One of the sorriest aspects of Washington's political culture is that bold attempts to solve national problems are so often treated as naive and politically unsophisticated.
What's especially odd is that journalists, who one might expect to take a healthy interest in reform, often lead the chorus of criticism of anyone who tries to upset the apple cart. In so doing, they implicitly side with the interest groups and old-line politicians whose prerogatives are being challenged by the would-be reformers.
The latest example of Washington's aversion to change was last month's retreat by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in his efforts to reform the armed services. Rumsfeld had hoped to drag the Pentagon into the 21st century by changing the outmoded ways the armed services buy weapons and deploy troops. He threatened to close military bases and reduce the number of aircraft carriers and bombers -- not to mention reducing the billets for senior officers. Rumsfeld's reform efforts produced the inevitable howls of protest from generals, admirals and members of Congress who benefit from the current system. They mobilized a campaign of press leaks, political pressure and petty harassment -- until a chastened Rumsfeld finally had to pull back.
You might have thought Rumsfeld's challenge to the Pentagon lobby would have won him plaudits from the press. After all, the generals and lawmakers resisting reform were arguably putting their own parochial interests ahead of the nation's military security.
Instead, Rumsfeld was drubbed by many commentators for being so foolish and inept in challenging the status quo. Maureen Dowd wrote a funny column in The New York Times about "Rip Van Rummy" -- a man so out of touch that he didn't understand how much Washington had changed in the 25 years since he first exercised power: "The military is politicized and no longer subservient," she wrote. "The press is no longer quiescent. Congress is no longer run by a few smart old Southern guys. Secrets no longer exist."
Rumsfeld had committed the ultimate Washington sin, in other words. He had shown himself not to be "savvy." He had been naive enough to challenge entrenched interests.
A similar cynical response greeted President Clinton's efforts to deal with the health care mess back in 1993. Like Rumsfeld, Clinton made lots of mistakes. He was arrogant, secretive, insensitive. But that wasn't what led to the demise of the Clinton health plan. It was the fact that it challenged powerful, entrenched interests, which organized a devastating pressure campaign that crushed the reform effort before it ever got off the ground. The United States is still struggling to deal with the basic health care problems that Clinton identified.
Remember those "Harry and Louise" ads that helped kill health care reform? The military brass waged a similar stealth campaign against Rumsfeld, implying that he was out of touch with reality in his efforts to cut back popular programs.
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