By MARSHA MERCER
What’s the difference between Washington and everywhere else? Here’s a quick take from a corporate executive who knows from experience.
“Growing up in New Hampshire and being a CEO, I always felt like what I thought, what I said and what I did had to be the same thing,” says David M. Cote, chairman and chief executive of Honeywell International.
“In government, that’s three separate decisions.”
In Washington, “what they say isn’t necessarily what they think, and what they do isn’t necessarily what they say or think,” says Cote, who noted that Washington operates at a level of “complexity” beyond any he has dealt with in the business world. He sat for an interview last month at a Wall Street Journal breakfast.
I would argue that not doing what one says is duplicity, not complexity, but let’s not quibble. Cote hit on a truth so obvious it made me want to slap my forehead. He learned as a member of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles fiscal responsibility commission how to translate Washington-speak and understand how politicians triangulate their thoughts, words and deeds.
Cote, the lifelong Republican, said he once walked out of a meeting with a pol who had said, “I’m with you, Dave.” Cote turned to his staff guy and said, “What a great meeting!”
“He’s not with us,” his guy replied and explained why what the pol said wasn’t really what he meant. Cote had a lot to learn.
Some corporate suits named to presidential commissions just make one appearance or so – they’re busy, after all, with their day jobs. But Cote arranged his schedule so he could show up every time the commission met, an accomplishment that only he, Simpson and Bowles managed. He learned not to take what pols say at face value – certainly not until there’s a deal they can start talking about. Why, he says, would a savvy pol go out on a limb and upset constituents prematurely?
When the Simpson-Bowles commission considered raising the age of eligibility for Social Security by one year 75 years in the future, left-leaning groups rose in mighty opposition, ludicrously claiming that the commission was robbing the old. Eventually, Congress must deal with the long-term future of boomer-burdened Social Security and Medicare. The longer we wait, the more likely we hurt current beneficiaries.
Even though Congress should deal with the future of Medicare and Medicaid now, the more likely scenario is that Congress will lurch forward, crisis to crisis, Cote says.
There are “some really smart, well-meaning people” in Washington, Cote says, and, yes, there are also dolts. “I’ve had times when I’ve looked at someone and said, ‘You can’t possibly believe what you just said.’”Haven’t we all?
Cote’s trenchant remarks help explain why it’s so hard for voters to trust anyone in Washington. President Barack Obama shocked many on his side when he delayed parts of the Affordable Care Act, and that was merely the latest in a series of disappointments for liberal supporters.
House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., promises that the House will take up a package of bills before the end of the month aimed at addressing the trust deficit in Washington. Among these is a bizarre measure allowing people to record their conversations with some federal officials – although not with members of Congress.
If the House and Senate can’t agree on substantive legislation, like the Farm Bill and how to avoid doubling the interest rates on new student loans, political grandstanding hardly will shore up the people’s trust.
If Dave Cote is right, the problem for the next presidential candidate -- Republican and Democratic –is deeper than something a jazzy PR campaign can fix. Voters need to believe we can rely on what politicians say as a guide to what they’ll do. That’s not too much to ask. Anything less adds to the already significant distrust of Washington and that will keep voters home on Election Day.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.