An Early Introduction to the Ways of Washington

Jonathan Swanson is too young to be wearing a charcoal-gray suit, especially in the torpor of a Washington summer. Then again, he’s old for his 22 years. As national director of Students for Saving Social Security, Swanson is involved in an issue that most people his age don’t care about.

The oddity doesn’t faze him. He and his enthusiastic co-workers toil from morning till midnight in a cramped, box-strewn office near the White House that looks like a freshman dorm room. Day-old pizza crusts teeter near some overstuffed luggage. Swanson explained that he’s between apartments at the moment and is crashing on the floor of a friend.

“We’re having the time of our lives,” Swanson said, his blue eyes alight with hope and adrenalin. “I’ve never been so excited about anything!”

Most organizations that lobby from the “grass roots” are bought and paid for by established interest groups. (That’s why they’re derided as Astroturf.) Not Swanson’s group, which is also known as S4. Swanson of Yale University and co-founder Patrick Wetherille of Haverford College conceived and built their coalition of 200 campus affiliates almost entirely by themselves.

They started in March by paying a pal of Wetherille’s $50 to construct a Web site ( ). Their goal — to enlist other college kids in their quest to enact President Bush’s plan to add private accounts to Social Security — has succeeded beyond their dreams. They acknowledge that the proposal’s momentum has slowed. Still, S4 volunteers last month met in the White House complex with Bush, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.

If altering a government pension program seems like a strange obsession, then you’re not thinking like a Washington careerist. People like Swanson and Wetherille, who love to lose themselves in a cause, are perfect candidates to join the capital’s unofficial farm team. Like thousands of other dedicated believers, they are in training — whether they know it or not — to be political leaders of the future.

Alan Ehrenhalt deftly described their peculiar type of apprenticeship 14 years ago in “The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power and the Pursuit of Office.” He noted that the lawmakers of the day often began as young zealots in government-directed crusades, including community activism and civil rights. They honed their skills in relative obscurity before moving up Washington’s treacherous hierarchy.

Back then, Democrats and their causes provided the best entry-level training. These days, Republicans have the edge in nurturing their young. “The balance of sophistication has shifted from the left to the right in schooling people for political careers,” said Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing magazine.

Swanson’s experience fits the trend. He and Wetherille joined what amounts to the Republican civil service last fall when they worked for a semester as White House interns. They were assigned to assist Bush’s Social Security guru, Charles P. Blahous. Although they hadn’t met before, by the end of their internships they were comrades in arms.

Their aspiration was to fill a strategic vacuum. Many senior citizens protested the president’s plan, but college-age people, who arguably have more at stake, were little involved in the debate.

So Swanson and Wetherille e-mailed their friends about what they saw as the benefits of private accounts and patched together the beginnings of a lobbying group. As a matter of pride, they hoped to establish themselves before Blahous and other Washingtonians noticed. Instead, the capital insiders caught wind of their recruitment e-mails and offered help within weeks.

The Washingtonians’ support was — and remains — light-handed. They didn’t want to diminish the fervor of their youthful wards nor make the college-level efforts seem less than genuine. So they assisted in small ways. FreedomWorks and the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, which are pushing for private accounts, gave the group’s leaders free office space. Other associations offered e-mail lists, organizational advice and technical support, such as how to improve the Web site.

A few individuals also forked over money, but not much. Some members of Swanson’s group are receiving $1,000-a-month stipends and a few S4 events have been subsidized. (The most notable involved a fake snowman and ice sculptures near the Capitol to bemoan how Congress has given private accounts the cold shoulder.) The total outlay for the summer is no more than $30,000, a pittance by D.C. standards.

For that minor investment, a dozen or so would-be politicos have learned a tremendous lesson: how to construct a policy structure that lasts. S4 has a fundraising director, a public relations manager, and a coordinator of op-ed publications. It has staffers who write talking points and give media training to students who are interviewed by local TV and radio stations. Controlling it all is a chief of staff, who, with others, keeps close tabs on what each campus affiliate is doing.

Even the most advanced lobbying group couldn’t ask for a better arrangement.

Students on the left who oppose private accounts also have an organization to turn to. In May, a group called Students United to Protect Social Security announced that it had 43 campus affiliates across the nation. But unlike S4, that group was the creation of an existing lobby — Americans United to Protect Social Security — and has been dormant all summer while S4 has slaved.

During a 9 p.m. conference call last week, Swanson and his co-workers sat around a conference table at FreedomWorks and urged everyone who had called in to take on specific responsibilities. Swanson also asked for their commitment and energy — two things he clearly possessed. Ever since he and others had met with Bush at the White House, he said, “we are completely psyched we’re jumping up and down.”

Swanson is taking off the fall semester to run his organization from Washington. His presence will be an inspiration, not just to other college kids, but also to grizzled veterans of the lobbying scene. “They’ve got such passion, such commitment to the concept of personal accounts that they really give the rest of us renewed energy,” said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.

As for the future, Swanson said that one day he wants to become an economics adviser to the president. His training in the trenches this year will give him a running start.

Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. E-mail him