Capital Crises

By Andelman, David A. | Management Review, May 1998 | Go to article overview
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Capital Crises

Andelman, David A., Management Review

Despite the crippling state of affairs in Washington, the business of lobbying must go on.

Washington lives and dies by crises. They are a tonic for journalists and the faceless bureaucrats who toil in the subbasements of obscure government agencies. They are the stuff of legends, making or breaking reputations during the days, weeks and, at times, months that they direct light and heat at their subjects.

Crises in the U.S. capital take many forms. On an international level, they can lead to massive movements of troops, surgical strikes or prolonged conflicts in remote corners of the world. Nationally, they can pit a Republican Congress against a Democratic president or involve the confirmation of a key Cabinet appointee, the ratification of a treaty or the passage of a critical piece of legislation on which an election or endorsement may stand or fall. And then there are the personal crises of all stripes - be they financial, legal or sexual.

Any or all of these crises, individually or in tandem, may sap the energies of an administration and distract Congress from its broader agenda. In short, a crisis can bring the wheels of government to a grinding halt or a paralyzing slowdown. This year it happened with the Monica Lewinsky affair, but it has happened in sharply different forms during every presidency. Consequently, any corporation or executive with a Washington agenda must learn to deal with these realities in a capital under siege.

"People within the Beltway are paralyzed, but everyone else goes to work and the business of the country gets done," says John Davis, partner in the State Affairs Co., which lobbies for corporate clients inside the Beltway and in state legislatures across the nation. "If my client has a particularly nettlesome piece of legislation or action that needed work, especially one that was pending in the administration or on Capitol Hill, I'd say, 'Just back off for a couple of days. They're simply not going to focus on you. See how it plays out.'"

Crisis of the Day

A critical determinant of the length and depth of a crisis - or in Potomacspeak, "how much legs it has" - is the economic and social environment in which it unfolds. As Davis and others observe, crises are becoming increasingly compressed these days. "The time of paralysis is getting smaller and smaller," he says. "Whereas Watergate kept people enthralled for months, today they're paralyzed for hours."

The Watergate scandal that dragged on for months and drove President Nixon from office was played against a backdrop of difficult economic times - a recessionary economy and the Arab oil boycott. Today, the situation is vastly different. The U.S. economy is booming; the stock market, while volatile, continues to power upward; interest rates and inflation remain low; the dollar is strong; and the labor force is operating at close to full capacity.

These factors can soften a crisis, as polls from earlier this year suggest: While more than half of the nation believed that President Clinton had engaged in actions in the White House that he was adamantly denying, more than 70 percent also expressed full confidence in his ability to lead the country.

"At one time the president was both CEO and moral leader of the country. Now he is just the CEO," says Davis. "People viewed Ronald Reagan as a moral leader, guardian of the higher spirit of patriotism. John Kennedy was inspiring when he was president. [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt was a moral leader. In the case of Bill Clinton, he's like your accountant. You don't want to know what he's doing on his own time, what he's doing with his secretary. He just does your taxes well and gets you a refund. Bill Clinton is like a CPA-in-chief."

Driven to Distraction

Because crises are played out on multiple levels, those who would influence the agenda in Washington must consider the dynamics involved in a particular crisis - such as time and the administration's ability to focus - in their response.

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