Washington Isn't As Simple As The Tea Party Believes
Published in Gulf News, 17 November 2010
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
Two weeks ago in this space I offered a prediction: following this month's American midterm elections Republicans and Democrats would maintain the pretence of high-minded statesmanship for "about a week" before returning to the political trench warfare that has become standard operating procedure for both parties.
As it turned out, I was far too optimistic. In fact, it took about two days for both sides to declare that the take-away from Election Day was, in effect, that they should keep doing pretty much what they've done for the last few years.
The GOP sees its gains as validation of their "we're-against-everything-Barack-Obama-supports" strategy. The Democrats firmly believe that they lost big because they made the mistake of assuming voters would recognise Obama's accomplishments without the administration having to explain and defend them.
Obama himself, ever the optimist, used his post-election news conference to say that he received the message voters were trying to send and wants to work with the Republicans — but plans no particular change in his approach to governing.
GOP leaders, for their part, have taken to the airwaves to pledge "no compromise" with Obama.
We are, in other words, back pretty much where we started.
Complicating this partisan mixture will be an unusually large freshman class of newly elected representatives and senators. Almost all of these newcomers are Republicans, and many of them arrive in Washington with the backing of the loose coalition of right-wing groups collectively known as the Tea Party.
The weeks since Election Day have been filled with the sight of Tea Party Republicans promising to head to Washington and change the way business is done there. This has the potential to become a major headache for the established Republican leadership since their campaign promise was essentially to put things back the way they were under president George W. Bush.
The impending clash of agendas promises to be one of the better political shows of the next few months.
For all of the fireworks that may be expected from Tea Partiers among the GOP freshmen, however, the smart money is on the established leadership. More likely than not, the political landscape a year from now will probably look much like it does today.
This is because Washington has a long history of first stifling, then absorbing, insurgencies like the Tea Party. As the New York Times noted recently, the former senate majority leader, Trent Lott, recently said that the first task for Congress' Republican leadership is to "co-opt" the newly elected Tea Partiers. This is likely to be easier than most voters — the Tea Partiers included — think.
Among the old guard's most potent weapons: seniority, and an understanding of how Washington really works.
Steep learning curve
The learning curve for new members of Congress is always steep. Winning a seat in the US Congress now often involves 12-18 months of full-time campaigning and victory immediately makes the congressman-to-be a major figure in his or her home district.
Energised by victory, freshman representatives arrive in Washington vowing to shake up the city and change the way business is done, only to discover that they have almost no ability to change anything.
New members quickly learn that nothing happens in Congress except at the sufferance of party leaders. This puts a premium on party loyalty (because party leaders will only do favours for legislative foot soldiers who do as they are told). You can rage about the unfairness of this all you like, but the system has been refined over two centuries and it is not going to change.
The Tea Partiers may draw consolation from the realisation that they are only the latest Washington newbies to run up against this cold, hard reality. Indeed, many of the party leaders and committee chairs who will soon become the bane of their existence once felt exactly the same way — 15, 20 or 30 years ago when they were new in town. Having been forced to wait their turn, however, no member of the old guard is likely to feel much sympathy for the new boys and girls.
Add to this the fact — ignored by most candidates — that legislating is a complex and often rather dull task, and the grim reality that most newly elected members of Congress will be raising money for their 2012 re-election campaigns before they are even sworn in, and the actual work of being a member of Congress can suddenly seem a lot less prestigious, and a lot more of a grind, than it looked like from the comparatively simple world of the campaign trail.
Welcome to Washington, class of 2010. Serving in Congress is an honour, and a challenge. You'll get more done, however, if you start by abandoning the idea that you can change everything all at once.
Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator who has covered the Middle East for ABC News, CNN and Fox since the 1980s. He has also taught Middle East Studies and Islamic History at Emerson College and the University of Vermont.