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Defending the Insiders

By Norman J. Ornstein
Monday, September 15, 2008; A19

I am a card-carrying Washington insider, just the kind of guy Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin says she disdains. To be sure, I'm not a member of the inner circle. But I'm no fringe element, either.

I have spent 39 years immersed in the politics, media and culture of the nation's capital -- teaching, writing, testifying, working on the Hill, helping craft legislation and reforms, even co-chairing a presidential advisory commission. Over that time, I have developed relationships with most of the members of the political and journalistic establishments.

Voters have scorned Washington insiders since there's been a Washington, and politicians seeking to come to Washington have run against them for just as long. The situation here is certainly worse today than it has been in a long time. Change certainly is needed, and not of the incremental variety.

Clearly, the vast majority of voters agree. It is no wonder that John McCain and his running mate, who as governor of Alaska is as far from Washington-insider status as any politician in America, have decided to build their campaign around a pledge to bring those of us inside the Beltway to our knees.

If I believed that going over the Washington establishment's head would work, I would be the first to board that bandwagon. But nearly four decades inside the belly of the beast, and a lot of study of the longer sweep of American history, have convinced me otherwise.

America's political process is built to throw obstacles in the way of far-reaching change and dramatic initiatives. As a result, these occur rarely, usually during some crisis or after an election from which a president emerges with huge congressional majorities from his own party to work with.

No matter what kind of change voters decide they want, this election is not going to produce that kind of dynamic. Moreover, the political process, ordinarily difficult to negotiate, has become shriller, with sharper partisan and ideological divisions that are hard to bridge under the best of circumstances but that will be especially resistant to an approach based on outside intimidation.

Why? In simple terms, roughly 90 percent of House members have ironclad-safe districts. No threat from a president will faze them, especially a threat from a president of the other party. In the Senate, filibusters have become routine, used both to raise the bar to pass legislation to 60 votes and to delay bills to take away momentum.

The country faces a set of vexing challenges, starting with a fiscal straitjacket caused by expanded spending and shrinking revenue. The next president will face intense demands for more spending to jump-start the economy; to help people facing mortgage crises, health disasters or lost jobs; to rebuild our infrastructure; to change our energy profile; and to cope with global warming.

John McCain's pledge of fiscal restraint is built on a promise to crack down on earmarks -- or around 1 percent of the budget. One percent is a start, but lawmakers will fiercely defend most earmarks. If McCain were to succeed, it would be impressive -- and it would barely ding our fiscal problem.

The key initiatives have to come in reforming our large entitlement programs -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- to cope with explosive growth in the number of older people. Change to these programs would mean pain for large numbers of voters. As that late, great Washington insider Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted long ago, serious reform of entitlements, absent an immediate meltdown, can only occur if there is broad, bipartisan cover from leaders on the left, center and right, from Democrats and Republicans, from inside Congress and key interest groups such as AARP and the business community.

That kind of consensus is forged through the political process. It's done by finding allies and building coalitions via intense bargaining and politicking. The skills needed are far more likely to be possessed by Washington insiders than iconoclastic outside reformers.

The night before Bill Clinton's first inaugural, there was a celebration at the old Capital Centre. It began with a video, to the tune of Frank Sinatra singing the Gershwin song "They All Laughed," showing an array of D.C. pundits confidently predicting Clinton's political demise. The implication of the video was clear: Those pundits were wrong, Clinton was right, and their old, insider ways were about to be supplanted by a new politics. What followed was a disastrous eight-month struggle by the new administration to pass an economic package and the crashing-and-burning of its health-care plan.

Though Clinton had experience on the national stage, he was also a small-state governor used to dominating his weaker state legislature. His situation was not unlike Sarah Palin's, except that she has had no national experience and has served barely 20 months as the governor of a state with a much smaller population than Arkansas. It took Clinton two years of heartache to learn to rely on steady Washington hands such as Leon Panetta and John Podesta. We don't have two years to wait today.

The change that Washington needs will require the deep deployment of people who know how to move the levers of power from the inside. The presidential bully pulpit is a powerful weapon in a president's arsenal. But it's no substitute for knowing how to get things in Washington.

The writer is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the "Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track."

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