Pondering the League of Nations, the breakup of the Soviet Union, or even carbon regulatory regimes is a far cry from actually getting things done on Capitol Hill.
"Political science tends to have a theoretical, scientific emphasis, and one of the things it hasn't done recently is address what happens in the real world of practicing politics," said Lara Brown, the new head of George Washington University's political management program.
In part because of its proximity to Capitol Hill, George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management has always had a more pragmatic outlook than some of its competitors in the political-science arena. Founded in 1987, it is overseen by former three-term Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn. — who vacated his seat in 2007 to mount an unsuccessful senatorial bid — and emphasizes "applied politics," or how the sausage gets made, rather than how the federal government ought to run.
"We're the program for students who have an undergraduate degree in political science and love politics but don't really want to go to law school and are not necessarily interested in a specific policy area," Brown said. "There are a whole bunch of kids like that."
In short, GSPM is a hatchery for political operatives. "What an M.B.A. is to an economics department, that's what we are to a political-science department."
Brown, 43, is well suited for an iconoclastic program like GSPM, having previously served as an Education Department official in the Clinton administration; she is currently moonlighting as a blogger for U.S. News & World Report.
In the context of Washington — where self-made pundits abound but few are conversant in the methodology of political science — Brown's observations carry special weight. In the last chapter of her 2011 book, Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants, she cites President Obama's "opportunism" as the characteristic that propelled him into the Oval Office.
"The profession tends to see presidential success coming from ambition or [fortuitous] timing or a structural issue, like a bad economy," she said. "But the vast majority of individuals who are party nominees broke through in a pretty big way the cycle before they were elected."
In other words, they established themselves as front-runners years before the contours of the election took shape.
Brown, who is not married and lives in Washington, has a Ph.D. from the University of California (Los Angeles), where she wrote her dissertation on the electoral consequences (or lack thereof) of congressional scandals. Her thesis hinged on the "hypocrisy factor," which neatly accounts for why moral and monetary improprieties affect Republicans and Democrats differently.
"If you're a Democrat, and you portray yourself as someone who cares deeply about justice and fairness while simultaneously taking bribes, that's really problematic," Brown said. "And, conversely, for Republicans who spend a lot of time talking about family values, having an extramarital affair is really problematic."
Before joining the faculty at GWU, Brown taught at Villanova University, outside Philadelphia.