Attacking Washington's love affair with cash and power

October 16, 1994|By Peter H. Stone

When President Clinton was on the campaign trail in 1992, he promised to curb the influence of lobbyists and campaign contributors. Once in office, though, Mr. Clinton discovered that it wasn't such an easy task.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, for instance, was recently forced to resign after a series of press revelations about gifts and favors that he and his girlfriend accepted from companies that his department oversees. The Clinton administration also has nominated five wealthy campaign contributors to be ambassadors -- just one less than the Bush administration did. And, while Mr. Clinton called reforming campaign finance laws a major priority, his lack of aggressive support helped to sink a reform bill this year -- at the same time the Democrats have been setting new party fund-raising records.

As Washington writer and political analyst Kevin Phillips shows in his new book, "Arrogant Capital," the administration's actions reflect how the American government all too often works. He argues that both Democratic and Republican administrations have been hijacked by special interests beholden mainly to big corporations and the rich.

Subtitled "Washington, Wall Street and the Frustration of American Politics," the book offers a scathing, populist critique of America's political and economic malaise. It also issues a strong warning that America's future well-being is at risk unless some far-reaching reforms are implemented to reorient the country's direction.

Written with brio and insight, "Arrogant Capital" is an intriguing blend of muckraking journalism, comparative history and a manifesto for change. While Mr. Phillips is largely successful in this ambitious effort, parts of the book -- such as his discussion of cultural factors that are weakening the country -- are skimpy and could have benefited from more thorough treatment.

Mr. Phillips, who earned a reputation as a political iconoclast with such earlier books as "The Emerging Republican Majority" and "The Politics of Rich and Poor," warns that some of the nation's institutions need to be changed radically lest the country go through a decline akin to what other great powers, such as Britain, have gone through before. "Bluntly put, there is a good cause in the United States for the political equivalent of a revolution," Mr. Phillips writes. "Institutions and structures must change before policy can change."

As Mr. Phillips scans the political landscape of the 1990s, he believes that some of America's major political institutions have ossified so badly that they're unresponsive to popular calls for change. Mr. Phillips is especially upset with the parasitic culture of Washington, which, in his eyes, more and more resembles that of an imperial city in its last years. He rails against the revolving door between government and the Washington lobbying community; the entrenched and increasingly out-of-touch two-party system; and the rich and bloated lifestyles that many of the city's political movers and shakers have adopted.

Mr. Clinton's rhetoric about changing the way business is done in Washington seemed to promise a tectonic shift in the capital. But Mr. Phillips writes that not long after taking office, Mr. Clinton "abandoned his outsider postures to compromise with established lobbies, power brokers and Congressional leaders. . ." Indeed, any president's choices are sharply limited by what Mr. Phillips dubs the "Gross Influence Peddling Product" -- now estimated at about $20 billion yearly -- that flows into lobbyists' coffers.

The author displays similar anger at the way Wall Street appears to have exerted more influence in recent years over the nation's economy and policy-making in Washington. Mr. Phillips deplores the "financialization of America"; he is particularly upset with the growth of electronic speculation, the loss of manufacturing jobs and the debt hangover from the 1980s merger and acquisition boom that still burdens corporations and individuals. Speculation displaced investment, Mr. Phillips writes. And financiers, he adds, "more often controlled politicians than vice versa."

In Mr. Phillips' diagnosis, a third element ailing America stems from a mix of economic and cultural factors. Mr. Phillips discusses the declining middle class and the deterioration of educational standards. He notes correctly that both Democrats and Republicans have tended to offer simplistic analyses of these problems; the Democrats have focused overly on economic problems, while Republicans have tended to dwell on cultural ones. Mr. Phillips argues convincingly that there are links between many of these economic and cultural forces.

But some of Mr. Phillips' observations of economic and cultural forces seem just silly or wrongheaded. Mr. Phillips, for instance, talks about the Europeanization of some American cities and cites the growing number of sidewalk cafes as a symptom of decline. Hmmm.

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