Robert Draper's new book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do, is a look at a bitterly divided Congress that seems unable to get anything done because of irreconcilable political differences among its members. He focuses on a number of characters, including two from his native Texas — Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston and Republican Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi — in telling the story of what's gone haywire in Washington, D.C.
Draper, a correspondent for GQ (and a former writer for Texas Monthly) has written a number of other books, including Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush.
We'll run excerpts from the new book this week, but first, we talked to Draper about the project. What follows is an abridged transcript and audio version of that conversation.
Audio: Robert Draper
TT: Did you come out of this thinking more or less of Congress and of these people?
Draper: I came out thinking more of these people but less of the institution — in large part because of the activities and the inactivities of the place while I was covering it. When I decided to do this book, it was on the night of the midterm elections and as a direct result of seeing these 87 Republicans who would be freshmen, many of whom had no political experience previous to this. I thought, "The House is not only going to be relevant, because it's the point of the spear for the Republicans, but it will also be raucous. Given that a lot of these guys believed they had an unambiguous mandate to change the way business was done, it might really be game-changing."
That I knew going in. I guess I didn't realize the degree to which paralysis would result. Above all, what was clear to me was that the Republican leadership had no control over their own members and thus couldn't be a faithful partner in negotiations with the Obama White House.
I found, though, by talking to a lot of these freshmen that they have an earnest belief system, that they speak what's on their mind, and I really came to respect them as individuals.
But the overall output is a lamentable one.
TT: Does that belief system prevent them from being good congressmen? Are they too dug in?
Draper: Their point of view is that they were sent by the people to slam on the brakes, to roll back the Obama administration's most monumental pieces of legislation, like health care, to slash public spending and to severely streamline regulations. The problem was they had no appreciation for the realities of divided government.
Their leader, Speaker John Boehner, did. To appease them, he would allow the legislation drafted by the Republicans to get pulled further and further to the right, such that it stood no chance of getting passed by a Democratically controlled Senate and signed by a Democratic president.
The reality was that nothing got done.
TT: You have this scene where [Blake Farenthold] is meeting a group of constituents and trying, as you put it, to figure out whether he is a representative or a leader. What did these freshmen learn?
Draper: Farenthold's point of view was that the Republicans compromised too much. That would be quite surprising, I think, to readers who watched the debt ceiling stalemate take place and felt that the Obama administration, more than any other side, caved in those negotiations.
But Farenthold's point of view, and the point of view expressed by a lot of these freshmen, was that they'd never had any intentions to raise the debt ceiling to begin with, and that they did do so incurred a lot of wrath among their constituents. They really heard from them. He told me after that that he was of a mind to be far less compromising. Not to give government programs the benefit of the doubt, but the other way around — to slash first and ask questions later.
Even as public opinion toward Congress plummeted and its approval rating went down to 9 percent, these guys didn't behave like people who thought, "Maybe we'd better get our act together," but instead were even more calcified in their mindset.
TT: Which group do you think doesn't have its act together?
Draper: They're both reading aspects of the situation correctly. These freshmen aren't that much different — in terms of their belief that they're here on a mission — than other freshmen who came en masse because of some wave, going back to the 1870s. Every time this takes place, they believe the public has spoken and that everyone in the House is just going to have to submit to the public as represented by these new exponents.
That's the tricky thing about the House. These are emotions sometimes, spasms of sentiment by the public, but they don't necessarily mean, "Reverse course 180 degrees."
Boehner himself is probably more temperamentally suited than others would be. He has this expression: "If you say, follow me, and then start walking and look over your shoulder, if no one is behind you, you're not leading. You're just taking a walk."
He has to some extent, in the words of the Obama administration, led from behind. But he's been left with little other choice.
TT: What would you change?
Draper: Redistricting reform. The diminishing of swing districts as the result of state legislatures getting to draw maps to suit their own partisan ends has meant that the people who come to Washington come from really red districts or really blue districts. They're really progressive or they're really conservative, so they're not of a mind to see eye to eye on anything, and in fact are punished back home in their district if they do. The name of the game in districts like that is not the general election but the primary.
The other thing that would help would be the emergence of a third party. If there were a third party that began to sap moderate and independent votes from both sides, then both Republicans and Democrats might feel some existential pain and might be willing to compete for some of those votes in the center by getting things done.
These are long shots. The obvious remedy is for voters to show their evident disgust by voting as many of these incumbents out as possible. What remains to be seen, in this immediate case, is whether 2012 is going to amount to a repudiation of the Tea Party mindset that helped guarantee paralysis in government. My suspicion is that it won't.
TT: Do the people inside the system know it's broken?
Draper: I met a lot of congressmen, including a lot of the Tea Party freshmen, who were interested in getting things done and did work with people on the other side of the aisle.
But the reality is that these things take place in spite of leadership and not because of it. The Pelosi Democrats and the Boehner Republicans don't say to their caucus, "Hey, let's really try to do something that's gonna help people, and that means working on the other side of the aisle."
Instead, they're about victory. They're about passing a partisan agenda such that they can make a statement and maintain power if they've got it, and take control if they don't. That's the dynamic that I saw.