Pay the dues

In November of 1998 Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota. He ran as an outsider from the nascent Independence party. He won in large part because a three-way split among voters was enough to get him in the state house, when he never would have won in a head-to-head match-up (he ran against Norm Coleman and Scion de Humphrey).

One thing was clear from the very beginning: as an independent and a newcomer in St. Paul, Ventura had no natural constituency to rely upon—no one who he could ask to take his side in a fight.

In short, he had not paid his dues. Dues paying is both an important fact of life in politics and a regrettable one. It consists of several parts:
  1. Making friends, going to cocktail parties, getting noticed, and becoming fashionable in political circles—creating a profitable image. Becoming the sort of person other people want to be seen standing next to.

  2. Doing the grunt work so that those above you on the political ladder can have their day in the sun. The understanding is that, in the pyramid scheme that is politics, you will one day stand on the shoulders of the next generation of grunts. This creates both beholden superiors and wishful inferiors, both capable of providing assistance at a later date.

  3. Engaging in back-scratching for pet projects: support someone else's pet proposal and you get an unwritten IOU, redeemable when it is your pet proposal needing support.

  4. Becoming a source for media outlets. "Sources in the Capitol today let it be known that..." Again, this produces a flurry of good-will and IOU's. Provide just the right not-for-attribution quote today; get better coverage tomorrow.

  5. Pay off the plebes with pet projects. Worthy project or worthless projects, it doesn't matter, each has a constituency which believes it is the end of the world if the government doesn't pony up the funding, and who believe the one who delivers that money is a saint forever.
These actions are what make government run. Not the quality or efficacy of legislation, but the back scratching and networking of working politicians.

When Ventura got into trouble, the Republicans weren't about to bail him out, the Democrats weren't going to bail him out, and the media had no reason to take his side either. He hadn't paid his dues, and they owed him nothing. In short, he stood alone to fail, to be ignored, or to be manipulated by those in the right power circles.

I see a similar problem facing Obama. I think it is very clear that today the most powerful person in Washington is not the president. He has good-will, but those powerful politicians and Washingtonians who supported his candidacy aren't blinded by his shining glory. They know he spent less than four months at the national political level before hitting the road on his campaign. They know he is less knowledgeable than any other newly-minted president this country has ever had. In his ignorance lies their power, and they aren't about to let that slip. They know how Washington works, because they've seen it and spent their careers climbing the ladder. They have paid their dues, with hundreds of others beholden to them for their positions and opportunities.

Of all of those five items above, Obama probably only has one locked down: #1—He's the kind of guy you want to stand next to and have at your party. He has had that prestige since coming to Washington.

But of all the people in Washington, probably one has all five locked down: Nancy Pelosi. She's a leader who fought her way to the top, often using strong-arm tactics. Many owe her, many others fear her. She has people she can call on to lobby, to vote, to print, to speak with her.

She has all of the constituencies lined up.

Obama has none.

I have little doubt that as hard-nosed as Pelosi is, she understands all of this and is working to take advantage of the situation.

She'll let Obama shine, let him say pretty words and advocate for her policies, but she'll be the one setting the agenda and the pace.