Even here in New Hampshire, where presidential politics rivals skiing as the favorite winter sport every four years, some people have to be convinced that it matters who wins the White House. Steve Hampl is one man who remains unpersuaded.
The head of his own two-year-old, four-person high-tech company and a political independent, Hampl sees a huge contrast between Washington and "my world, where things change on a weekly basis, where the industry runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and when a customer calls, I'm on the next plane."
Hampl says he will vote in the Feb. 1 primary, but quickly tells you that, "I don't think things in Washington are going to change. Politicians promise this and that, but nothing ever happens. Take the tax code. Everyone knows there's something wrong with this complicated tax structure. But it never gets straightened out."
Every one of the eight Republicans and Democrats stumping New Hampshire would argue that he would change all that. Bill Bradley says he has "big ideas"; George W. Bush says he's accomplished wonders in Texas. Every one has a reason why it would be different with him in the White House. But the skepticism is powerfully reinforced by essays published last week by scholars and journalists who know Washington very well. Writing in the Brookings Review and National Journal, they make the case that the infirmities in our national government and political system may thwart any president's ambitions to achieve large-scale reform.
The Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann, in the lead article in the winter issue of its publication, says the "poisonous atmosphere" of partisanship in Congress has deeper roots than the aftermath of impeachment. "The parties are more evenly balanced and ideologically polarized than at any time in contemporary history. After decades of minority status, Republicans are pleased to be in the majority, but their margins are razor-thin and their leadership weak. While holding the White House for seven years, the Democrats have seen their position erode at every other level of elective office.
"Changes in the coalitional bases of the parties in the electorate have sharply reduced the ranks of centrists in Congress and shifted the median position in each party toward its ideological pole. And both parties have suffered stinging defeats on major policy initiatives (national health care reform for the Democrats, cutting government and reducing taxes for the Republicans), which has spawned a very cautious approach to policy-making and put a premium on defensive tactics and symbolic position-taking."
His colleague Paul C. Light says the next president may have as much trouble in the executive branch as he encounters in dealing with Congress. "The federal government," he writes, "is now on the cusp of a brain drain as the baby boomers who entered government-centered service during the 1960s and 1970s begin to retire. . . . When young Americans are asked to picture themselves in government careers . . . they envision dead-end jobs where seniority, not performance, rules. And when more seasoned Americans are asked to picture themselves in appointive office, they see a nomination and confirmation process characterized by endless inspection, overdisclosure and delays at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue."
There is more: Sarah A. Binder documents the growing intractability of Congress; Martha Derthick, the muddle of conflicting impulses in the courts and the two elective branches on the proper division of power between the states and Washington; and Stephen Hess, the decline in media coverage of government and the consequent loss of public understanding.
This analysis by sympathetic observers--and not government-bashers--is leavened slightly by the characteristic optimism of E. J. Dionne Jr., who argues that "wedge issues" are out of fashion and a post-Clinton president "may have the opportunity to move on from simply waving shirts bloodied from past battles." But over in the Jan. 8 issue of National Journal, Jonathan Rauch updates his argument that waves of reformers, ably led by Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, have shown that whatever their agenda, it can and likely will be thwarted by the blocking power of constituency-based interest groups that mobilize to protect their particular program, agency, subsidy or privilege.
The result, he says, is "perpetual stalemate," in which efforts to shrink government or basically reorder its priorities are blocked by these interest groups while taxpayer resistance makes it impossible to add new tasks to the governmental agenda.
Perhaps these analysts are too gloomy. But their cautions are a useful contrast to the too-glib promises of "revolutionary change" heard from the candidates. And the Steve Hampls of New Hampshire know that what they've seen in Washington bears out these warnings.