This week's campaign "gaffe" controversy has been even sillier than most. At a Univision forum last week, President Obama said he has learned that "you can't change Washington from the inside, you can only change it from the outside." Mitt Romney, seeing an opportunity, replied that Obama had "raised the white flag of surrender," and promised that "We'll get the job done from the inside." Obama shot back, "What kind of inside job is he talking about?" Voters would reasonably have concluded that the two were having an argument about nothing.
They'd pretty much be right. After all, let's be honest: Change—at least the kind that the candidates are talking about—is overrated.
The one thing both candidates and their parties can agree on is that they hate "Washington." Washington, they'll sing in harmony, is a moral sewer, a festering cauldron of legalized corruption where partisan bickering is endemic and real Americans don't have a voice, where lobbyists slither through the halls of power getting cowardly politicians to do their bidding.
Is that picture accurate? Pretty much. But saying you'll change Washington is an empty promise. That's in part because it appears outside the president's power to achieve: The last three presidents all came to Washington saying they were outsiders who could bring Democrats and Republicans together, and each saw the town turn more bitterly partisan under his watch. But far more important, the promise to change Washington's processes is usually a way to not talk about the things that actually matter.
Let's look at the biggest accomplishment of Barack Obama's first term, the passage of the Affordable Care Act. In that Univision interview, Obama tried to describe this as a triumph of change from the outside, as the American people exerted pressure on their representatives. But that's not really what happened. There was some outside organizing, but it probably didn't carry the day. The reform that one president after another failed to accomplish didn't happen because Barack Obama and his supporters changed Washington. It happened because Obama wrestled with Washington, struggled with it, and finally overcame roadblocks both institutional (the filibuster) and personal (the narcissistic cynicism of characters like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson). And today, almost everything about those processes remains the same. If Obama tries to do something else as ambitious in his second term, it'll be just as difficult.
What matters isn't whether Washington was transformed, but that because of Obama's health care victory, 30 million more Americans will have health insurance, and that starting in 2014 none of us will be denied coverage because of our pre-existing conditions, and all of the other positive results of the ACA. If you're the parent of a child with leukemia who can now get insurance, that's change you can believe in.
We shouldn't overstate this. The processes do help determine the substance, and Washington's ways make every positive substantive bit of change harder to accomplish. For example, the meltdown of 2008 can be blamed in no small part on the fact that for decades the banking industry's extraordinarily skilled lobbyists basically wrote their own toothless regulations. And the Supreme Court's evisceration of campaign finance laws threatens to produce a political system that shuts out the voices of all but the richest Americans. But as long as the Constitution says we have the right to petition our government we'll have lobbyists, and as long as there's a conservative movement, the wealthy and powerful will have their interests represented.
In any case, when people talk about changing Washington, that's not what they mean. They mean creating the kind of comity between Democrats and Republicans that existed before the parties divided along ideological lines.
And in the end, that shouldn't be any president's priority. He has to be judged by what he did to make Americans' lives better and more secure. If he has accomplishments on that score, we can forgive him if he leaves without Republicans and Democrats making each other friendship bracelets at the end of each congressional session.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines