Regardless of which major party sits astride Capitol Hill, Washington is a conservative city. Not in ideological terms, mind you. The District of Columbia and most of its inner-ring suburbs are stolidly liberal and Democratic, and have remained so even as “liberal” has come to mean something shifty, pusillanimous, and otherwise suspect in mainstream political discourse.
No, Washington is conservative in the cultural sense. Hidebound. Set in its ways. Unimaginative. Dull. The city — at least the narrow, affluent, Ivied and overwhelmingly Caucasian minority that most Americans see on cable-TV-talking-head shows — traffics in hoary clichés, horse-race banter, and empty gossip, while studiously trussing itself up as wise and generous in its civic-mindedness. Pay close attention next time your remote maroons you before some MSNBC chat-fest. Most panelists will deliver breathless observations of the political landscape with a faux-knowing preface: “I was talking to a [insert major party name here] operative the other day, and he says . . .” Such half-leering asides are intended to create the illusion that you, the viewer, are being let in on something big. Of course, it’s all warmed-over guess work — punditry once-removed. There’s a reason why, say, Washington Post national political correspondent David Broder is called “the dean of political reporters.” When was the last time you heard a dean say anything memorable, much less candid?
Down for the count
If you attended any recent gathering of conservative political operatives — and for reasons both personal and professional, I attended way more than my share — you saw the same glassy-eyed mien among the party faithful, the look of a tired fighter in the 11th round, well on the way to being punch drunk. They drank a little heavier, they flirted more broadly, they barked out jokes a little louder, because they already had the sense that they were playing to a rapidly thinning house.
All the while, of course, they stayed on message — that’s just what your Bush-era Republican does, in exactly the same way that compass needles point true north. But you could almost hear the gears grinding in the background: “What about that PR job? Does AEI need a press flak? What Democratic-friendly lobbying shop needs a GOP associate?” You found yourself trading party banter with people mentally revising their résumés and reviewing their Rolodexes as you spoke.
For all the horse-race minutiae the city feeds on, the prospect of actual political change sent the keepers of official Washington discourse into conniptions. One senior GOP operative — see? I can do it too! — was recently heard, in a cable off-camera prep room, dourly sizing up his party’s prospects while a Republican eminence grise was gamely talking up the election on camera next door. “I get candidates asking, ‘Can I run on a call for Rumsfeld’s resignation?’ ” he shouted. “I tell them, ‘Run away from everybody! Have you HEARD OF THE TITANIC? SAVE YOURSELVES!’ ”