Why Jeff Bezos Will Feel Out of Place in Washington
The Amazon founder appears to be a pragmatist. He is taking over a newspaper in a town seized by ideological rigidity.
The first thing Washington's latest VIP made clear is that he doesn't want to live here. "I am happily living in 'the other Washington' where I have a day job that I love," Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wrote to his new employees after buying The Washington Post this week.
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With that sentiment, Bezos will fit right into his new terrain. Much of Washington's decision-making class never misses an opportunity to declare how happy they are to be away from the city that provides them status, power, and influence. It's a convention of modern politics that elected officials who spend years scrambling to reach Washington must immediately demonstrate how eager they are to escape it.
Bezos is a much more accidental power broker. By all indications, he acquired The Post almost by happenstance, as if picking up an alluring, though somewhat frayed, novel on remainder. And yet by keeping his distance from his new domain, he is displaying the intuitive understanding that almost no one is enlarged by close association with the modern Washington of maximum conflict and minimum achievement.
In another respect, though, Bezos offers a perspective very different than that of most of the city's existing decision-makers: He arrives without a rigidly defined cosmology. Reporters picking over the evidence of his political leanings have found few clues. In Washington state, Bezos has supported gay marriage and opposed higher taxes on the affluent, a common enough set of beliefs in his age, educational, and tax bracket. He likes charter schools, a centrist reform with fans in both parties, and has backed other initiatives aimed at reinvigorating public schools, such as Teach for America. He has made relatively few personal political contributions, and Amazon's political action committee has split its money closely between Republicans and Democrats. Some friends describe Bezos' overall inclination as libertarian, but if so it's a decaf blend.
Maybe all this portrays someone who has been too busy building a business empire to formulate many opinions on politics or public policy. But it more likely indicates that Bezos hasn't been convinced that either party has a monopoly on the truth. It may not be that he hasn't devised an ideological construct so much as the construct he's developed is one that doesn't prioritize ideology. That seems his approach not only in politics but business. One thing he's stressed in his (few) initial comments about his plans for The Post is that he doesn't have all the answers. "I don't want to imply that I have a worked-out plan," he told The Post in an interview this week. "This will be uncharted terrain, and it will require experimentation."
That flexibility very much separates Bezos from his new neighbors. New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, in his coruscating new book, This Town, wittily deconstructs Washington's hypocrisy, self-dealing, greed, and careerism. The takedown is unequivocal and mostly deserved, and yet, from my perspective, none of those traits really explain Washington's descent into dysfunctional stalemate.
The biggest reason Washington doesn't work is not too little integrity but too much rigidity. The principal role of the political system—the value it adds to the American life—is mediating the perpetual differences in our very diverse society. But Washington has almost entirely lost its ability to fulfill that function because the most powerful incentives now encourage elected officials to prioritize ideological consistency over pragmatic compromise.
Though Republicans rail at the assertion, the evidence is that this tendency is not evenly distributed in both parties. Because Republicans are operating with a more homogenous electoral coalition than Democrats, GOP officials face more centrifugal pressure to embrace purist and uncompromising positions. The escalating blockade of Republican resistance to Obama's initiatives—symbolized by mounting conservative demands to shut down the government to defund his health care law—increasingly resembles a kind of sit-down strike by nonurban white America against the racially diverse, urbanized electoral majority that twice elected the president.
Obama has shown somewhat more willingness to incorporate Republican concerns into his agenda (for instance by pursuing a budget deal that would both restrain entitlements and raise taxes). Yet the Democratic coalition that he leads is also growing more ideologically unified. And as demographic change enlarges that coalition behind him, Obama has shown less interest (or intuitive talent) than Bill Clinton in trying to reach voters and regions beyond his comfort zone. While the process has hardened more in the GOP, under Obama there is a sense that the Democratic Party is also folding in on itself: It was telling that, when National Journal recently profiled the administration's top 250 appointees, less than one in five were raised in a state that voted for Mitt Romney. Both parties appear increasingly inclined to accept the red-blue landscape as an immovable, and impassable, divide.
Bezos will have his hands full grappling with the newspaper industry's endemic dilemmas. But his new hometown would benefit from a few more imports with the same respect for experimentation and pragmatic problem-solving that he has displayed in his business career.