By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 12:01 AM
The victors of 2010, by and large, ran against Washington. They pledged to take back the country, to boot out politicians who had become creatures of Washington.
Now, they get to live here.
Morgan Griffith ran for Congress from southwest Virginia promising to "bring our values back to Washington." Voters liked that idea, and when Griffith arrives in January, he says he'll bring along "a legislative crowbar" to yank open the process and "change the rules, because folks want us to do things differently."
Asked if he can think of anything he's looking forward to about actually living in Washington, Griffith, a Republican and the majority leader of Virginia's House of Delegates, said: "No. Nothing." Then, after a long pause, he added, "Although - I've never been to a Redskins game and I've always wanted to, live and in person."
That can be arranged, said David Bass, president of Raptor Strategies and a longtime Republican political and media strategist.
"He might find himself in a couple of nice skyboxes before too long," Bass said. "These new members who ran against Washington will play Mr. Smith for a while, but there is a structure, a way of doing things that has to be respected. New friends will be very important to them."
The history of Washington is one of periodic political convulsions that usually involve candidates portraying the capital as a den of iniquity, an ethical swamp where cynicism and corruption undermine all that's good and pure about democracy and America.
In this fall's campaigns, candidates from both parties aired TV ads in which they stressed their love of hometown values and their loathing of Washington's ways. As Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) often told interviewers, "Connection with Washington is anathema right now with the American people."
But as the Republican revolutionaries of 1994 have demonstrated, there's something about coming to Washington that alters even the purest of intentions. Many of the 73 GOP members of Congress who won office in that huge anti-Washington electoral sweep are still here, as lobbyists, strategists, lawyers and other cogs in the city's political apparatus.
"More than half of the members of our class who ran with self-imposed term limits reneged on that pledge," said Bob Barr, who was elected to the House from Georgia in 1994 and served four terms. "It's very easy to be co-opted by the system."
"They run against Washington calling it a cesspool and discover that it's really a hot tub," said Craig Shirley, president of Shirley and Banister, a conservative public relations shop based in Alexandria. Shirley came to Washington in 1979 as an aide to a renegade Republican senator, Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, and quickly learned that even if you arrive as a rebel, if you love politics, you've found a home.
Although it's true that, for the most part, politicians check in to Washington but don't check out, "they haven't necessarily become corrupted," Shirley said. "They're here because they are marinated in politics, and a lot of them just love it. They put roots down, their children go to school here, and soon enough, it's home."
When former Senate majority leader Trent Lott said last summer of the incoming crop of tea-party-inspired House members that "as soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them," he didn't so much mean that they should stray from their small-government ideals as that they'd need to learn how to build coalitions and win votes if they hoped to get anything done. What he meant was that they needed to be taught how Washington works.
"You can't come in here as a cowboy with both six-shooters blasting and expect to make friends and get things done," Bass said. Soon enough, the newcomers will realize that "when you come here, you get to work with a lot of smart people who care about what you care about."
Among the Republican freshmen who arrived in 1995, many having pledged to take America back from Washington, "the majority of them had lost their anti-Washington fervor within two years," says Linda Killian, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and author of "The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution?"
Fourteen of those 73 freshmen remain in the House, but many more are still in Washington. "A lot of them went on to have relationships with big lobbies or law firms here," Killian says. "Most decided, 'It's great in Washington and I want to stay, so I'll figure out a way.' People want to take you to dinner all the time, and everybody's hanging on your every word.
"By and large, they became indistinguishable from the people they replaced."
It's not the trappings of office that turn outsiders into insiders, Barr said, but rather the corrosive forces of ambition and flattery.
"If your goal is to move up the Republican leadership ladder, you're going to sacrifice your non-establishment agenda," said Barr, who maintained his aversion to the establishment by running for president on the Libertarian label in 2008. "And if you're just a bomb-thrower, you're not going to get much done. So you have to develop the ability to recognize who the good lobbyists are and who the bad lobbyists are."
Griffith is coming to town having promised in his ads that "with your vote, we can change Washington." He intends to "rein in the EPA" and "make sure cap-and-trade is dead." Two years from now, he expects to face his neighbors back home and say that "if I'm not hesitating to get into fights where I get my eye blackened, you'll know I'm the same guy you sent."
Griffith also expects to face his neighbors every weekend. "We will stay in the house we live in," said Griffith, whose wife and children, ages 10, 4 and 3, will see him on weekends. "I just think it's important to come home and see the schoolteacher you had in high school and hear him tell you about his values - it keeps you grounded."
But Griffith is a 16-year veteran of a state legislature that is every bit as wedded to tradition and grounded in process as the one on Capitol Hill. Although he is a fiery, principled rhetorician, he's also a politician who knows when and how to make a deal. "I bring some of both kinds of experience to Washington, changing systems by changing the rules and by working from within," he said.
The notion of Washington as the snooty, elitist enclave where politicians, pundits and professors become hopelessly out of touch with the real America is as old as the nation itself. In the campaign of 1828, a populist military hero who was beloved by the "real Americans" of the time, the farmers and mechanics, took on an urban aristocrat who was portrayed as a protector of privilege. It was "Andy Jackson who can fight" against "J.Q. Adams who can write," and Jackson won going away.
But as with the heroes of the 1994 Republican revolution and many of the newbies who will arrive in Washington in January, Andrew Jackson was no simple champion of the commoners. He was a wealthy landowner who came up through the political ranks, a lawyer and slaveholder whose candidacy was quietly backed by bankers and financiers who expected their man to help them fend off anti-banking sentiment among the rabble.
By the time his presidency ended, Jackson had become so much a symbol of Washington that he inspired the creation of a new opposition party, the Whigs, a coalition created largely because of its members' hatred of "King Andrew."
Members of the congressional class of 2010 will be closely watched by constituents who keep tabs on their representatives in Internet time, Shirley noted, leaving little opportunity for those who stray from campaign ideals to rebound.
But the newcomers also will find another kind of pressure when they arrive, Barr said.
"As soon as you get here, you find that a lot of those groups that supported you because you were going to shrink the size of government are banging on your door, demanding that you bring home the bacon," he said. " 'Yeah, we want a conservative, but cut everyone else's pork, not ours.' That's your representative democracy."