Heartland Government

Washington is closer to small-town Main Street than Sarah Palin thinks.

“I think we need a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street there, brought to Washington, D.C.”—Sarah Palin to Joe Biden, Oct. 2, 2008

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

A specter is haunting this presidential election—the specter of “Washington.” Not Washington the city of museums and monuments, and not Washington the home of 588,000 mostly ordinary people, but “Washington” the metaphor: Washington the bastion of elites who look down on the rest of America, Washington the embodiment of an East Coast liberal establishment that scorns outsiders from the provinces. So frequently have we heard this idea invoked in recent days, I think it’s time to dissect it a bit more closely. Increasingly, I am convinced it alludes to something that doesn’t exist at all.

I speak here as one of the very few living, native Washingtonians—or, at least, as one who is always treated as one of the very few living, native Washingtonians. “You really come from here?” I’m often asked. “I didn’t know anyone actually came from Washington.” And they have a point. Although there are plenty of native Washingtonians working as doctors or cabdrivers or bank mangers in Washington, it is true that most of the people who actually control the city’s most famous institutions—Congress, the White House, the federal government—weren’t born there. Like Sarah Palin, they come “from the heartland,” places like Wasilla, and it is the values of the heartland and Wasilla that they therefore should be presumed to embody.

There are exceptions to this rule: Among the people who matter in “Washington,” there are some who could be said to belong to a hereditary East Coast elite. Al Gore and the Kennedys might fit that bill, and when Chelsea Clinton runs for president, she will, too. There are plenty of bona fide East Coast-establishment types working for newspapers and law firms in Washington, and they do, of course, matter, not least of all to media coverage of national politics. But D.C. is not Manhattan. The significance of these Washington natives pales in comparison with that of the “hockey moms,” “Joe Six-Packs,” and “Main Streeters” who have dominated the political conversation in the nation’s capital for as long as I can remember.

Among these “outsiders,” I would include our current president, who was raised in Midland, Texas; our vice president, who was raised in Casper, Wyo.; our most recent former president, who was born in Hope, Ark.; and even our most senior former president, who comes from Plains, Ga. I would also include the large numbers of ex-Texans—Karen Hughes, Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales—who have towered over national politics for the past eight years, as well as notable figures like Michael “heck of a job” Brown, the Oklahoma native who presided over Hurricane Katrina as the director of FEMA.

Above all, I would include Congress, which, by definition, contains hundreds of “outsiders,” many from places just like Wasilla. I am thinking here of Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska (a resident of Girdwood, Alaska), now on trial for corruption, or ex-Texas Rep. Tom DeLay (born in Laredo, Texas) who resigned in disgrace. I’ll also mention Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson (originally of Lake Providence, La.), recently indicted for corruption, for the sake of bipartisanship. But if more small-town Republican names come to mind, that’s because small-town Republicans have figured among the most powerful and most prominent Washington politicians for most of the past decade.

The result: Washington, however stuffy it may once have been, is no longer in need of “a little bit of reality from Wasilla Main Street.” Washington is in need of expertise, management experience, long-term thinking, and more political courage from wherever in the country it happens to come. More to the point, Washington needs people who think like national politicians and not like spokesmen for the local businesspeople who fill their re-election coffers and for the local party hacks who plan their campaigns. Let’s be frank: The “bailout” bill passed on Friday not because members decided it would work but because it was once again stuffed with the pork, perks, and tax breaks without which no piece of legislation, however important to the nation as a whole, can now pass. Maybe it’s unfair to call that “small-town” thinking, but it sure is small-minded. And small-mindedness, not snobbery, is the dominant mindset of 21st-century Washington.

Don’t get me wrong: Populism can be a fine thing. It’s healthy for a democracy to renew itself. It’s also absolutely true that many of our greatest leaders have had obscure origins and many of our worst have had Ivy League educations. But Sarah Palin, arresting and compelling a cultural phenomenon though she may be, seems to rail against a nonexistent “Washington” because it’s easier than making any actual arguments. Her phony, made-for-TV populism is a terrible distraction in a time of genuine crisis.