Americans have fallen in love with the romantic notion of an “outsider” president who rides into Washington and brings the establishment to heel.
That helps explain why every candidate who thinks he or she can get away with it — including, improbably, four sitting senators — is trying to play that role. Indeed, every first-term president elected in the past 40 years, save George H.W. Bush, has campaigned as an outsider with the muscle to bust up what Sen. Ted Cruz now calls the “Washington cartel” and rebuild the capital city in the nation’s image.
Jimmy Carter kicked off the trend with a promise to restore honor to the White House. Ronald Reagan, the tough-talking movie star and California governor, vowed he’d get Washington’s spending and taxing under control. Bill Clinton, who had never worked in Washington, ran as the man from Hope. George W. Bush, despite being the son of a president, managed to come off as more Texan than political elite. Most recently, Barack Obama’s message and historic 2008 candidacy made it impossible for anyone to view him as an insider.
And yet, after electing this caravan of outsiders, voters still see Washington as a swamp of dysfunction, decadence and corruption. I readily admit I have more faith in our government and its leaders than most Americans do. But if you truly believe that Washington is getting worse, why keep electing the same kind of candidate?
That’s not to say that everyone who runs as an outsider actually is one — Donald Trump’s got clout in business, entertainment, and, yes, government; before winning election to the Senate, Cruz was clerk to the chief justice of the United States and a Justice Department lawyer; and Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders has been a member of Congress since before Demi Lovato was born.
Many of these “outsiders” actually have a pretty good idea of what happens inside government, and some have spent years figuring out how to disrupt Congress so that they could better position themselves for the presidency. The difference, in their parlance, is that they have not been co-opted or corrupted by their time in Washington.
That may be true. But what’s clearly true is that they’ve shown little capacity to govern constructively and seem to have little interest in doing so now. Out on the campaign trail — I just got back from Iowa — most candidates boast about what they voted against and what they would tear down if elected.
That should worry voters — a lot.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you’ve got insiders so knowledgable about the levers of power in Washington, namely former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, that one wonders just how fast they’d make the changes that they campaigned on — and ones they didn’t.
There’s a reason Carter and his successors were so successful at running as outsiders: The American public had lost faith in the presidency — and in the insiders who had held it most recently. Lyndon B. Johnson, the former Senate majority leader and vice president, lied so often and so horribly about Vietnam that it took some white liberals more than a generation to give him credit for his transformational domestic policies on civil rights and Medicare. Richard M. Nixon, the former senator and vice president, helped seal the narrative that Washington insiders couldn’t be trusted. And, in a final blow, Gerald Ford pardoned him.
Johnson and Nixon were extremely effective in using the powers of the presidency — and in negotiating with Congress — to make policy. But they lied to the public about what they were up to, and there’s good reason for voters to be wary of candidates who are both obsessed with power and unflinching in their use of it.
So, what’s the right model? I think it’s someone who applies an outsider’s values and an insider’s savvy to the presidency. That is, someone who is both responsive to the changes voters want and capable of working inside the system to deliver them. I haven’t seen that candidate yet, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect to in primary campaigns aimed at the party’s bases. But if you want Washington to work better, one of the candidates will have to become that president.
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