Friday, April 06, 2007

The Beltway Machine

In an article last week on Salon, Glen Greenwald criticizes the media reaction to Barack Obama's partially-formed health care policy. As Greenwald says, the Democratic primaries are a year away, the general election a year and a half. There's no reason a candidate should be expected to have formed a health care policy yet. Worst of all, if a candidate is to aspire to the media's idea of "substance," s/he could easily forget that many people in the country more than anything yearn for a candidate who is not afraid to address our systemic and cultural problems and that it is those problems that have so driven our country down this bumpy treacherous path we find ourselves on today. Even Obama, who is able to take a step back from the conventional candidate playbook to articulate a broader message about the political culture has only scratched the surface of the systemic and cultural "corrosion," as Greenwald calls it. Obama's frequent rhetoric about D.C.'s noxious partisanship touches on a symptom of a culture of crassness, of 24-hour cable, of rapid response opposition research, and, let's face it, of the Republican effort over the last 25 years or so to intensely politicize governance, but it does not get to the heart of the issue.

Greenwald goes on to identify the true culprit behind a political dialogue that has often devolved in pettiness: the Washington or Beltway machine, which in fact some Democrats are as much a part of as some Republicans. At a certain point, job security, comfort, and status quo breed complicity in a broken system, one that holds public relations in higher regard than public service, and this is what I believe we are seeing in many of these Beltway veterans. As Greenwald puts it about Hillary Clinton, who is the most blatant Beltway Democrat running for president:

The people who are attached to the Clinton campaign and who will be swept back into power with her -- the Terry McAuliffes and Mike McCurrys and Howard Wolfsons and Chris Lehanes and James Carvilles -- are pure embodiments of the whole corrupt and principle-less and worthless edifice. They're the people who, both when they were in power and throughout the Bush presidency, sleazily fed at the trough and they believe in nothing. Cheap and deceitful cynicism is the nourishment which sustains them and, most of all, they love the Beltway power system and can't wait to resume their place in it -- fully preserved and unchanged.

Though I think the criticism heaped on Clinton regarding her seeming insincerity has been unfair in that it lends the impression that her rudderless pandering makes her unique, she is still the worst option among the Democrats because she is so heavily relying upon a machine that is no longer equipped--if it ever was--to solving the dire problems our country faces. Yet, this group, consisting of many of the people fluidly move between government and the private sector, taking top lobbying jobs after stints in public service, seek mainly to devise myths about "electability" ultimately exacting of their candidate adherence to the questionable wisdom of not sounding threatening or shrill.

In this vain, the New Yorker recently featured an excellent piece by David Owen about former Democratic party operatives who are working to manage the public image of Wal-Mart. As employees of one of the nation's top public relations firm, Edelman, these veterans of public service and political campaigns are now making it their agenda to promote the virtues of Wal-Mart. It's not surprising that the people profiled in this article, such as Greg St. Claire, a former Republican congressional staffer, and Fred Baldassaro, a former aide for the Democratic National Committee, are ideal employees to a public relations firm, especially on a project that has so many implications for policy making. Their connections and familiarity with the PR apparatus in D.C. are valuable to an ambitious PR operation like that of Wal-Mart.

The nonchalance of this partnership should not obscure its insidiousness, though. The Edelman campaign has no regard for grassroots efforts. Indeed, most despicable about the Walmart campaign is its reliance on "Astoturf" techniques, such as the sham organization, Working Families for Wal-Mart, actually a project of St. Claire's, the former Republican staffer. Rather than trying to actually shape Wal-Mart into the benevolent organization that Edelman claims it to be, they are merely spinning Wal-Mart's virtues as an employer. Take the case of Working Families for Wal-Mart:

Working Families for Wal-Mart, which paid for [St. Claire's] sister, Laura St. Claire, to travel across America in a recreational vehicle and keep a blog about visits with Wal-Mart employees. Everyone she talked to was delighted with Wal-Mart. At about the time that the trip came to an end, Business Week revealed that Wal-Mart had financed the journey.

It is amazing to me--and yet so emblematic of corporate values today--that Wal-Mart would rather shell out for an orchestrated PR campaign than use that money to actually improve the notoriously unpleasant working conditions and to raise the low wages of their employees, but such is the PR culture of today. The Beltway machine about which Greenwald laments--whether Democratic or Republican--is perfectly happy with the spin-to-win tactics of the executives the serve, whether these execs be private CEOS or public officials. If the last eight years has taught us anything, though, it is that accountability must be sought and that Herculean efforts to change the spin cycle rather than address serious problems have been to the detriment of effective government.

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