Washington Babylon — September 29, 2010, 11:37 am

Signing Out

This is my last post here at Washington Babylon and I’ll be leaving my position as Harper’s Washington Editor (I will remain as a contributing editor to the magazine). I’ve received a fellowship at the Open Society Institute and will also be leading special investigations at Global Witness, which has offices in London and in Washington. My work for both will focus on long-term international investigations.

I moved to Washington in 1993, when a young, new Democratic president replaced George Bush and promised to reform politics and be a transformative leader. Backed by huge majorities in Congress and with public opinion squarely in his corner, he had the opportunity to shake things up and change American politics. Instead, he and his party squandered their chance through timidity, weak leadership, a lack of any original ideas and their refusal to confront special interest groups.

Here we are seventeen years later and there’s a young, new Democratic president who replaced George Bush and promised to reform politics and be a transformative leader. Backed by huge majorities in Congress….

Well, by now you can probably guess where this is heading.

I had low expectations for Obama as I always viewed him as a fairly conventional insider. But by any measure, his presidency has been a huge disappointment. It’s true that Obama inherited a terrible economy, but his policies were timid — which is no surprise given that his economic team was composed almost entirely of the same bankers and Wall Street insiders who paved the way for and profited from our bubble economy. There are now 43.6 million Americans living in poverty and more than 15 million out of work; that’s a scandal, and when there’s a Democrat in the White House and the party has ample majorities in Congress, it’s not credible to blame everything on obstructionism by the Republicans.

Then there was the health care reform bill, that took more than a year to pass and whose primary beneficiaries were the lobbyists who got paid billions to water it down. The bill does almost nothing to control costs and left the insurance industry in charge of the system. And for that very reason, the industry will be able to contrive loopholes that minimize the impact of the few good measures left in the bill.

Joe Biden and Robert Gibbs have recently been attacking the “left” and saying that it doesn’t appreciate all the great things the administration has done. For my part, I have lived in Washington long enough to have realistic hopes; for example, given political realities, passing a single payer bill was not going to happen. But I also don’t think it’s my job, as a journalist or a citizen, to blindly repeat the mantra of the administration (and its supporters in the blogosphere), that we should “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Fine, but let’s also not treat the administration’s health care plan as a grand achievement. The bill is widely unpopular, and not only because of the hyperbolic attacks on it by Republicans and Fox News. It’s unpopular because it’s a terrible piece of legislation.

The current GOP is truly a scary party, but if not for that it would be impossible to care about the midterm elections. When you’re reduced to rooting for soulless hacks like the current Senate majority leader – and he’s typical of today’s Democrats – you’ve lost something fundamental at the core of your humanity.

So as you can tell from all this, I just no longer have the energy to cover Washington. I’ve loved working for Harper’s, but, as I told Mediabistro, “Washington and Washington politics has worn me down. Every time I write a story I feel like I wrote it a year ago and five years ago and 10 years ago. Nothing ever changes here.” I frequently find myself numb to political news and, even worse, to the lifeless, conventional wisdom peddled by the Washington media. When you can read an entire column by the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz and never once feel the urge to cut out your own heart with a dull knife, you know that you no longer have the sense of outrage that is essential to reporting from our nation’s capital.

Anyway, I’m not trying to suggest that journalism isn’t an admirable profession. (And anyone who thinks otherwise should look at the amazing work that the Los Angeles Times has done on the situation in Bell, California.) As the media landscape changes, non-profits and foundations are increasingly coming forward as the institutions willing to underwrite intensive investigative journalism. At Global Witness I’ll continue working under that admirable, sustainable model that I’ve been proud to be a part of at Harper’s, in whose pages readers will see me again very soon.

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