Washington is bad at scheming
As far as I can tell, "The Adjustment Bureau" is about a group of superplanners who've mapped out every right turn, McDonald's combo meal and life decision we'll face. I say "as far as I can tell" because I won't see it. I can't bear it. I can suspend my disbelief for men who unsheathe adamantium claws through their knuckles and aliens who spit acid and Tina Fey as a frumpy mess with no sex appeal (well, I have trouble with that last one). But I can't believe in guys in suits with the ability to plan things.
That's the main thing I've learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly carrying out complicated plans. Partisans are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities. And there's so much press interest in Svengali political consultants like Karl Rove or David Plouffe, all of whom get built up in the press as infallible tacticians, that the place just looks a lot more sophisticated than it really is.
But I tend to be shocked at how sophisticated it isn't. Communication between various political actors -- a crucial ingredient in any serious plan -- is surprisingly informal and inadequate. Members of Congress and their staffs don't really have access to secret, efficient networks of information. Instead, they read Roll Call and the Hill and The Washington Post and keep their televisions tuned to cable news, turning up the volume when a colleague involved in a bill they're interested in appears on the screen. Then everyone sits around and speculates about what they just heard. Most every political reporter can back me up when I say that it's extremely common for key players on both sides of the aisle to ask you what you're hearing or how you'd rate the chances of their bill -- and this typically happens when you're sitting down to ask them the very same questions. It's terribly disappointing and, I'm convinced, 100 percent genuine.
There's also a lot less long-term planning than you might think. In general, politicians are overworked and understaffed. They're traveling constantly, buried under too many meetings and constituent requests, and working desperately to stay one step ahead of whatever they're getting yelled at about that week. That isn't to say they don't take on long-term projects, but in general, the way they take them on is one day at a time. The most common lamentation you'll hear from congressional staffers when a legislative fight starts going badly is "didn't anyone think of this beforehand?" In general, the answer is yes, someone saw the fight over the excise tax or the expiration of the Bush tax cuts coming. They just didn't have enough time, or couldn't get their boss and the relevant principals and staff members from other offices to put aside the time, to plan for it.
There is, of course, a real upside to presenting yourself as a fearsome tactician who should never be crossed, and plenty of political actors go to great lengths to do exactly that. But however well or poorly the health-care reform effort turned out, the one thing that people on both sides agree about is that it didn't go according to anyone's plan. Almost nothing does, and that's because there usually isn't much of a plan, or because the plan that did exist was quickly overtaken by events and no one had the time to really update it.
When a campaign -- either electoral or legislative -- fails, we hear all about this: Staffers anonymously complain that there was no plan, that the internal communication had broken down, that Rahm Emanuel yells too much (or, in more recent tellings, too little). Usually, a lot of that stuff is true. More misleading are the contrasting stories about the campaigns that succeed. Those stories tend to feature the brilliant plans, effective communication strategies and towering cunning of the people involved. It's not that there's no truth to any of it, but it's usually a lot truer in retrospect than it was at the time. Events tend to be too fluid and fast to support very detailed planning. Whenever I read those stories, I think of George Foreman's contention that the rope-a-dope was never a strategy at all, that Muhammad Ali had fired an arrow into a barn and then walked over afterward and painted a bull's-eye around it. More often than not, that's a pretty good description of how politics works: People try to aim in the right direction, shoot straight and hit the barn. That's about the best they can do under the circumstances, but it's not the best they can do if they succeed and then get to tell the tale of their triumph.
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