WASHINGTON—I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: People in Washington really should get out more.
By “Washington,” I mean not just the city but the state of mind, and by “get out,” I mean spend time surrounded not just by a different geography but by a different demography as well. If we did, the high-blown debates we have here—and by “we,” I mean politicians, lobbyists, advocates, bureaucrats, scholars, journalists and all the rest trapped in the Washington echo chamber—might bear more relation to what people who live outside our bubble think of as reality.
Case in point: When former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated last week, Washington tied itself in knots trying to figure out which presidential candidates on the Democratic and Republican sides would benefit in the Iowa caucuses. This was the kind of shocking event that could prove pivotal, said the conventional wisdom in Washington—with pro forma apologies, of course, for implying that Bhutto’s death would actually be “good,” in terms of political advantage, for one campaign or another.
But when I was in Iowa last weekend, I failed to find Iowans for whom the tragic events in Rawalpindi were a political issue. It’s not that Iowans don’t recognize why instability in Pakistan is important or why it might impact their lives. It’s just that they had put the shocking murder in what they considered its proper context.
Another example: In Washington, it is conventionally wise to think of government gridlock as basically a good thing, even something of which most Americans approve. To have a president from one party and a Congress controlled—or at least reined in—by the other, we tell ourselves, prevents too-abrupt shifts in policy. Gridlock is supposed to force bipartisan consensus, which is held as a kind of Holy Grail, the only way to tackle the nation’s biggest problems.
But tell that to Iowans—or residents of most states, for that matter—who either don’t have health insurance or can’t get the insurance companies to pay their medical bills. Tell it to Arizonans, who have pressed their state government to implement its own immigration policy—shouldering what is clearly a federal responsibility—because Washington can’t get its act together. Tell it to military families, some in favor of the war in Iraq and some against, whose lives have been turned upside down by extended deployments with no end in sight.
There aren’t many people in Washington (the state of mind) who spend sleepless nights worrying about sons, daughters or other loved ones serving in Iraq. Even though there are suburbs within 20 miles of the Capitol where illegal immigration is a passionate, hot-button issue, most in Washington think of the problem in academic terms. And just about everyone in state-of-mind Washington has top-notch health insurance; members of Congress enjoy a comprehensive plan that one might be tempted to call “socialized medicine,” since a large portion of the costs are borne by taxpayers.
We in Washington are increasingly isolated from the people in whose interest we claim to labor. The economic gap between us and most of the country is widening to a chasm. In most American cities, a $600,000 house in a leafy neighborhood would be considered an extravagance reserved for the wealthy. Here, we’d call it an incredible bargain.
The word “change” has had great resonance in the Iowa campaign. In part, the yearning for change arises because George W. Bush has led the nation down so many dead-end paths. But from the conversations I had with Iowans, it seemed clear to me that change is also shorthand for the disconnect between the Washington state of mind and the widespread expectation, hardly unreasonable, that this city ought to actually get something done every once in a while.
Whether it gets done after a bare-knuckles brawl or a chorus of “Kumbaya” really doesn’t matter.
In Iowa, it felt weird to be part of an alien invasion of know-it-alls from Washington who descended to examine the locals as if they were specimens in a laboratory. But we should do it more often, even when there isn’t a presidential campaign going on—as long as we stop listening exclusively to one another, and hear other voices as well.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group