West Point cadets delve deep into political power plays
November 18, 2010
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Nov. 18, 2010) -- Aristotle once wrote that by nature man is a political animal. On Nov. 9, more than 100 cadets roamed Eisenhower Hall as if it were the halls of Congress, learning the true meaning of this statement.
A contingent of Class of 2013 and 2014 cadets studying American Politics in the Department of Social Sciences participated in a third installment of the Congressional Simulation Exercise. They took on the roles of congressmen, journalists, lobbyists and presidential advisors in a competition of give-and-take to see who could acquire the most political capital by day's end.
With a soundtrack of "Hail to the Chief" setting the tone from the start, both houses of government stood as the president strode to the podium to deliver an address on immigration reform. Aptly played by Brig. Gen. William Rapp, commandant of the Corps of Cadets, the 'president' announced his position and demanded bipartisanship in shaping policy reform.
The event revealed the realities of life as a Washington insider, with deal-making, negotiations and debate playing significant parts of the political process. Class of 2014 Cadet Stuart Muller, an engineering major, role-played on the side of special interest groups.
"There's a lot of power there," Muller said of his job as a lobbyist. "It was realistic, but still unfair. I wouldn't want to do this every day for a living ... too stressful."
Moments later, a representative exited the chamber, declaring chaos in the House. Then a stream of Republicans filed out of the Senate during a floor debate.
"Why not' It's a one-sided conversation in there," argued members of the minority party. They soon spoke of a filibuster, deliberating what they could do to stall the vote.
The drama wasn't exclusive to Congress. Pairs of cadets represented various news organizations such as Fox, MSNBC, CBS, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Reporters hovered around politicians, gleaning bits of information to transform into breaking news stories.
Likewise, politicians and lobbyists flocked the news desks, imposing influence over the press with promises of insider information in exchange for favorable copy. In true fashion of the 24-hour news cycle, the cadet-journalists churned out exclusive interviews, analysis and feature stories.
Congregations of cadets would flock to the corkboard for the latest news releases, occasionally fuming about questionable sources and demanding retractions. During lulls in congressional action, the media would turn on itself and file negative reports on each other.
Maj. John Childress served as a military fellow in the office of Congressman Elijah Cummings before joining the faculty as an American Politics instructor this semester.
"I was excited about the exercise because it gave me a chance, as new faculty, to inject some of my prior experience on [Capitol] Hill into a project that had already been built by other faculty in the years before," Childress said. "It seems to us that West Point is particularly well suited to this type of experimentation because there is a constant influx of fresh experiences amongst the rotating faculty and, therefore, a new set of ideas every year."
Childress, a 2001 West Point graduate, said the exercise is not designed to replicate policy-making, but rather it gives cadets a meaningful feel for the multiple and differentiating pressures legislators face when dealing with any issue.
"However, just as importantly, we wanted cadets to appreciate the power of personal relationships in shaping the decisions that come out of the Congress and the actual encumbrances that being a member of either party in either House places on everyone there," Childress said.
Maj. Kent Park and Maj. Fernando Lujan began the SIMEX three semesters ago to expose cadets to higher levels of cognitive learning.
"Based on their background and experience, we know cadets are generally proficient at memorizing information," Park said. "This exercise forces them to apply that knowledge in a particular context. They have to 'analyze, synthesize, and apply' continuously throughout the day as situations change."
Giving the cadets an outcome based evaluation outside of the classroom allows them an opportunity to demonstrate certain skills they normally wouldn't be evaluated on in class, Park added, like negotiations, persuasion, coalition building, strategizing, position taking and even intimidating to compel a particular behavior.
"While these skills are not heavily emphasized in an academic environment, they are critical in an operational environment as officers in the U.S. Army," Park said. "Most importantly, cadets must be creative and adaptive to navigate through the political process. There are no right answers or prescribed actions."
Class of 2013 Cadet Joseph Ramos role-played as the conglomerate leader of three special interest groups. He and other cadet-lobbyists learned quickly they could wield extraordinary power in Congress by joining forces.
"We quickly sought to plant ourselves firmly with the democratic party leadership through donations or promises of political capital points," Ramos said.
Gaining support from the presidential advisors also helped the lobbyists to influence the immigration reform bill. While special interests scored victories, it proved harder to form consensus between parties in Congress.
"I think the single most important lesson I learned today was how hard it is to get the party to become unified and stay unified," Ramos said. "The amount of rumors that were going around were also troubling."
"Some representatives or congressmen were actual key swing votes, while others were just looking for a handout of points, Ramos continued. "Everyone thinks that their vote is important, when really, as an interest group we had to focus on swaying the larger masses."
Class of 2013 Cadet Brandon Tisdale, role-playing as Speaker of the House, studied up on the job beforehand but found a lot of on-the-job training throughout the day as he kept House Democrats united.
"A few were threatening to join the Republicans in exchange for a few political points," Tisdale said. "That's when I had to step up and do my best to make sure they didn't."
Tisdale tried to avoid dirty politics and seemed to find a strategy that worked favorably for his party and the bill they passed.
"I did make a few verbal promises that I had no intention of keeping, but for the most part I stayed clean," Tisdale said. "Everything was going my way most of the time, so I didn't feel the need to do anything that was morally questionable. I was definitely happy with the performance of my party and myself. We stuck together for the most part, and the bill passed entirely in our favor."
After votes were cast on the House and Senate floors and the news wire was silenced, a room of exhausted politicians and political insiders reverted back to cadet status for the after action review. Two guests were invited to observe the cadets in action and provide analysis afterward about their performance.
Maj. Michael Starz, a West Point Class of 2000 graduate, is a congressional fellow for Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, brought his experience working inside the Senate to the cadets for this event.
David Chen, the New York Times City Hall Bureau Chief, also answered cadet questions and presented a short evaluation of his observations from the day.