|WHAT WENT WRONG AND WHY|
DAVID GERGEN: Elizabeth, you've been covering politics in Washington now for over 25 years. What are the big changes that have come that have prompted you to write such a scathing indictment?
ELIZABETH DREW, Author, The Corruption of American Politics: Well, two things, David. One is I was thinking about the fact that so much of the public is so unhappy with the state of our politics. And I must say I thought up this book and was writing it before anybody heard of Monica Lewinsky. I mean, the problems have been more long-standing and deeper than that. And the others, I started reflecting on how this place has changed so dramatically over the last 25 years. And I thought, well, I'd like to look at that, report about it, talk to a lot of people about it, and see if I can explain what happened.
DAVID GERGEN: So what are the big changes?
ELIZABETH DREW: Well, there are a number of them. You know, a lot of people complain, talk about the partisanship and lack of civility. Those are really surface manifestations of things that are much deeper, and have been coming on for a long time. I would say, first and frankly, the quality of the politicians has gone down. Now I'm not nostalgic for the old days, because in some ways it was too cozy, it was less open, there was much less opportunity for minorities and women. But you had more people who were grounded on issues, thought about national issues. Now it's a lot of very short- term thinking. And you don't really need much in the way of a qualification to run for, be in Congress. If you can get enough money, you can hire a good pollster, you don't have to have thought about very much, you can get in. Once you get in, there's now a careerism going on in politics as in other parts of society, I suppose. Once they're in the House, whether they've accomplished anything or not, again enough money, a pollster, they go for the Senate because it's a next step, not because they are so much more ready for that. And, of course, then some decide, "why not the presidency for me?"
DAVID GERGEN: Your book suggests that the quality issue, the decline in quality is accelerating. And this is not partisan; it's on both sides.
ELIZABETH DREW: That's right. You hear the complaints on both sides. Some say, well, it started with Gingrich and the revolution, the class of 1994, when the Republicans retook the Congress. It was much longer in coming than that, and it was on both sides. And one form the complaint takes on both sides is in the Senate and some Senators complaining about the increasing number of House members who have come to the Senate. By definition, the culture of the House and the Senate are different. The House is much more scrappier, much less given to -- or given to thoughtful debate. The Senate's not too much that way either, because nearly half the Senators came from the House. And I've had Senators in both parties say to me, "you know, there are just too many House members around here." They think more tactically, more short-term, more partisan, how do you score a point -- not what's in the national interest. In general, there is just less thinking about the whole. Somebody said to me, a Senate aide said to me, "you know, we hardly ever have great debates on the big issues of our time anymore. It's skirmish after skirmish until we get to the next election."
DAVID GERGEN: You write in the book that seems to have come in part because the pollsters and consultants that people turn to to get elected, they now have brought to Capitol Hill and then to the executive branch. There has been an invasion of the legislative process by people who take polls and are political consultants telling the congressmen how to win the next election.
ELIZABETH DREW: That's right. We're quite familiar with it now on the presidential side, and that had been growing for some presidencies. But less familiar is the fact that this has invaded the legislative branch as well. The pollsters and the consultants are in the meetings with the leaderships on both sides in both chambers. They will attend party conferences. An individual member or Senator will be consulting his pollster and consultant every bit as much as he or she is their own staff on "what's in it for me, what's the right position to take?" And pollsters and consultants by definition are trying to help their client win the next election. So that has contributed to the fact that debates are less thoughtful, there's less view of the whole, there's less long- term thinking. And it's these combats that go on and on, but no big issues get resolved.
DAVID GERGEN: Are you suggesting they actually manufacture issues to gain political points and without regard to the substance?
ELIZABETH DREW: Well, one word used by someone who was talking about this said the consultants come in and they foment issues that they think would be to the advantage of their client or their party.
DAVID GERGEN: Another big change you write about is the arrival of a money culture, so much so, you say, that money is more important than power as a goal in politics.
ELIZABETH DREW: Well, in politics and in Washington. I was talking really about the whole culture of Washington has changed. I was here during the Kennedy administration. And one of Kennedy's great contributions was making public service a noble cause. I used to know much more people who joined presidential campaigns because they really believed in that candidate. Now it's so much more, "how can I position myself? And if I can get in the White House, and then I can package myself and be a very big deal, public figure." Not everybody, but I just hear much more the calculation in terms of who is going to win, not, "that's a guy I'm ready to go out and die for."
DAVID GERGEN: It's the old phrase of people coming to Washington to do good and stay to do well.
ELIZABETH DREW: That's right. And it didn't start 25 years ago, but it certainly has grown. There are so many federal contracts now, and so one of the interesting sides is hearing the contractors complain about being hit up for money. So it works both ways. And everybody's busy sort of purchasing access to the people with power. It's just a very different place. I'm not saying it is all together worse, but there is a permeation now of money in people's goals and decisions and ambitions for life that there really didn't used to be.
DAVID GERGEN: Final question, let me ask you about the citizens' role in this, because many people listening to you talk might say it just reinforces my point: What we believe out here, in the hinterlands, just doesn't matter anymore in Washington.
ELIZABETH DREW: That's incorrect, even taking the example, the pollsters being in there. Sometimes I think if the members of Congress had their ears bent to the ground anymore, they'd all look like pretzels. They are far more reactive than people think. I mean, I've heard members of Congress come back and say, "you should hear what happened in my town meeting last Saturday. Three people got up and said 'X,'" or they'll say, "You know, I was talking to Joe and what happened in his town meeting." So they know that these are the more interested people, and they do respond. I was on a panel with a Senator last year, and he said, "you know if I get 300 calls on a subject, that's a lot of calls." Well, it isn't a lot of calls. They know how to separate, of course, the organized calling and faxing and E-mailing from people who really seem to be expressing their opinion. And they do pay attention.
DAVID GERGEN: Elizabeth Drew, thank you.
ELIZABETH DREW: Thank you.