About twice a year I find myself re-reading a short, entertaining and insightful piece from March 2004 in The Washington Monthly by Bruce Reed titled ”Bush’s War Against Wonks: Why the President’s Policies are Falling Apart.” Bruce Reed served as domestic policy advisor for Clinton. He writes semi-regularly for Slate in a column called The Has-Been. He’s recently expanded on some of his ideas in a book co-authored with Rahm Emanuel titled The Plan: Big Ideas for America.
Here’s a teaser from the article:
Strip away the job titles and party labels, and you will find two kinds of people in Washington: political hacks and policy wonks. Hacks come to Washington because anywhere else they'd be bored to death. Wonks come here because nowhere else could we bore so many to death. These divisions extend far beyond the hack havens of political campaigns and consulting firms and the wonk ghettos of think tanks on Dupont Circle. Some journalists are wonks, but most are hacks. Some columnists are hacks, but most are wonks. All members of Congress pass themselves off as wonks, but many got elected as hacks. Lobbyists are hacks who make money pretending to be wonks. The Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the entire political blogosphere consist largely of wonks pretending to be hacks. "The Hotline" is for hacks; National Journal is for wonks. "The West Wing" is for wonks; "K Street" was for hacks.
After two decades in Washington as a wonk working among hacks, I have come to the conclusion that the gap between Republicans and Democrats is as nothing compared to the one between these two tribes. We wonks think we're smarter than hacks. Hacks think that if being smart makes someone a wonk, they'd rather be stupid. Wonks think all hacks are creatures from another planet, like James Carville. Hacks share Paul Begala's view that wonks are all "propeller heads," like Elroy on "The Jetsons." Wonks think the differences between hacks and wonks are as irreconcilable as the Hutus and the Tutsis. Hacks think it's just like wonks to bring up the Hutus and the Tutsis.
In every administration, wonks and hacks fight it out. The measure of a great president is his ability to make sense of them both. A president must know the real problems on Americans' minds. For that he needs hacks. But ultimately, he needs policies that will actually solve those problems. For that he needs wonks.
Reed proceeds to delve into Ron Suskind’s journalism on the Bush White House, among other things. The phrase “reality-based community” had not entered the lexicon yet, but Reed’s piece is clearly aimed not only at wonks, but at reality-based hacks. Sadly, they seem to be a rare breed these days.