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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Wave 2: Policy

I liked the way Jeffrey Birnbaum started his Washington Post opinion piece on how interest groups influence the agenda:

With all these pressing woes, how did Social Security, Terri Schiavo's end-of-life fight and judicial nominations make it to the top of the Washington agenda? It's not merely because the White House or the party in power wants them to be there. It's because deep-rooted, well-heeled organizations have been targeting those issues for years. What seems like serendipity to the public -- why is Congress talking about trial lawyers again? -- is more often the result of an interest group's advance work combining with the right circumstances to send an issue hurtling into the limelight.

Like it or not, we increasingly live in a stage-managed democracy where highly orchestrated interests filter our priorities. These groups don't have absolute power, of course. In the nation's capital, home to 30,000 registered lobbyists, hundreds of politicians, thousands of journalists and untold numbers of entrenched bureaucrats, no one's in charge. But long-established entities like the AARP, the Family Research Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce mold our collective thinking and regularly dictate the language and tenor of our civic debates.

This notion runs counter to an abiding myth -- that political leaders actually lead. That's true sometimes, of course, but more often than not, the ideas and movements that get on the government's to-do list come from the broad middle and not from the top.

But he really got my attention with the following analogy:

The process is a lot like surfing. Interest groups float along, waiting for the perfect wave of public sentiment or official fiat to carry their issues to victory. They can't create the wave, but they can be ready for the moment when it comes. The key is to be prepared for that moment: Not every issue has an organization with the wealth and staying power to be in that position. Those that do have a shot at winning.

Probably because it sounds a lot like something I wrote quite a while ago in reference to the Dean boom and bust:

The “wave” analogy so often used in the media seems more than apt. Great surfing is as much about being in excellent shape with skills, timing, balance, and muscles developed through years of practice as it is about catching the perfect wave. Now your average Kansan couldn’t ride like a champion even if the greatest wave ever came and asked him to climb on. And even Bethany Hamilton can’t be very radical on the Chesapeake Bay that graces Maryland. Instead, the ultimate ride requires both an incredible surfer in just the right position and a great wave appearing as anticipated.