Washington Needs Movements, Not Moments

Brief mentions of climate change and fair workplaces do not amount to real changes.

Photo of Hank Paulson

Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson

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Washington works in mysterious ways, if it is working at all. Henry Paulson, the former treasury secretary in the George W. Bush White House, has been so kind as to grace us with his position on climate change, which is that it's real, and something serious must be done about it. Paulson, a.k.a. "Hank," recommends a tax on carbon emissions. 

Sorry, but it's too late in the game for Paulson to get involved. He could have made a difference by taking a courageous stand in the corridors of power, when he was a cabinet policymaker at the highest level and had the president's ear. Right now, the Republican party is so swept away by the tea party tempest that an allegedly wise man like Paulson sadly won't change anyone's stance or behavior. It's nice for Hank that he gets to feel he did the right thing. His old-guard tennis friends will rib him good-naturedly across the net. He'll figure, over a gin and tonic, that there are some principled Republicans left in Washington after all, and he's one of them.

[SEE: Cartoons about the Republican Party]

Meanwhile, the White House Summit on Working Families, the first one ever, happened yesterday, giving suggestions for a humane workplace, where leave is more flexible, and even paid. Because the number of female breadwinners is trending up, raising the minimum wage (the president has proposed $10.10) can be framed as a women's issue." It was a true Washington pow-wow, with stars like Maria Shriver, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Barack Obama himself voicing strong support for fairer compensation for women and more "family-friendly" workplaces, where people leave in time for dinner with their families, and where invisible caregiving, often done by women, is recognized and counted somehow in the scheme of things.

These are darn good ideas, and I'm all for power to the sisterhood. Let's say some become bills introduced by one as formidable as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The trouble is they are going nowhere, even though female representation in Congress is higher than it's ever been. The House Republican majority (mostly white males) are not into any of that. After Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" pebble was cast against the temple of male privilege, to no avail, I've come round to thinking that exerting influence and making suggestions are "good girl" actions writ large. If women seek change, a one-day conference is fine. People leave feeling fired up and good about social progress. But it is not the same as a movement, no matter how many tweets were sent. That's what women need: a revival of a shared grassroots strategy that produces momentum and legislation.

[SEE: Cartoons on the Democratic Party]

Pragmatism is a virtue when you see a talented president run into real trouble in his fifth year. The Washington players and games we play lose their charm in a crisis of confidence. Obama needs all hands, yes, but he needs help in the old-fashioned style: clear, concrete results with his name on them.

But it's hard to get good help these days. Just ask Hank.