Politics is one of the few professions where, to get ahead, you must claim you know nothing about the job.
Think about it. You wouldn't want a surgeon who proudly boasts, "I will operate on you as a complete outsider, totally uninfluenced by the profession or anything that is taught in medical school."
You wouldn't want a plumber who smiles as he tells you he has no idea how to use any of his tools in his belt. If your airline pilot was plucked off the street at the last minute because the airline decided to "throw the bums out," you might be forcing open the doors and taking your chances with the emergency inflatable chute.
And yet it's hard to imagine someone new running for Congress who doesn't proclaim that he or she is a Washington outsider who is not a professional politician.
Most newcomers campaign on a platform of throwing the 'bums' out of Washington. When they succeed, however, they quickly discover that the road to bum-dom is short and quicker than a greased playground slide on a hot day.
When the new Congress is seated next month, it will be an odd mixture of inexperienced newcomers and people with plenty of insider knowledge. Some of them are even former 'bums' who have been given a new chance.
"Wouldn't you want somebody in Congress who actually knows how to do that stuff?" the New York Times recently quoted Alan Grayson, a former bum, as saying. He is newly elected to a Florida congressional seat he once held until the anti-incumbent massacre of 2010.
The Times interviewed Grayson as part of a story analyzing the incoming Congress. The most recent election, it seems, was a type of boomerang to 2010. In some parts of the country, it was an "anti-antigovernment wave."
People with government experience are replacing people who truly don't understand politics, but not completely. The new Congress will mix the two groups, although they will be hard to tell apart. That's because even those with insider experience claim they aren't really a part of Washington.
"The makeup of Congress has not been this volatile in 20 years," the Times story said. That's hardly comforting for a nation that seems to confront one cliff after another.
On one level, it's easy to understand why politicians want to claim no expertise when assuming their jobs. According to the web site Realclearpolitcs.com the public's approval rating of Congress currently sits at a dismal 20.7 percent, which is actually considerably better than only a few months ago (a lot of Americans may mistakenly believe the new Congress they elected already has been seated).
On a more practical level, however, we have to confront Grayson's question. Is there, if fact, a benefit to knowing one's way around Washington, to understanding how things work and to knowing how to craft solutions that require compromise?
No matter what the current lame-duck Congress does to avoid the "fiscal cliff," it isn't going to solve the long-term issues of reforming the tax code and entitlement programs, funding defense and confronting the ever-rising debt ceiling. Those will be up to the new bunch to confront.
When too many uncompromising ideologues dominate, ideology becomes the overriding issue. Majority rule is gold.
Details, we are told, are where the devil resides, but ideology pushes them aside. The Affordable Care Act is a perfect example. The details have now led 16 Democratic senators who voted for the act to ask that one provision, a 2.3 percent tax on medical devices, be at least postponed from taking effect Jan. 1.12 comments on this story
On the other hand, a Congress dominated by experienced politicians and policy wonks could easily forget the concerns of the voters who put them there. Instead, they build bulwarks against accountability.
Ultimately, it's impossible for politicians to be divorced from politics, no matter what they would claim. Outsiders have much to offer with fresh ideas and ideals. Experienced politicians know how to get things done.
The two don't have to cancel each other out.
As the recent past has shown, politicians can solve problems or draw ideological swords and engage in endless battle. They cannot do both.