response to the faltering recovery. Similarly, Jamelle Bouie refuted the notion that this past Tuesday's primary results, or any of this fall's electoral outcomes, offered a narrative about anything other than the economy.

Seeing the weeds clarifies cause and effect. If you don't pay attention to the weeds, you don't know why your plants are dying or what to do about it. So, too, with process and policy. If people don't know why something is happening, they don't know what to do about it. And that means they can't fix it.

You see this most clearly in Congress. The logic of the system has broken down. The way things are supposed to work is that the majority party does things, the country evaluates those things, and the election serves as a referendum on those things. The system is accountable because the actors are being judged for the outcomes of their actions. In that world, voters don't need to be congressional reporters to decide whether Congress is doing a good job. They just need to look around and see if progress is being made on the issues they care about.

No longer. Now, the normal process is that the majority proposes some legislation meant to address a problem, the minority blocks that legislation, and the problem festers. But voters aren't intimately aware of -- or interested in -- the congressional process. A February Pew poll found that only 26 percent of Americans knew you needed 60 votes to break a filibuster. About the same number thought you needed 51 votes. So we're left with a situation where the outcomes voters are judging are substantially driven by the minority, but it's the majority that gets blamed for them. And so accountability breaks down: The problems fester, the electorate blames the majority for not doing anything, and off America goes to the polls.

The problem here isn't campaigns. And it's not individuals. It's the system, its structure, its incentives, its rules. In other words, it's the weeds. And that's where you'll find TAP and the many writers it's trained.