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The Observer October 31, 2004

All change in Washington

Whoever wins, the nation's capital will feel pain

By Peter Beaumont

Sitting on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue, the Capital Grille is where the congressmen and lawyers of the Republican Party, its business supporters, its petitioners and lobbyists, dine on 24oz porterhouse steaks, smoke Davidoff cigars and drink bottles of Haut Brion.

Its allure is not necessarily the food. The steaks at Morton's - more favoured by a Democratic crowd - are generally accepted to be finer. Instead, it is about atmosphere and connections, the knowledge of close proximity to the wheels of power. It is an ambience once memorably summed up by Roll Call, the Congressional weekly, as 'to hell with the have-nots'.

The Capital Grille, with its vast slabs of marbled meat and brittle, well-groomed young women flirting with rich attorneys, says former Democratic congressman turned lobbyist Toby Moffett, is a 'real Republican place'.

'The Capital Grille will take a financial hit if Kerry is elected,' said Moffett. 'There will just be fewer Republicans and a lot less money chasing after them.'

In a capital and country more partisan than at any time in living memory, what happens in the polls on Tuesday will have far-reaching consequences for the competing political cultures of DC.

And if it is not a changing of the guard that is around the corner with a Kerry victory, then it is the consolidation of a Bush Washington whose atmosphere is invidious to liberal causes. In either event, there will be change and pain.

'If there is a change of president,' says Moffett, 'there will be some furious scrambling. It will affect thousands of people. There will be a huge turnover inside the lobbying firms, in the big associations who will want to have the right people representing them in Washington, in the corporate offices, most of which are run by Republicans.'

A Democratic lobbyist, the head of Livingston-Moffett has found the Washington of the past four years a tough place to work.

'I think most Democrats have suffered after Bush took power. The way these guys play the game has hurt incomes. The only thing that has saved Democratic lobbyists is the fact that, in the Senate you need 60 votes, not a straight majority.'

A Kerry win, said Moffett, would end four years of exile for many of the liberal groups that campaign on issues from human rights to gun control who have been 'in exile' since the advent of the Bush administration.

It is in the area of funding and 'de-funding' of pressure groups - and in their access to power - that the results of the election will be most keenly felt.

It is a process that has been documented by New York political commentator Esther Kaplan. In her book, With God on Their Side, she details the ruthless culling of 'mainstream scientific, professional and policy organisations, whose constituencies tend to lean Democratic, [and] have been removed from influential federal advisory positions and replaced by ideologues'.

Writes Kaplan: 'The American Medical Association no longer advises US delegates to UN summits on children's issues; Concerned Women for America does instead. Experts from the Centre for Aids Prevention Studies no longer sit on the presidential Aids advisory council; they have been replaced by a former beauty queen who lectures on abstinence.'

It is a process, says Kaplan, that has been pursued through obscenity prosecutions, audits and Byzantine new financial reporting rules. What is without doubt is that a Kerry victory would see the renaissance of groups that have been excluded for four years.

Four more years of Bush - it seems fair to say - would see a continuation of the relentless attrition on liberal groups and causes.

It is not simply in the access to the levers of power that Washington faces the possibility of change, but in the psycho-geography of the capital itself and its centre of political and social gravity. It is about how Washington defines itself as a location.

It is overwhelmingly Democratic - more than 70 per cent of DC voters are expected to vote Kerry: 'Republican Washington' is best summed up by the, wealthy Wasp suburbs of north Virginia, in particular McClean, which has come to be identified with the Bush administration.

'In terms of political culture,' says Peter Beinart, editor of New Republic magazine, 'Washington always feels a more happening place when the Democrats are in power because they live in Washington.'

A Kerry victory, Beinart predicts, would also be accompanied by talk of a 'Boston renaissance' following the Boston Red Sox winning the baseball World Series and the recent successes in American football of the New England Patriots.

But the most significant change if Kerry wins is that his presidency would mark the 'end of a period of alienation from empiricism', returning Washington from faith-based policy-making.

This theme is taken up by John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity think tank. 'What has happened is that the political culture in this town has got to the stage it can no longer differentiate between what is and what should be. In the past four years, the political conversation has deteriorated into a series of 'talking points' - party lines - where most people have no idea what they are saying.'

It is hardly surprising. The relationship between the administration and academia is summed up by the attitude of Bush strategist, Karl Rove, when he defined the 'Democratic base' to the New Yorker as 'anyone with a doctorate'.

But one thing is certain, and that is, whoever wins, the levers of power will at least be pulled by some different faces, even if a wholesale change doesn't happen. A Bush second term, say Washington insiders would almost certainly see Secretary of State Colin Powell leave the administration, tired after so many humiliations at the hands of the neo-conservatives.

Condoleezza Rice, too, is believed to be keen to move on or up, and is said to have told friends that she will stay if asked to by Bush, but would really like to be Secretary for Defence.

Before then, however, as the patrons of the Capital Grille are only too aware, there is an election to be won.

Copyright 2004, Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004