RALEIGH, N.C. — As the GOP establishment, the media and just about everyone else tries to wrap their minds around the success and seeming invincibility of Donald Trump, Sen. Richard M. Burr is paying close attention.
The Trump effect — which includes the success of Dr. Ben Carson and probably Carly Fiorina as well — is something for members to ignore at their own peril, with 24 Republican senators up for re-election in 2016 and congressional disapproval in the 60s , “When you look at what they’ve tapped into, they’ve tapped into a frustration of the American people at the lack of solutions that come out of Washington — that government’s not working on their behalf,” the North Carolina senator said. “It’s been done quite effectively on the part of Trump.”
Trump, Burr said, embodies a large swath of voter frustration over issues seemingly overlooked in Washington, with the billionaire candidate stepping into an opening that he, so far, has been able to capitalize on with little more than broad policy strokes.
“That’s how he can successfully paint the picture for folks without the specificity for what his solution is,” Burr said. “He doesn’t have to do that yet. And there’s an incredible lesson there for candidates in the future.”
If Washington is the problem, then being an outsider candidate is the solution — no easy feat for those who have served in Washington for years. Burr routinely tells voters in speeches and interviews that he shares their frustration, having spent years in the private sector selling outdoor power equipment and consumer electronics.
“I can relate to it because I came out of business and the political approach to everything is a very frustrating and foreign thing to me that I don’t think I have adopted in the 21 years that I’ve been there,” Burr said. “And I try to make sure that I don’t.”
Throughout the GOP presidential primary, baffled candidates have tried to duplicate the outsiders’ success. From seemingly absurd policy suggestions , to constitutionally dubious arguments (see: birthright citizenship and the Fourteenth Amendment), to plain ol’ picking fights , others have tried and thus far failed.
“It’s not something that comes natural to a lot of my colleagues,” Burr said. “Some of them, who are in the presidential race, try to emulate what he’s doing and have not successfully done that — and it’s quite a list of them.”
But whether Trump's and the outsiders’ success will last remains to be seen.
“I think the only question is not whether he’s hitting on something that really does penetrate these folks — he’s hitting real issues, he’s hitting real emotions,” Burr said. “Is the emotion that he’s hitting sustainable throughout the length of the (campaign)? And at what point will [voters] require a level of detail, if at all, that gives them a comfort level?”
Burr points to the 2008 election as proof that the Trump effect has been building for a while, and not just among Republicans, where it was largely frustration with Washington and not policy details that delivered Obama both the Democratic nomination and the White House.
“He didn’t beat Hillary Clinton because of detail,” Burr said. “[He won] because the majority of Democrats and some Republicans and independents saw him as a champion of their concerns, of their frustrations, of their interests.”
But even outsiders who want to fix Washington will have to work within the current system. The Constitution and its separation of powers still governs the land. Ever since promising an extra hour at recess and better food in the cafeteria, candidates have had a tendency to say things on the trail that may sound good but aren’t supported by the process.
“There are some things all the candidates say on the campaign trail that sound nice, but they’re just not true,” Burr said. “And that’s the frustrating thing also being on the inside. You’d like to go out and say ‘Well once you’re here you’ll realize why you can’t do that structurally, procedurally, whatever.’”
“You can say [birthright citizenship is] constitutionally questioned, yeah, but it would still probably take legislation to clarify that,” Burr added. “If it got to the Supreme Court, I’m not sure that they would rule that you could do something. So, I have to live within the framework of laws that they don’t have to to make their comments.”
It’s actually an argument that plays out within Congress all the time. Republican leadership, which controls both chambers, often points to a 60-vote threshold in the Senate and a Democratic president as reasons why certain things can’t get done right now, such as blocking federal funding to Planned Parenthood or a total repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Rank-and-file Republicans often criticize leadership for not doing enough. A prime example, which hit close to home for Burr, played out just before recess in the House as North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows introduced a bill to remove Burr’s close friend, John A. Boehner of Ohio, as speaker of the House.
Burr recalled when his current Senate colleague, but former House colleague, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., made a similar move against then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. Defending Meadows, Burr noted that Graham would hardly be considered a trouble maker now, at least not as someone would try to overthrow leadership.
“[Meadows] was trying to do what either he thought he needed to do or what the institution needed,” Burr said. “I didn’t have any problem with it.
Ultimately, Burr would like to see federal spending reined in, the government shrunk and more power handed to the people, acknowledging that getting from “here to there is a pretty lengthy thing.”
“But America’s going to figure it out because you can’t afford this course and you can’t get by too much longer with failure,” Burr said. “And I sort of go back to where Trump is. That just summed up in one sentence what his whole campaign’s about and that’s why I’m not surprised that it’s having the impact that it is.”
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