David Rothkopf

Rewiring Washington…

Somebody needs to do a new wiring diagram for Washington. Because much has changed and much is changing about the way power and influence flow through this town and while some of it is related to having a new president in place, some of it is linked to other technological, political, and social trends. In ...

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Somebody needs to do a new wiring diagram for Washington. Because much has changed and much is changing about the way power and influence flow through this town and while some of it is related to having a new president in place, some of it is linked to other technological, political, and social trends. In fact, while motives and many techniques for getting things done in Washington might look very familiar to the old time fixers and back room pols, much would be as alien as a lunar landscape.

Here are just a few random observations from the past few weeks that lead me to this conclusion:

  • The influence of the business community is at a low ebb

The stark reality is that there are fewer business people at senior levels of this administration that at any time in decades and the Obama team is much more plugged into other interest groups: NGOs, academics, career politicians, lawyers, regulators, etc. What’s more big divisions are emerging within the business community as some old school types hold on hoping that 2010 brings a reversal of fortune for the Democrats while others are being more proactive on issues like health care, energy and climate policy, seeking a seat at the table as a sea-change comes to the public sector-private sector relationship and underlying principles in those areas.

  • It’s even worse than that for some groups

It used to be that energy and climate policy in America (and a lot else) was heavily influenced by groups like big oil and the auto industry.  Now, as one senior energy executive put it to me, “we just don’t have the access we used to. The American Petroleum Institute is completely discredited in the eyes of most of the people in this administration. We can’t get in to see anyone.”

As for the allies in the auto industry, well, the auto industry ain’t what it used to be. And what’s left is more heavily dominated by union voices than ever before (when it isn’t guided by the interests of the bureaucrats who are in charge of managing the political capital the president has invested in saving GM and Chrysler). The old one-two punch of two of America’s most politically powerful industries is gone.

  • Traditional media are being trumped by new media

Again, this is hardly news unless you’ve been sleeping in a cave somewhere for the past few years. But it is really striking to me how in the recent past places like Politico, Real Clear Politics, the Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Drudge, the political blogs and even sites like this one are driving the buzz. Look at the links between what’s talked about on broadcast media and where the idea started and these days, more often than not, it isn’t the op-ed writers any more. It’s palpable in private conversation. Want further proof? From the White House to local embassies, there is a new, concerted focus on shaping web opinion.

  • Most think tanks don’t get it and are paying a price

Most of the people in the Washington policy community don’t seem to get these changes and, as a result, they are losing influence. Most think tanks have lagged in their adoption of new media and when they get on the bandwagon they are doing little more than creating web-based newsletters and channels for releasing old fashioned papers. They still view policy ideas as inert products to be released every so often and they don’t recognize the on-going, dynamic, more inclusive nature of the modern policy influencing process. Compounding the challenge, some of the most influential think tanks have been decimated by losses to the administration (Brookings, CAP, CNAS) creating a paradox: at the moment of their greatest influence they are least able to take advantage of the situation. Personally, I think that any think tank that does not realize their entire model of membership, communication, collaboration, fund-raising…even their role in life…needs to change is on a trajectory to irrelevancy.

  • Power is shifting and settling in new ways in the national security apparatus too

State Department types have long lamented the gradual shift of power to the NSC over the past several decades. But 24 hour news cycles have made everything political and thus relevant to the White House and it’s only natural that it becomes the locus for most big decisions. But within this several-decade-long trend a new trend has emerged. Power continues to increasingly shift to the White House…but within the White House, the shift is away from the NSC per se and more toward the inner office of the president. This was a trend begun during Bush with the outsized role played by his vice president. But it has been maintained…though in a different form…in this White House with a super-engaged and confident president at the center of everything, as the main foreign policy spokesperson and with his closest personal political advisors playing an outsized role in many policy decisions. Rahm Emanuel may be the most powerful chief of staff since Sherman Adams. David Axelrod, Pete Rouse, Greg Craig, and the vice president and his staff are also very influential as are folks like Dennis McDonough and Mark Lippert more thanks to their personal relationships with the president than their official titles at the NSC. 

  • Power is shifting within the diplomatic community

Honestly, I think that power is generally shifting away from the diplomatic community. Ambassadors are superfluous as direct contact between higher level government officials becomes so easy and commonplace. Embassy row is a destination for cocktail parties only these days in Washington and a kind of vestigial limb reminding us of the way things worked back in our parents’ day. But even within the diplomatic community, influence is shifting. The fact that the BRIC ambassadors meet once a month to coordinate policies is a sign of this shift. Ambassadors of traditional allies like those from Europe and Japan are less significant. The Chinese ambassador, because of the formalities involved in communicating with that government remains more significant. Colombia’s ambassador used to be very important. No more. Mexico and Brazil are really the only two Latin ambassadors that matter any longer.

  • Washington is now the financial capital of the United States

It’s no small thing that we have created the world’s biggest sovereign wealth fund to pull us out of the economic morass…even if it is the first such fund entirely debt-financed, and even if the stimulus money is only trickling out. (If Viagra stimulated as slowly as the government’s package, Pfizer would also being administered by the White House by now.) But given this newly expanded role of the government, the people who administer these funds at cabinet agencies have become extremely powerful and on many visiting business peoples’ must see lists.

These are just a few anecdotal observations. They understate the impact of new media on politics and influence in Washington. And old money politics still remains in place far more than one would have hoped. In some parts of Washington…on Capitol Hill, for example…dinosaurs and Paleolithic ways still rule. But my sense is that if you were to make a list of the 25 most truly influential people in Washington…particularly on the media and policy community side…you would see a new and surprising array of faces. A subject for another blog perhaps. 

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

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