“Are you a Hack or a Wonk?” That was the first thing my boss at the Rep. Norm Dicks campaign said to me after the congressman secured his seventeenth term. We were celebrating Obama’s recent victory and a job well done. His question, meant as a sort of exit interview, is classic of the divide among political personnel and even politicians. It gets at the core difficulty with our political system and it is worth considering.
A political Wonk is someone who is interested, fascinated and well-versed in policy. They understand the mechanisms of government; how a tax levy can be used to create a flood fund that would then be distributed in an emergency, or how the UGAs can be rewritten to increase the amount of development possible, or how to write enforceable environmental protections to reduce the amount of phosphorous in Lake Whatcom. These concerns are all the domain of the Wonk. In short, they become involved in politics because they want to run government. They want use government to enact a policy.
These people are essential to a functioning democracy. They become legislative staffers, bureaucrats, department heads and occasionally, politicians. When they decide to run for office, be prepared to see lots of charts, rationale and detailed proposals. These people truly know what they are talking about and run because they feel they have the best solutions. Some current examples are Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), Ross Perot (R-ish-TX), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and locally, Carl Weimer and Michael Lilliquist. I am hard pressed to think of any current conservative policy Wonks here locally, but I’m sure our dedicated commenters can come up with a few.
The difficulty lies in getting these people elected. Often they are not terribly likable or diplomatic. They get frustrated with the hoops necessary to accomplish their goals. They lose their target audience as they flip over another chart showing banked capacity or something. In short, they have skills necessary to do the job, but not to get the job. Enter, the Hack.
The Hack is someone who enjoys the process of elections. These people know precincts, voting blocs, demographics, swing votes, gerrymandering, and media. They know how to get a great headline, who to schmooze to get the big check, and what lines in a speech will cause people to change their vote. They are less concerned about substance than style. Ends often justify the means for most of these people. They design yard signs, comment on blogs and are pundits on CNN.
These people are essential to a functioning democracy. Don’t spit out your coffee yet. They really are, because without them, the policy Wonks would never be able to get into the reigns of power. These people allow the Wonks to focus on policy without worrying about political blowback because the Hack will take care of it. Both provide a unique set of skills to the process. In short, the Hack has the skills to get the job, but not necessarily to do the job.
It doesn’t mean that Hacks don’t know policy. Many of them are well-versed, but it is not where they thrive. The classic example of the Hack is Rahm Emmanuel (D-Chief of Staff), Karl Rove (R-Fox News) and locally, Ken Mann and Brett Bonner. Both of these people are top notch communicators and it is no wonder that they both hail from a media background. Hacks are essential to getting your message across and I count myself as one of them.
So next time you meet a politician, ask yourself: are they a Hack or a Wonk? Usually if they are one, they will keep the other close by. Obama is more wonkish, especially when you get him talking about foreign policy, and so he keeps Rahm Emmanuel close by. On the other hand, Rep. Norm Dicks was a great people person and communicator, so he has some very smart Wonks on his staff. Hence the give and take. Both are necessary to a functioning political process. So how about you? Are you a Hack or a Wonk?