Former Bush '43 Speechwriter Michael Gerson, now tenured at the Washington Post, rarely favors readers with cogent arguments. Today is somewhat of an exception, as he at least tries to do the right kind of thing. In particular, he tries to field an objecion to his hackish point about hating and loving "Washington."
The argument goes something like this. Lately a lot of Obama types have been complaining about "Washington." I put that in quotes because of course it's not really Washington the city or anything like that. It's actually meant by those people to be the dirty business of making laws with a bunch of self-interested parties. Everyone complains about that. I remember a young George W. Bush promising to "change the tone" in Washington. He didn't. Nor did he ever intend to I'm sure.
So it's really vacuous, I think, to even bother to point this out about anyone. That doesn't stop Gerson.
Not, presumably, for the actual place of schools and neighborhoods and monuments but for the conceptual Washington, the symbolic city. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, with typical delicacy, calls it "[expletive]-nutsville," a judgment that earthier Tea Party activists might share. Senior adviser David Axelrod has announced his spring departure. "I think he's not having fun," says a White House colleague. A recent profile claims that Axelrod's idealism was disappointed by "a ferociously stubborn, possibly irredeemable system." And Barack Obama himself constantly complains about the "politicking" and obstructionism of the capital city, where they "talk about me like a dog." Much of the White House senior staff seems to long for a purer, simpler, more wholesome kind of politics . . . in Chicago.
The tension here is obvious. Even while depicting Washington as a flawed, fractured, hopeless mess, the Obama administration has sought to increase the influence of Washington over America's economy and health-care system. In the Obama era, Washington helps run auto companies, oversees some corporate salaries, imposes an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, and seeks to rationalize the health-care system with a profusion of new boards, offices, agencies and commissions — estimates vary from 47 to 159 new bureaucratic entities.
In case however you're ready to say, "I think 'Washington' is used in two distinct senses here," Gerson is right on it:
Progressives would object that it is political Washington — the paralyzed structure of legislators and special interests — that is broken, not bureaucratic Washington, which needs more authority. But it is not easy to argue that citizens aggregated in a legislature are self-interested, corrupt and incompetent while citizens aggregated in a government agency are public-spirited, wise and effective. And it is not much of a communications strategy to feed disdain for politics while proposing an expanded role for government.
It's very refreshing to see the phrase "x would object" in this context. A round of applause for him. It seems like an honest attempt to engage with his interlocutor. However, I think the progressive (or the conservative who could be caught in the same alleged rhetorical trap) would object to "Washington" being used in the second sense at all.
And it smacks of too much cleverness, I think, to suggest that one cannot avail onself of the usual tropes ("Washington sucks," for example, by which I mean, "my opponents in Washington"), without being guilty of some kind of logical or rhetorical inconsistency. And besides, I think Obama and his team can rightly complain about some of the process ("death panels" anyone?).
Having said that, Gerson does have a point. No one likes a whiner–even when she or he has every right. Well, let me rephrase. No one likes a whiner, when they're a Democrat.