The siren song of Washington, D.C.
Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
After he almost won the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, Rick Santorum was instantly dubbed a “Washington outsider,” even an “antiestablishment candidate.” It was a convenient tag that made it easier for reporters to keep all these strange Republicans straight: Newt Gingrich, Washington insider; Michele Bachmann, mad housewife; Mitt Romney, establishment prom king; Jon Huntsman, moderate hair guy; Rick Santorum, antiestablishment Washington outsider. Like that.
But Santorum’s titles were rescinded as quickly as they were bestowed, for the press discovered certain details that undercut any claim he might have to be a Washington outsider, such as the fact that he lives in suburban Washington and has for more than 20 years. Rick Santorum has spent his entire career either working in government—his first job out of school was as an assistant to a Pennsylvania state senator—or, when he wasn’t working in government, working to get another job in government, as he is doing now. And when, in 2007, he found himself once again without a government job, having been booted out of the Senate by a large majority of Pennsylvania voters, he took a bunch of government-like jobs right here in his beloved hometown of Washington.
This is where the press smelled an insider.
“After Santorum Left Senate,” headlined the New York Times, “Familiar Hands Reached Out.”
“After Senate,” echoed the Washington Post two days later, “Santorum turns Washington experience into lucrative career as consultant, pundit.”
Both stories reported roughly the same set of facts. Though a man of modest means when he left the Senate, Santorum managed to make more than $1.3 million during the 18 months covered in his most recent financial disclosure form, from January 2010 to August 2011. We can assume that 2008 and 2009 were similarly lucrative. He did this in the magpie manner of the well-connected and semi-famous Washingtonian: He got a TV deal with Fox, joined a corporate board, became a “fellow” at a think tank, sometimes hosted a radio talk show, and collected retainers from a couple of companies run by political friends. It’s nice work if you can get it.
I found myself strangely touched by the stories of Santorum’s recent wealth, for they certified that he wasn’t a “Washington insider” in any pejorative sense, at least by my libertarian lights. He’s just another Washingtonian of a particular type: the anti-Washington Washingtonian—an AWW, a contented resident of the nation’s capital who has based his career on his loudly declared disdain for the nation’s capital, particularly the federal Leviathan residing there. The AWW campaigns against Washington, catalogues its harmful effects, extols alternatives, and contrasts it with the “real America,” which he vows to liberate forever from its depredations—while never admitting that Washington is the very thing that makes his life worth living.
Am I exaggerating? We should allow for love of family, friends, household pets, and professional sports; for religious faith, too, in a few cases like Santorum’s. Still, we AWWs lead a life of moral dissonance and intense though half-buried psychological conflict.
Life in most of Washington, D.C., and its suburbs is an idyll. Crime is low and unemployment negligible. Average income is very high, to be spent in sprawling malls that glitter with expensive goods and restaurants that offer sophisticated and pretentious fare. There are no fewer than three theater companies devoted to Shakespeare, and most of the museums charge no admission. Public transportation is excellent and heavily subsidized. Winters are mild. In summer the streets are dappled and cooled by the leaves of oak, ash, tulip. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the azaleas in spring. The public schools, being stuffed with the children of well-to-do high achievers, are rated the best in the country, and the private schools are innumerable and various. It’s a cushy life. You’d love it, really.
And it should go without saying, and it usually does, that all of this ease and pleasantness is traceable to the vast amounts of money redistributed in transaction costs to people who advise, bully, study, condemn, write about, or work directly for the federal government, which in turn gets its money from productive Americans who live elsewhere, without regular access to the gardens and museums of Washington, D.C. The federal government is oversized, wasteful, intrusive, high-handed, careless, confused, and unfair, and everyone in Washington gets to reap the benefits.