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The Myopia of Anti-Washingtonitis

Noam Scheiber’s profile of David Axelrod is a classic example of Washington personality journalism: It’s full of intimate details and smoothly written but accepts, with little comment, its subject’s opinion about what ails the administration Axelrod, the erstwhile liberal reporter from Chicago, helped put in office. The central flaw in the piece is the unexamined notion—which, it seems, Scheiber and Axelrod share—that the problem is “Washington itself… a ferociously stubborn, possibly irredeemable system.”

The same charge is routinely voiced by liberals, conservatives, and nearly everyone in between: If we could transform “how Washington works,” then our country would once again accomplish great things. But, like all tales about a bygone political golden age, this notion ignores historical reality. Since the Gilded Age, when both a large and permanent federal bureaucracy and massive national corporations emerged, there has been a Washington “system.” Corporate lobbyists, lavish donations, arcane and undemocratic Senate rules, dishonest campaigns bankrolled by millionaires—all were familiar to perceptive commentators from Henry Adams and Lincoln Steffens to Walter Lippmann and I.F. Stone. As long as the United States is a capitalist nation with a government ruled more by self-interest than great ideals, the system will endure.

Successful presidents like William McKinley and Lyndon Johnson soberly analyzed how “Washington” operated and made it work in their favor. Transformative presidents like FDR and Reagan eloquently bashed entrenched interests in the name of “the people,” while they and their advisers played those interests against one another for maximum legislative and electoral gain. Despite Roosevelt’s assault on “economic royalists” and Reagan’s fondness for Tom Paine’s phrase about “beginning the world anew,” neither man was naïve enough to think he could uproot the system. FDR needed some of the most noxious Southern Democrats who ran key committees to push through the signature bills of his New Deal, while Reagan cut a deal with Tip O’Neill to drop his proposal to freeze a cost-of-living raise for Social Security recipients if the speaker would back an increase in the military budget in the House.

As Scheiber points out, Axelrod comes from a distinguished tradition of left-liberal urban politics. His mother had worked at PM—a Popular Front daily in New York City that featured both I.F. Stone’s reporting and Dr. Seuss’s anti-racist cartoons. As a reporter in Chicago, Axelrod was a close ally of the idealistic “independents” who fought the Democratic machine built by Richard Daley, Sr. He then left journalism to work for the Senate campaign of Paul Simon, whose intellectual style and visionary rhetoric contrasted sharply with the Daley way. It’s no surprise that Axelrod would later be attracted to Obama, another deeply thoughtful, anti-partisan politician, who had the personal grace and charisma Simon lacked.

Without big ideals, politics is little more than a contest to keep or grab power. But an idealist like Axelrod who gets discouraged after his man has been in office less than two years during the most severe economic slump since the 1930s is one who has failed to grasp the exigencies of holding and using that power. Four decades after LBJ departed for his Texas ranch, liberal Democrats have to relearn that they need to master Washington, not “transform” it. When they do that, they will again be able to change America for good.