How to win in Washington

Turn your self interest into a public interest

Jeffrey Denny

“Reality is easy,” Lauryn Hill observed. “It’s deception that’s the hard work.”

Ms. Hill likely was referring to her difficult experience in the music industry. But her insight suggests why Washington, D.C., boasts one of the nation’s lowest jobless rates. Deception in the political sector is a full-employment act.

No, this is not another screed about lying politicians and the Washington swamp. What’s going in the political industrial complex here is more interesting, a charade everyone knows and sees through but accepts as how we do things.

That is, in Washington, we never argue for the thing we want for ourselves. We turn selfish pursuits into selfless policies that serve the greater public good.

Example: After years of fighting, the Washington region is finally getting the Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail extension to the region’s Metro system. It’s a blessing for poorer, disconnected communities and commuters. It’ll ease the region’s traffic congestion — among the nation’s worst — and curb auto emissions and other car-related pollution, which is why enviros support light rail as an alternative to more roads and vehicles.

Maryland’s U.S. Congress members, all but one Democrats, have urged the feds to support the project, saying it would spur economic development and create 27,000 new permanent jobs. The GOP governor, also a big supporter, has signed the contract and ground has broken.

But here’s where the politics get tricky.

The Purple Line will run through the wealthy borough of Chevy Chase and skirt the prestigious Columbia Country Club where many Washington power brokers relax and play. Residents along the route, many well-educated professionals, are fighting the project.

But the opponents know it’s politically incorrect to appear as NIMBYs who don’t care about the environment, traffic, or how the less fortunate get to work. Instead, they focus on the project’s budget impact, loss of trees, noise pollution, and potential impact on affordable housing and small business. They also claim harm to habitats and raise doubts about the reams of analysis that the project will relieve traffic and pollution.

A plaintiff in a federal lawsuit to stop the Purple Line, an environmental consultant, summed up this opposition in a September 15 Washington Post column. A reader pointed out that she failed to mention that her home backs to the Purple Line route and the walking-biking trail she loves where it’s been shut down for the construction. So she has a direct personal stake in stopping the project.

The plaintiff can argue that her personal interests are beside the point. That’s what we do in Washington. Like Casablanca’s Inspector Renault, “shocked” about gambling at Rick’s Place while furtively pocketing a cut, we’re aghast at the mere suggestion we would ever put personal interest ahead of the public interest.

So Walmart supports the Trump corporate tax cut not for bigger profits, but to boost American jobs and prosperity. In the same breath, Walmart opposes the Trump import tax not to protect profits, but to protect consumers from higher prices. Likewise, as the hacking scandal brewed, Equifax and the credit agency oligopoly beat back consumer protections not to safeguard their sweet deal, but saying the protections would hurt consumers. Aetna’s CEO slams the Berniecare “Medicare for All” plan not because it would hurt health insurer profits and his own compensation ($41 million last year), but out of concern for poor sick patients.

But you can’t testify before Congress saying, “The fact is, Mr. Chairman, these regulations — while they would protect people and the planet — would cost my company money. If we miss our Wall Street earnings expectations, our stock price will plummet. Then a hedge fund will buy a controlling share of our stock, take over the board, fire me, strip our cash reserves, and leave a hollow shell.” Instead, the CEO has to say that regulations hurt the economy.

I have zero standing to call out hypocrisy. Clients pay me to write speeches and op-eds advancing policy interests I may not always share. I have moral limits but it’s a luxury to cherry-pick work that indulges our personal views.

Moreover, while we all think highly of own honesty — and love playing gotcha on others — as humans we’re really all two-faced hypocrites with daily conflicts of interest more tangled than a bag of old iPhone charging cords. If we don’t see our conflicts, then we haven’t looked hard enough.

My point? Just admit our flaws and selfish interests. Companies have them, do-gooders have them, everyone has them. Heck, I oppose the GOP’s Obamacare repeal/replace nonsense because while I do care about the millions of people who would be screwed, first I care that I would be screwed.

Like a bad Halloween costume, when we dress up our self-interests as selfless concern for the greater good, people see through it. Trust — the fuel of a free society, economy and democracy — turns to cynicism. On the other hand, putting our selfish cards on the table builds trust and the good it does.

Besides, if you’re kinda lazy like me, remember that reality is a lot easier than deception.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.

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