Hedrick Smith, who was chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times for more than a decade, has written a massive, sprawling, but lively book which purports to tell the inside story of how the political system in Washington really works. The basic premise of The Power Game: How Washington Works is that the structure of political power has changed dramatically since 1974. This was the year in which Congress began vigorously to reassert itself in the face of the growth of executive power during the Vietnam War and the abuse of power in the Watergate scandal. Most of Smith’s analysis centers on the Reagan era, although other presidencies receive occasional attention.
One of the main features of the sea change in the political structure is the decline in presidential power. It is now harder for a president to build coalitions in Congress, for example, because the sources of congressional power have become spread over a wider area. The reason for this is partly that the parties have been weakened by the emergence of television as a primary medium of communication, giving politicians direct access to the electorate. As a result, many congressmen are more independent than before, and those who are able to exploit the new game of “video politics” can acquire a considerable power base.
Another feature of the new politics that has also had the effect of spreading power over a larger base is the vast increase in the number and influence of special interest groups. In 1961 only 365 lobbyists were registered; in mid-1987 the number had shot up to 23,011. Lobbying tactics have also changed and now involve far more grass-roots campaigns. Smith gives as an example the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Jolted by its failure to prevent the sale of American weapons to Saudi Arabia in 1981, AIPAC widened its organizational network so that it no longer relied solely on the financial and political power of the Jewish communities in states such as New York, California, Illinois, Florida, and Massachusetts. By building up grass-roots organizations throughout the country and encouraging local leaders to lobby their congressmen and senators, AIPAC recovered its strength and was able to block effectively many subsequent arms deals with the Arab world.
The growth of lobbying has been accompanied by the growth of political action committees (PACs), from 608 in 1974 to 4,157 in 1986. PACs provide a major source of fund raising for interest groups as well as for corporations, unions, and trade associations. Much of the money is then poured into political campaigns, a development which has led conservative former Senator Barry Goldwater to lament “PAC money is destroying the electoral process. ... it creates an impression that every candidate is bought and owned by the biggest givers.”
Also on the increase is the number and influence of staff aides on Capitol Hill, a development which was based in part on the principle that to fight a bureaucracy requires the creation of another. Senators and congressmen are increasingly dependent on their staff for policy positions on complex issues, a fact which is amusingly revealed by the story of the senator who received a call from a fellow senator asking why he was opposing him on a certain issue. “I didn’t know I was,” the first senator answered. “Well, check with your staff and see,” was the reply. The staff aide can unobtrusively shape policy while the elected officials take the credit. A similar increase in staff power has taken place in the executive branch, to the disadvantage of the Cabinet.
In sum, political power no longer resides in a few well-defined places but shifts and floats from one group of alliances to another, spreading itself over a wider canvas, with the balance of power changing from issue to issue. Smith compares it to “fast-action basketball, where anyone can steal the ball, change the flow of the game, and then score from practically anywhere around the basket.”
Smith enjoys his chosen metaphor of politics as a game, and he exploits it to the limit (and sometimes beyond). Water polo, bridge, basketball, soccer, and football all have their moments, and the rivalry between President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill is treated to an extended boxing metaphor, complete with weight categories, punching bags, and toe-to-toe exchanges (“O’Neill’s haymaker bruised Reagan”), although reporters watching the fight apparently behave as if they are watching a tennis match. This does...