Put the “Playbook” Down


One of George Packer’s observations about the Senate that’s not amenable to formal procedural reform:

One day in his office, Udall picked up some tabloids from his coffee table and waved them at me. “You know about all these rags that cover the Hill, right?” he said, smiling. There are five dailies—Politico, The Hill, Roll Call, CongressDaily, and CQ Today—all of which emphasize insider conflict. The senators, who like to complain about the trivializing effect of the “24/7 media,” provide no end of fodder for it. The news of the day was what Udall called a “dust-up” between Scott Brown, the freshman Massachusetts Republican, and a staffer for Jim DeMint, the arch-conservative from South Carolina; the staffer had Tweeted that Brown was voting too often with the Democrats, leading Brown to confront DeMint on the Senate floor over this supposed breach of protocol. Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media. News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington. Dodd, who came to the Senate in 1981 and will leave next January, told me, “I used to have eleven Connecticut newspaper reporters who covered me on a daily basis. I don’t have one today, and haven’t had one in a number of years. Instead, D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.”

I think it’s odd how dominated political professionals’ attention is by this kind of nonsense. And the weird thing is—nobody makes you do it. You can live and work in Washington DC in a politics-related job and not read “the Playbook” or any of the rest of it. This stuff doesn’t just not matter in the sense that the fate of the Affordable Care Act will have little relevance to the grand sweep of human history. It doesn’t matter at all, even in terms of narrow politics. Of course if you’re working on a particular issue, inside baseball articles about subcommittee hearings on your issue are relevant. But the general morass of political gossip and speculation has just nothing to do with anything.

Even if your sole interest is in electoral politics, then the vast majority of your attention should still be focused on home-district news and smart coverage of the global and international economy. Neil Irwin’s coverage of the Federal Reserve in the Washington Post has much more relevance to the 2010 midterms than does Chris Cilizza’s speculations about tactics.


Ezra Klein thinks this post would be improved by a plug for his “wonkbook” daily email.

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