Personalities and political thelogy dominate the Washington news as the Reagan Cabinet heaves into view -- lots of talk about moderates versus conservatives and supply-siders versus traditionalists and the rests. It all matters, but not decisively. What will matter decisively to Ronald Reagan's prospects for success is something else: whether he will be able to take on and, to some extent, defeat that great decadent inertial force that characterizes so much of our governmental (and intellectual) life today.
Do I mean the Washington bureaucracy? Well, yes, in a way -- but that is only part of it. I mean as well a collection of impulses -- to trivialize, confound, procrastinate, fog over and subvert both thought and action -- that are at work in many more bureaucracies than just the one on the Potomac that everyone complains about.
There is a profound and pervasive commitment in this country today to not letting anything happen. It (whatever is the problem at hand) is routinely declared to be much more complex than that ("that" being whatever the proposed solution may be). So instead, it is duly noted that the situation must be studied and made the subject of conferences and reports and hearings and pilot projects and citizens' lobbies and benefit galas and maybe, with a little luck, it will end up getting a presidential commission or even a Cabinet department of its own. Then everyone can settle back and make the situation, whatever it was, a little worse, and get paid for it.
Now, all this has traditionally been associated with the Democrats in general and the federal government in particular, and there is surely ample justification in both cases. Too many liberal Democrats have come, over the years, to worship (of all things) the state and to see it as the natural agent of the Lord's will, even though you can't reach it by telephone much after 4:30 in the afternoon. And many Democrats too, it seems to me, have lately tended to nest in the little, trivial places of great issues, like starlings in the crevices in a huge building. I think, in fact, that this tendency, so different from their grasp of things a generation ago, accounts for a large part of their current political woe.
Read the foundation and study-group reports, very prettily printed, that they have worked on; read the testimony on the Hill; read the departmental policy statements and press releases and other outgushings. Often as not you will find that the premise is vaguely crazy or just plain wrong or outrageous. But you will also find that this is not noticed in the bogged-down, wrong-end-of-the-telescope prose. And the prose itself seems designed -- bureaucratese, foundation-talk -- to keep everything slightly out of focus, to keep it ultimately inconclusive, complicated without being useful. o
Yes, the poor old Democrats and the awful old Feds have certainly staked a claim to this unattractive intellectual turf. And yes, it is also true that both the Republicans in their customary assaults on "the bureaucracy" and the populace in its increasing assaults on Washington, have given notice that they demand something better, or at least something different. But be careful. For surely in the corporations and the businesses and the trade unions of America the same impulses are at work for all to see. Is it really easier, when you get right down to it, to deal with your downtown bank or your local public utility than it is to deal with the Social Security office?
There is something else. Add to the banks and the businesses the whole U.S. military establishment if you are looking for spectacular examples of the little-mud-hut-building bureaucratic instinct in action. The report on the Iranian rescue mission -- its terrible details, not just its relatively neutral conclusions and recommendations -- would repay the president-elect's attention in this regard; it is all there.
So I think that in some sense, important as they are, the Cabinet appointees of the new president and the policy inclinations and personal strengths they represent are still secondary to the big question. They will not be nearly so crucial as the new administration's understanding and good faith in confronting the inertial, obfuscating bureaucratic force, both within government and among those private interests and institutions with which government must deal constructively: industries, social-service providers, local governments and so on.
I say "good faith" because there remains a stubborn streak of suspicion around that much of the conservative Republican rhetoric denouncing the handiwork of the Washington bureaucracy is inspired by nothing more than self-serving desires to get the regulators out of places where they really need to be or to make an extra buck at the expense of someone who really needs to be protected.
Actually this kind of privateering, while it would doubtless get its practitioners thrown out of office in good time, would be easier to bring off than a true and general assault on the main enemy. Everyone over the age of 4 in Washington knows that policymaking at the top, all those awesomely burdened choices people talk about, is, relatively speaking, the glamorous fun part. The ordeal, the setting for failure, is the effort to make any of it happen.
Presidents get lost in the complications, in the webs, in that whole huge, gluey obstacle to sense and clarity and forthright action that the public and private bureaucracies put in their way. It was frequently joked during the campaign that Reagan was given to simplicities. We will see whether he is given to wrongheaded ones. There are others -- I insist on it -- that are right and are what has been missing in the sophistry that often passes for political thought in this town. It seems as though our government increasingly understands everything in its most tiresome detail about the world we live in except what is obvious, simple and urgent.
If this "simplicity" people talked about is the positive, missing and much-needed kind, and if Reagan not only possesses it but also engages in it the encounter with the vast complex of wheel-spinners and complicators that is willing for him, then you will have a fight worth watching.