"The civil service will interpret a Donald Trump presidency as damage and route around it."
That was the recent consensus at one of those infamous Washington dinner parties that so repulse Trump fans. (What can I say? We in Washington also have to eat. And while we do, we talk about politics.)
The line, of course, was a play on a gleeful old hacker credo: "The Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." But it was offered in earnest, and on reflection, I think it's correct.
The primal appeal of a Trump candidacy is that he doesn't care about what Those People think -- you know, the time-servers and chair- warmers, the establishment snobs and the RINO sellouts. Other folks may go to Washington and get seduced into the corrupt bargain by which virtue and resolve are exchanged for money and power, but not Donald Trump. He'll say or do anything to Make America Great Again.
And these people have a little seed of a point in there. Conservatives do go to Washington with a certain fire in their bellies, and settle down into multi-decade careers with something more like a night light. Not one of those really powerful night lights, either, the kind you use to light the way to emergency exits. This is more like a five-watt bulb, well- shielded. Grand promises are scaled back to modest tax credits and budgets that grow government spending at 0.8 percent a year, instead of the 1.6 percent that Democrats demand.
What these critics miss is that we insiders, we establishment lackeys, have not given in to the siren song of intimate policy briefings and Georgetown cocktail parties. We have surrendered to something even more formidable: reality.
What you realize when you get to Washington is that the kind of wholesale change the revolutionaries imagine is not possible. No, please don't inundate me with quotes from Admiral Ingram and John F. Kennedy. People do dream of a better Washington, and sometimes fight for it, and occasionally win significant victories.
But they do so within very tight constraints. Even Roosevelt had his expansive visions substantially curtailed by the courts, and by resistance from ordinary Americans who simply refused to go along; even Reagan ultimately made little progress at cutting down the overall size and scope of government, and at best modestly curtailed its expense.
This is the reality: Most of what you want to do to Washington won't get done -- and neither will much of what you want to get done outside of it, if you insist on taking Washington on.
There are several reasons for this. The first, most glaring problem is that people complaining about Washington are quite often demanding the impossible:
1. They want Washington to grow the economy or the job market a lot, which no one in Washington actually knows how to do.
2. They want Washington to collect less in taxes, without cutting any significant programs or borrowing money. (Or they want more programs, with taxes to stay the same on everyone except "the rich," conveniently defined as anyone who makes 20 percent more than the person issuing the demands.)
3. They want Washington to make all the other countries in the world behave themselves, without getting any Americans killed in the process.
4. They want Washington to ignore most of the rest of the country and just concentrate on their problems, and the problems of people they like.
Washingtonians, unlike the people making the demands, actually have to analyze the feasibility of these various sorts of requests. When they do, they quickly see that they are impossible, and set about finding innovative ways to ignore them. The insiders who need to get elected nonetheless say, "Yup, I'll get right on that," and then ignore them.
This makes people think that Washingtonians don't care about them. This is false. Washingtonians do care. It's just that they seem to have misplaced their magic wand.
The second problem has to do with Item No. 4: Everything you do in Washington is a compromise. There are a lot of people in the country, and most of them don't care about what you want. To get money spent or unspent, taxes raised or lowered, you have to give those people something they do want. The result is an ugly mess with little resemblance to the original plan.
Don't like it? Welcome to representative democracy. If you have a plan to deal with this problem that doesn't involve fantasizing about the sudden (but nonviolent) disappearance of more than half your fellow citizens, we're all ears. Otherwise, this is what we're stuck with.
The third problem is bureaucratic proceduralism. Yes, yes, I know: Everyone hates bureaucrats. But everyone loves Social Security checks. And federal funding for their local school. And … and … I'm not going to bore you with the list. Anything that gets done by Washington must be done by the civil service. These folks are lifers. You can't fire them. Because of the abovementioned legislative compromises required, you also can't push a bill through that will let you fire them.
And they -- not the president, and not the cabinet secretaries -- are the folks who do most of what government does. The president can wave his hands like Jean-Luc Picard and say, "Make it so." But if they don't wanna, they ain't gonna.
This maddens almost everyone, including me. But that is the reality. And it means that the effects of President Donald Trump would be, in most areas, much less dramatic than his followers expect. He could issue some executive orders. I probably wouldn't like them. But in most departments, the government would continue to go on operating very much as usual.
The same goes for the executives below the chief. If we had a truly incompetent secretary of health and human services, or if the chair were empty, most of what HHS does would keep getting done, and the functions that faltered wouldn't pose an existential threat to the health and safety of the United States. This should comfort those of us who worry that Donald Trump doesn't seem to have amassed, y'know, any advisers.
This will be dismaying news to Trump's supporters, of course, who imagine wholesale war where the losers who are stealing all of America's greatness get ruthlessly destroyed. Sorry to say it, but if you hate the government now, you'll hate it just as much under Trump. It will be doing all the same things.
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• 02/09/15: Reading the tea leaves for 2016 gets you nowhere
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