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The Stench of the Potomac


There have been a few mild critiques of This Town from young liberal bloggers whose careers, causes, and far wonkier Washington get as little attention in the book as Lanny Davis. Matthew Yglesias asserted that “the now dominant political paradigm is one in which ideology and partisanship carry more weight” than the old Washington of backroom deals. In an online discussion with Leibovich on the Post’s website, Ezra Klein noted that the book didn’t include congressional staffers who “think they’re making the world a better place,” or “people like Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who really is listened to inside the political system, and really does get up each day thinking about how to help poorer Americans.” To Klein, the book was more “about the people who wield power in Washington’s social world rather than in its political world.”

It is self-evident that ideology and partisanship have carried a ton of weight in the Obama years, as exemplified by the obstructionist Republican radicals in the House. And it’s also true that there are people who care about making the world a better place throughout Washington. But the country’s actual poor—some of them given strong voice by Packer in The Unwinding—might question just how much power these altruists have in a Washington when the corporate fix is in. Those deals are still made in back rooms—and front rooms. That’s what Leibovich atomizes, sometimes indirectly and without always spelling out how the dots connect. Another liberal blogger, Alex Pareene of Salon, gets it right, I think, when in his approving appraisal of This Town he writes that, while hyperpartisanship is one reason everyone hates Washington, there’s a larger and more enduring source of that hatred: the capital’s “permanent, unshakable elite overclass, many of whom are involved in the process by which corporations and the rentier rich tighten their control over the levers of power and use that control to extract as much wealth from the nation’s laborers and taxpayers and natural resources as possible.”

What can change it? Certainly not those supposed anti-Washington reformers in the GOP. The corrupt Bush-era Über–GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff may have done prison time, and Tom DeLay, the mastermind of his party’s K Street Project, may have ended up as a freak show on Dancing With the Stars, but their ethos and many of their protégés (e.g., Ralph Reed) survive them. Many of the populist tea-party revolutionaries elected in 2010 immediately hit the corporate fund-raising circuit and recruited lobbyists for their new congressional offices. The tea-party-backed freshman senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, hired an AT&T and Citigroup lobbyist as his chief of staff, yet another confirmation that, for all the polarization afflicting Washington in the Obama years, bipartisan cooperation can still be purchased for a big check.

Among Democrats, the list of national politicians fiercely opposed to the existing order begins and ends with Elizabeth Warren. Even now Obama is toying with appointing Larry Summers as Fed chair, despite his past in Rubinomics during the Clinton era and his present as a paid consultant to Citigroup. The two most likely Democratic prospects to succeed Obama in the White House, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, both came of political age in the revolving-door Washington of This Town; many of the most successful fixers in the book are one degree of separation from one or both of them. Sometimes these alumni are one degree of separation from ethical conflict, too. The ubiquitous Clinton fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe, as inescapable as canapés in Leibovich’s narrative, is currently running for governor of Virginia even as a Department of Homeland Security investigation into a disputed visa has ensnared a company with ties to both him and Hillary Clinton’s brother, Anthony Rodham. Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin, best known now for her marital martyrdom, was discovered by Politico in May to have taken on other clients, including Teneo, a business and banking “global advisory firm” co-founded by the Bill Clinton majordomo Doug Band, in her final months in the taxpayers’ employ as a part-time consultant at the State Department.

This crowd is as intractable as it is incorrigible. There are no term limits, because Washington amnesia perennially wipes the slate clean. No one seems to remember anymore the furor kicked off by a 1998 Post “Style”-section piece in which Beltway grandees like David Broder and Cokie Roberts vented to Sally Quinn about how the impeached president had trashed their pristine city. “Regardless of whether his fortunes improve,” Quinn concluded, “Bill Clinton has essentially lost the Washington Establishment for good.” Well, that was then, and this is now. As This Town makes clear, these days Clinton alumni are the Washington Establishment, whether in the Obama administration or on K Street, and they can hardly wait for the greater dividends that will accrue should the former First Couple be restored to the White House in 2016. If that happens, Leibovich will not have to write a sequel, because it is already writing itself.


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