Lara Brown Focuses on Putting Political Theory Into Practice at GWU

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Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
Sept. 19, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

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.

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