Strip away the job titles and party labels, and you will find two tribes of people in Washington: political Hacks and policy Wonks. Hacks come to Washington because anywhere else they'd be bored to death. Wonks come here because nowhere else could they bore so many to death.
After two decades in Washington, we have come to the conclusion that the gap between Republicans and Democrats is as nothing compared to the one between these two tribes. We should know. When we began working together in the Clinton White House, we came from different tribes—one of us a Hack, the other a Wonk. (We're not telling which.) We made a deal to teach each other the secrets, quirks, and idioms of our respective sects.
Throughout history, Hacks and Wonks have been the yin and yang of politics. But in the last few years, something terrible has destroyed our political equilibrium. The political world suffered a devastating outbreak of what might be called Rove Flu—a virus that destroys any part of the brain not dedicated to partisan political manipulation. Now, Hacks are everywhere. Like woolly mammoths on the run from Neanderthals, Wonks are all but extinct.
Although Hacks have never been in short supply in our nation's capital, the rise of one-party rule in Washington over the past four years unleashed an all-out Hack attack. Every issue, every debate, every job opening was seen as an opportunity to gain partisan advantage. Internal disagreement was stifled, independent thought discouraged, party discipline strictly enforced—and that's just how they treated their friends.
The Bush White House was so obsessed with how to profit politically from its agenda that it never even asked whether its policies would actually work. It should come as no surprise that they didn't.
Perhaps the best recent example of paint-by-number politics was the Medicare prescription drug bill. One prominent Hack, Tom Scully—then an assistant secretary at HHS, later a health care lobbyist—allegedly threatened to fire Richard Foster, a career government actuary, if he revealed how much the prescription drug bill would explode Medicare spending.
Remember the good old days when Republicans went to jail for covering up burglaries and conducting covert wars against communism? Now they're under fire for covering up massive social spending. No wonder conservatives are unhappy. It's as if Oliver North were running a secret Head Start program in the White House basement.
President Bush served as Hack-in-Chief even when he studiously pretended not to be doing so. He came into office promising to be a compassionate conservative, soon left us yearning for a competent conservative, and seems destined to be remembered for presiding over the heyday of the corrupt conservative.
Republicans have learned the hard way that the American people are a lot smarter than either the Hacks or the Wonks imagine. For all the talk in both parties about the urgent need to win one constituency or another, most Americans apply the same political yardstick: They vote for what works. There aren't enough Hacks, even in Washington, to sell policies that don't work—although that never stopped Bush from trying.
Yet as Americans survey the damage from six years of Hacks Gone Wild, bad policy is only the beginning. In his Farewell Address, another Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, warned of an "iron triangle" of legislators, bureaucrats, and private contractors eager to increase arms production. Today's Republicans have created a kind of Hack triangle from the White House to Congress to K Street lobbyists.
Tom DeLay may be gone, but those in office will still do anything to stay there; those who make their living off those in office stop at nothing to keep them there. And with so many private interests at stake, the country's problems have had to wait in line.
In the old days, a popular American business model was planned obsolescence: making products that wouldn't last long so that consumers had to buy a replacement. The Republican political model is planned incompetence: When bureaucrats screw up or government programs don't work, that only reinforces public skepticism about government.
Hack government could get by in the old era, when one party's Hacks simply had to outwit the other's. Now, the challenges government faces are too hard to fake it, and the consequences of failure too dire.
We knew Hack fever had gotten out of hand when the producers of Fear Factor proposed a reality show called Red/Blue, modeled after American Idol, to find the next Karl Rove. But we've known enough Hacks to realize how little the nation stands to gain from churning out more of them.