Cory Booker is prepping for Washington by reading Mark Leibovich's "This Town," reports Jason Horowitz. Well, not exactly "reading." Listening. He's got the audio book. But same difference. “I fell asleep to it last night,” Booker said.
"This Town" is a joy to read. I imagine it's a delight to listen to. But it's a poor guide to how Washington works in 2013. And it will reinforce Booker's worst instincts as a politician.
"This Town" isn't a book about Washington. It's a book about members of Washington's political-communications complex. The key characters are mostly people who, in some way or another, get paid to talk about politics. Kurt Bardella is the (manic, cynical) press secretary to Rep. Darrell Issa. Mike Allen is a political reporter. Andrea Mitchell has a television show about politics. Tammy Haddad does political PR and plans political parties. Bob Barnett negotiates book and television contracts for people who want to talk about politics for money. (There's a separate thread of the book about the jobs politicos take when they retire but that's not of much relevance to Booker, at least not right now.)
The bad news about "This Town" is that the political-communications complex is kind of an awful place. The good news is that it really doesn't matter.
The political-communications complex gets a lot of press for itself because the political-communications complex includes the press as well as the key political staffers whose job it is to talk to the press. But the attention is far out of proportion to the complex's power.
There's no problem of American governance traceable back to Tammy Haddad. There are no policy decisions being made by Kurt Bardella. One of Leibovich's funniest anecdotes is about Bob Barnett begging and pleading to get on to Obama's debate-prep team -- but that just goes to show that Ron Klain, who served as chief of staff to two vice presidents and led Obama's debate prep in 2012, had much more direct influence even though basically nobody knows who he is.
Indeed, the great sin of the political-communications complex isn't that it's driving Washington's dysfunctions but that it's obscuring the true drivers of those dysfunctions. Don't believe me? Ask Leibovich. "People outside of Washington need to be shown the lie of this world in addition to focusing on and thinking about the real structure," he said in our interview.
But though "This Town" is a great and insightful read, it's also part of the problem. The political-communications complex doesn't survive because it's powerful. It survives because it gets a lot of press and people assume that means it's powerful. And "This Town" gives the complex more press. Booker is one of many, many people who read the book looking to understand how Washington really works. He learned about "This Town" rather than, well, this town.
This is a particularly dangerous mistake for Booker to make, as he will be relentlessly courted by Washington's political-communications complex. Bob Barnett will want to negotiate his book deal. Mike Allen would love to host him for a Playbook Breakfast. Tammy Haddad will invite him to her parties. And Booker already has a showboat side, not to mention a tendency to get overly involved with wealthy, glitzy friends. If he tips into the political-communications complex, he might never escape.
Washington is also full of people like Bob Greenstein, the broadly respected and constantly consulted head of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -- people who work hard to understand the issues and spend their days influencing policy outcomes.
When I asked Leibovich about the considerable power wielded by members of the "good Washington," he quickly admitted their absence. "I plead guilty to that," Leibovich said. "One of the reasons I tried to amplify the part of Washington I did is that in its amplification the absurdity of this world is clearer. But this is not a book about the Robert Greensteins. This wasn’t even really a how-it-works book. I was trying to do something different."
But that's the part of Washington Booker needs to learn. He needs to find good policy staffers rather than ambitious climbers. He needs to figure out which think tanks can be trusted to deliver honest analysis and which are just playing for a team. He needs to learn how the Congressional Budget Office works so he can write policy that gets a good "score." He needs to know that the people with power often aren't the people with public profiles. He needs to recognize that the permanent Washington that "This Town" profiles -- what one might call "Simpson-Bowles Washington" -- has proven impotent in an era of harsh party polarization. He needs to learn about this town, rather than "This Town."