Just Because Michelle Wears McQueen -- Doesn't Mean Washington Is Having Any Fun

Article excerpt

Byline: Michelle Cottle

The Obamas were supposed to bring back Camelot--and stop the dreary infighting. But Washington refuses to throw back a cocktail and get stuff done.

At 5:30 on a blustery Tuesday afternoon, room H-137 of the U.S. Capitol is a sea of middle-aged white guys in rumpled suits. Each sports a large white name tag bearing the initials IPAA (that's Independent Petroleum Association of America to you and me) and their given names in all caps: BOB! GARY! MIKE! In town for three whirlwind days of chatting up lawmakers, the IPAA has arranged this reception to honor the 112th Congress. Association members stand around in awkward clumps, scanning the crowd for useful personages. There is much picture taking, swapping of business cards, and nibbling of chicken on skewers. As 6 o'clock comes and goes, the occasional House member wanders in, along with a sprinkling of young aides, who frequent these events as much to cadge food as to rub elbows.

Across Independence Avenue in the Gold Room of the Rayburn House Office Building, the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration has drawn a younger, more diverse, and much larger crowd for its competing fete. This may have something to do with the two large bars set up by Rums of Puerto Rico. In one corner, a trio is playing tunes that make you want to salsa--although no one here will be doing that. Despite the rivers of rum, this is simply a slicked-up version of the IPAA mixer. You hear the same kind of shop talk and witness the same strategic mingling. Reps. Charlie Rangel and Debbie Wasserman Schultz drift in shortly before 7 o'clock, dispense hugs, handshakes, and camera-ready smiles, then drift out a short time later. By 7:15, the food is dwindling and the crowd has thinned.

This, depressingly, is what passes for social life in Washington. It wasn't supposed to be this way. When the Obamas swirled into town just over two years ago on a cloud of sparkling inaugural parties and historic uplift, there was widespread hope they might usher in Camelot 2.0. Barack had Jay-Z on his iPod and liked to bang in the paint with his junior aides. Michelle had killer biceps and a flair for fashion. They had two adorable kids and a coterie of non-Washington, nonpolitical friends. And they were black! After eight tense, dreary years overseen by a stay-at-home president who cleared brush for kicks and went to bed while the rest of the country was watching CSI, many in the nation's capital harbored visions of a sociocultural renaissance. Not that anyone expected them to host Reaganesque galas while the economy foundered, but maybe, just maybe, they could ease tensions within Washington's balkanized political class through savvy social diplomacy.

What on earth were we thinking? Washington is what it is, and, increasingly, one of the town's defining characteristics is its social retardation. Oh, sure, on any given evening, members of the political class can schmooze their way through a half-dozen industry receptions, book parties, and charity events. And if campaign fundraisers are your idea of a good time, welcome to the Promised Land. But networking is not the same thing as socializing, particularly among a populace so rigidly segregated into red and blue teams.

This dysfunctionality has serious consequences. As most political veterans will tell you, the fine art of legislating works best when those charged with negotiating the fine print enjoy solid relationships built on trust, respect, and a general sense of comity. "Trust only comes with relationships," asserts former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. "Until you have trust, you're not going to have the kind of environment needed for compromise and agreement on important legislative agendas"--like, say, hammering out next year's federal budget without bringing the entire government to a standstill.

Talk with Washington veterans about their town's dysfunctional climate and a handful of depressingly familiar themes emerge: too much partisanship, too much time eaten up by fundraising, the bifurcated existence of lawmakers whose families stay back in their home districts. …