By Betsy Rothstein - 03/16/05 12:00 AM EST
It’s a strange love-hate relationship. Politicians love to be in Washington, but they can’t wait to race home to their constituents and tell them how wildly out of touch it is.
They gaze up at the majestic dome in the morning light and marvel about how in awe they are of the spectacular piece of architecture and the freedom it symbolizes. Many lawmakers claim that if you aren’t in some sort of giddy awe when you look at it, there’s something terribly wrong. Every two or six years, depending on whether they serve in the House or Senate, they do everything in their political and financial power to get reelected.
So why all the trashing?
The simple answer: It plays well at home. Another: It makes lawmakers seem detached from the often poisonously partisan atmosphere of Congress.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been serving in the Senate for the past 18 years, admits that he has disparaged Washington on more than one occasion. He explains that Washington ridicule exists because things come out of Washington that constituents don’t like. “So it’s very easy to blame Washington,” he says.
One of McCain’s favorite jokes that he shares with voters: “It’s hard doing the Lord’s work in the city of Satan.” Asked if Washington should bear the brunt of the blame, he laughs and says, “It’s convenient.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) also makes it a habit to badmouth Washington. “We come up here and posture like we’re going to provide all the answers,” he says. “I think Washington is out of touch. We act like the republic is going to fail if we have a flat budget one year. The average American must think we’re idiots.”
He admits, “I make fun of it. I guess I criticize it.” When he goes back home to Alabama, he says, he frequently says things like “It’s great to be back in the real world.”
Does Washington really deserve the bad rap? “Basically, yeah,” Sessions says, explaining that he takes after the late President Reagan, who in his seventh year in office “talked about the government like he wasn’t even a part of it. He was running against the government.”
Running against Washington — it’s a phrase heard often in reelection and consulting circles.
“It works,” says Mark Rozell, a professor of political science at George Mason University in Northern Virginia. “It’s an age-old practice in American culture and politics to bash Washington D.C. as a place of corruption and self-serving political activity. Both parties are equal partners in this process.”
So isn’t all the insider bashing two-faced?
“There is a certain hypocrisy that many political leaders play the inside game,” Rozell says. “They obviously have no problem with the way things are done in Washington, but they go back to their districts and say Washington is a corrupt place, but I’m no different. Each of these fellows says, ‘I’m uniquely different.’”
Part of the problem is political. “Leaders reinforce the negative stereotypes of political Washington,” he says. “It’s politically easier for politicians to play to the negative stereotypes than educate the public on how the system really works.”
Many consultants don’t believe the practice will ever cease to exist. “Not in my lifetime,” Rozell says. “The first rule for politicians is to get reelected, and everything centers around that desire.”
When Sen. Conrad Burns (R), who broke a term-limits pledge twice to stay in Washington and now faces a potentially tough reelection race in 2006, goes home to Montana, he likes to crack that Washington is “three miles of logic-free space.”
And in the recent presidential race, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean continuously denounced the “Washington establishment” in favor of his outside-the-Beltway mentality, while simultaneously securing the political backing of Washington insiders. Dean now chairs the Democratic National Committee, which, on last check, is located inside the Beltway.
President Bush also has a penchant for dissing Washington, so much so that it began to grate on D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’s nerves. In Bush’s race against Vice President Gore in 2000, Bush described himself a Washington outsider while accusing Gore of being the ultimate Washington insider.
At the time, Williams believed all the criticism of Washington hurt the city itself, even though Bush was, of course, referring to the federal government. “You rail on Washington, you’re railing on a city,” the mayor told The Washington Post.
In 2001, Bush was visiting Atlanta, where he told a group of voters, “Our great strength is not in the halls of government but in the homes of America. When they say my tax relief will mean somebody won’t get their Social Security check, that’s Washington talk for saying, ‘We want more of your money to stay in Washington.’”
In 1995, former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) was speaking to a group of 5,000 at the Dallas Convention Center. He received a standing ovation when he attacked the federal government as ‘’too big, too intrusive, too undemocratic, too insensitive, too distant.’’
In 1992 and 1996, billionaire Texas businessman Ross Perot built his whole presidential platform around being the plain-speaking anti-Washington candidate. In 1998, even after he lost, he continued to bash Washington, calling it an “evil system.” At a National Press Club luncheon, he declared, “The American people are getting suckered.”
He tried to make nice on his insult against politicians by adding, “These are not evil people. They are caught in an evil system.”
Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) can relate to all the anti-Washington talk. “My wife and I always tell everyone we work in Washington but we live in Wyoming,” he says.
Thomas says he is touched by the scenes of Washington — the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, for example. But he wouldn’t trade his home in Casper for it. “No thank you,” he says. “I wouldn’t pack up and move there if I didn’t have a reason to be there. I like Wyoming. I like the open space. I like less population, and maybe a little less conflict among the folks that are there.”
Thomas understands why trashing Washington plays so well at home. “It’s good political talk,” he says. “On one hand they [the voters] want Washington do something, but they are critical of what goes on there.”
Some political observers think the anti-Washington lexicon has worn out its welcome.
“It’s so ’90s,” says Kellyanne Conway, president of the Republican firm the Polling Co.
Conway says anti-Washington rhetoric is an easy sell because it shares a place with other bad-rap institutions such as religion, the news media and used car dealers.
The politician who engages in the rhetoric and then breaks term limits to stay here term after term is hypocritical, but so is the voter, says Conway. She points out how the voter eats up anti-Washington rhetoric but then visits Washington and “squeals in delight” upon visiting the plate room at the White House or a member’s office.
“No one is truly vaccinated against Potomac fever,” Conway says.
Another facet to the negative rhetoric is that it has a self-deprecating feel to it that appeals to voters by putting them at ease with the lawmaker. “It makes people feel comfortable,” Conway says, “as though they [lawmakers] are not above reproach.”
Frustrated by the current GOP climate of the Congress, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) says that Washington rightfully gets slammed. “I’m used to tactics,” he says. “I’m used to strategy. What I’m not used to is ignoring the other side altogether.”
The subject of politicians’ criticizing Washington sends Pascrell into an anti-Washington diatribe of his own: “I say Washington is no different than New Jersey or New York. The truth is fiction the way we’re playing it here. [It’s] let’s pretend we have all the answers and shut out the other side.”
Pascrell says he respects the institution of Congress, but not always what happens in it. “I think the integrity suffers if we fail,” he says. “The Congress’s biggest problem is it can’t get out of its own way.”
Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) has his own repertoire of anti-Washington jokes. “You might as well poke fun at yourself,” he says. “I like to quote John F. Kennedy, who described Washington as the city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.”
Says Feeney: “We’re not very charming and we’re not very efficient.” Another joke Feeney likes to share with his constituents: “Congressman are like cockroaches: It’s not so much what we carry off, it’s what we fall into and mess up.”
The Florida lawmaker says that Americans “are very proud to be Americans … but what they think about contemporary congressmen may not be very flattering.”