Exodus of Leadership

W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats

LAKE MACBRIDE— A story that asks the question “who will be the next statesman after Nelson Mandela” is circulating on the Internet, and there is no credible answer. The conditions that raised Mandela to prominence on the world stage may have been unique. The better answer is that someone like him is no longer possible on our connected globe with more than seven billion people. None of the current generation of political, religious or institutional leaders is a candidate for an appellation like global statesman. Suffice it to say Mandela was unique to his time.

Some of the best people in our federal government are making their exits. The departures continued yesterday with the announcement that Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa’s third congressional district was calling it quits at the end of his term. Following on the heels of Senator Tom Harkin’s similar announcement, the two couldn’t be more different from each other. But there is a common thread: Washington has changed.

When President Barack Obama was inaugurated, there was hope for getting things done. In the 111th Congress, Democrats had increased their majorities in both legislative chambers, presumably setting the stage for positive accomplishments with a Democratic president. That hope was dashed almost immediately. Hope was most certainly gone when I visited Washington in September 2009.

I made the rounds to Senators Harkin and Grassley’s offices to advocate for ratification of the New START Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The former was perceived to be a slam dunk, and prospects for the latter were hopeful, and the reason for my engagement. In retrospect, ratification of the New START Treaty proved to be a Herculean struggle, and CTBT had no legitimate chances. I recall a conference call in 2010 with then Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs Ellen Tauscher where when asked about next steps after ratification of New START, her answer was hesitant. She demurred, indicating we were at the end of the line even if she hadn’t said it in so many words.

One knows there are lobbyists in Washington. Being from Iowa, we are used to lobbyists occupying every square inch of the capitol from the bathrooms to the law library to committee meeting rooms. In 2009, the number of Washington lobbyists was between 12 and 13 thousand people, and they descended upon the capitol in droves each day. I saw them, they can’t be missed. At the same time, lobbyists with substantial ability to influence is a much lower number, in the dozens. When I was walking through the senate office buildings, the presence of lobbyists was akin to what goes on with termites when they find a moist chunk of wood to gain entry into the foundations of a house: our government has been hollowed out.

Yesterday’s Iowa political story was not the announcement that Tyler Olson (Democratic gubernatorial candidate) and Tom Latham are exiting politics. The story being missed is that Tom Harkin and Tom Latham are exiting politics, and what that says about what’s going on in our federal government.

We are in a time when “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In high school I knew that verse by W.B. Yeats referred to World War I, but this old poem resonates as clearly as a bell in today’s political environment. Begging the question, what rough beast is slouching toward Washington to be born?

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