BROOKE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone. Ben Carson was surging in the polls this week, and he did it by stressing that he’s not like everybody else. He’s an outsider.
CARSON: I’m Ben Carson, and I’m running for President. The political class and their pundit buddies say, “Impossible! Too outside the box.” I’m running for president. And I’m very much outside the box.”
BROOKE: Naturally the insiders also want out. I mean, in order to get really in.
CLIP; “Ted Cruz really is going into this week trying to brand himself as the original outsider.”
BROOKE: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie assures us that as the conservative governor of a liberal state, he’s a rogue...
CHRISTIE: I wake up every morning as an outsider!
BROOKE: Former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee insists that he’s the very definition of outside...
HUCKABEE: I’ve never had a DC zip code.
BROOKE: Jeb Bush, the scion of the nation’s leading political dynasty, says he doesn’t even know his way around Washington!
BUSH: I wouldn’t know how to drive. I can barely get from Dulles to Senator Grassley’s office…
And former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton guarantees us that she’s an outsider because...well, look at her!
CLINTON: Who can be more of an outsider than a woman president?
BROOKE: The media have taken note, and have hereby declared 2016...
In the year of the outsider,
Will 2016 be the year of the outside candidates?
this is the year of the political outsider.
BROOKE: But here’s the thing...running as an outsider is an American tradition.
If 2015 is the year of the outsider, then so too was 1828, when Andrew Jackson ran against the incumbent, John Quincy Adams. Adams, a former secretary of state and son of President John Adams, was the quintessential insider, dubbed “His Excellency” by critics. Jackson, no stranger to politics himself having served in both houses, ran on his military record and reputation as a bare-knuckled frontiersman, Jackson won by a landslide.
Abraham Lincoln was little known outside of Illinois and played up his rail-splitting outsider-ness.
They'll find what, by felling and mauling,
Our rail-maker statesman can do;
For the People are everywhere calling
For Lincoln and Liberty too.
[Lincoln and Liberty]
BROOKE: Ulysses S. Grant’s 1872 campaign posters portrayed him as a tanner and his running mate Henry Wilson as a shoemaker. Neither was either.
“I tell you boys, be up and doing, From brave Maine to Illinois; And we'll beat them back with their weapons and with Grant the tanner boy. Hurrah, hurrah, for Grant!...”
BROOKE: In fact, Grant’s campaign was underwritten by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Cooke, and John Astor. Even into the roaring twenties, the image of the politician as a simple, ordinary person of humble origins carried currency. Here’s a Calvin Coolidge campaign song from 1924,
In a quaint New England farmhouse on an early summer’s day,
A farmer’s boy became our Chief in a homely simple way,
BROOKE: The appeal of the outsider politician is eternal--not so the reality. Up until the late 1960s a candidate could boast all they wanted of their folksy upbringing, but they still had to be selected by the party leaders, in those smoke filled rooms. This all came to a head at the notorious 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
SEIFERT: “You have this sort of literal inside and outside the party and it became essentially a war in the street.”
Erica Seifert is author of the book, “The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns.” She says that an increase in the number of state primaries and reforms intended to open the primary process after 1968 suddenly made the possibility of a legitimate outsider candidate a reality.
SEIFERT: We have Jimmy Carter in 1976 who was an outsider becoming the nominee of the Democratic party. Jimmy Carter's credentials in 1976 weren't that he was a naval engineer, weren't that he was governor of Georgia, but instead that he was a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, who was just plain Jimmy.
CARTER: Nobody in my family before my generation had the chance to finish high school. We always worked for a living, we know what it means to work.
BROOKE: Contrast that with his opponent, sitting president Gerald Ford.
SEIFERT: There was this conventional wisdom that a sitting president run what was called the Rose Garden strategy, to show him being presidential in the Rose Garden. But there's a memo in August 1976 from his campaign that said that the president was lagging in the polls because he was seen as quote too much of a politician, part of the Washington establishment. And they said that he should avoid all bill signings and the like which quote simply reinforced the perception of the president as part of the Washington establishment. So Gerald Ford is running for reelection not as a man who's competent to do the job, but as the man who's competent to be a midwesterner.
BROOKE: So, obviously Jimmy Carter got elected. But then Ronald Reagan came along and played his own game against him.
SEIFERT: It seems like the Carter team didn't learn from their own success in 1976 because the Carter campaign did run a rose garden strategy in 1980, and the Reagan campaign took full advantage of this.
BROOKE: So let's contrast a winning Carter ad from 1976 with one from 1980. The 76 one features throngs of ordinary people.
Hi, Governor Carter from Georgia, running for president, I wanna ask you to help me next year.
In the beginning Jimmy Carter's campaign was a lonely one. But through the months, more and more people recognized him as a new leader. A man who would change the way this country is run.
BROOKE: And then we have an ad from 1980 depicting Carter lonely again. This time in the Oval Office at night.
Each day many people come to the Oval Office with advice and information. But when it comes time to decide something, PResident Carter must decide alone.
SEIFERT: The Reagan campaign ran focus groups on this Carter ad, and what's really neat is the focus group responses to this: they said that Jimmy carter looked like he was sneaking in the back door.
BROOKE: Somehow Reagan, even as a sitting president managed to run as an outsider.
SEIFERT: Stewart Spencer, one of Reagan's campaign advisers in 1984 said what set Reagan apart was that he was always an outsider in Washington and he never lost his ear for what's outside.
BROOKE: We have an ad from 1984 it features a passing shot of Ronald Reagan, but it's almost entirely footage of small town life, working class people, and American flags.
On a Friday, just a few weeks ago, the barbershop closed three hours early. The mill shut its doors at noon, and all across the state, people were taking time out for something special. A train, carrying the 40th president of the United States.
SEIFERT: I love that ad. It's very much Reagan the outsider, looking in with awe at the presidency that he's not quite of, that he's still admiring from the outside. In fact when he kicked off his campaign he said, quote, I can't help but thank you for giving me an opportunity to get away from those puzzle palaces on the Potomac, and return home to kick off our campaign.
BROOKE: Erica, thank you very much.
SEIFERT: Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE: Erica Seifert is a research strategist for the National Education Association and author of the book The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential campaigns.
The rest is history. Bill Clinton ran as an outsider:
CLINTON: I'm the only person up here who hasn't been part of Washington in any way for the past 20 years.
BROOKE: So did George W. Bush:
BUSH: Being in Washington doesn’t exactly make you the smartest guy in the world. [...] Matter of fact, most people appreciate experience outside of Washington.
BROOKE: And the reason is always the same: dissatisfaction and distrust. Public trust in government is at an all time low, but it often is. A 2014 study by Pew found a consistent pattern over the last fifty years: “low” trust in the early 70s, followed by a rise, and then a low in the 90s, then another rise, and then another low that we’re in the midst of now.
Paul Waldman is a senior writer for The American Prospect and blogger for the Washington Post. He says that even if our dream of an “outsider” has been around forever, it’s a reality we’re better off without….
WALDMAN: We have this shared myth that the only people who can fix the problems in washington are the people who don’t know anything about how government works and are as far away from it as possible. it's something we don't apply to any other kind of human endeavor. If you needed a plumber, and someone said, I don't know anything about plumbing but I'm a really good lawyer, you wouldn't want that guy to fix your pipes.
BROOKE: Can i just play devil's advocate here? If politics is about compromise and thinking of solutions that may be a non expert could do a decent job at politics?
WALDMAN: That's something that we often see in films, you know like that movie Dave where a guy who's pretending to be a politician comes in and fixes the federal budget with his buddy who's an accountant. It's as though no one in Washington has ever considered that gridlock isn't all that helpful, or that lobbyists have too much power. It's never occurred to anyone in Washington. And so we need some new thinker from outside who can bring that common wisdom and then everything will just transform. But you might remember that Barack Obama said that he was gonna transform Washington's culture. And before him, George Bush said that he was gonna transform Washington's culture. And before him Bill Clinton said that he was gonna transform Washington's culture, and he didn't do it either.
BROOKE: Does it never work?
WALDMAN: The culture in Washington can change, but it's only gonna change very slowly and incrementally. Mario Cuomo said that we campaign in poetry but we govern in prose. Well, in a presidential campaign, when we're all listening to the poetry, we don't wanna hear well, I'm gonna go there and we're gonna make some small, incremental changes and little by little we can begin to change those things. They want to hear that everything will be transformed when your favorite candidate gets elected.
BROOKE: You've got a Congress that is essentially ruled by seniority.
WALDMAN: And that's when it really becomes farcical. the idea that someone who is 435th in seniority is really gonna have a fundamental impact on the way the institution works --
CAMPAIGN AD MONTAGE:
Washington is broken. It's time to clean house.
Well Washington has let us down and the politicians have let us down. And it's time to fix it.
Because I'm ready to stand tall for freedom and get Washington out of our lives.
WALDMAN: You can't say 'elect me and none of the fundamental things are gonna change, but I'll try to do as good a job as I can.
BROOKE: Mark Leibovich wrote last year that, quote, "Skilled politicians have a proud tradition of conveying utter contempt for their profession, especially when they're running to keep their job."
WALDMAN: That's another one of the strange things about politics is that nobody can admit that there might be something noble about it and that doing a good job at it is something that should be valued and that the people who have done it for longer get better at it. Take something like passing a complex piece of legislation through Congress. That's an incredibly complicated task, it can take years. And You have to know a lot about a lot of different things and have a lot of different skills in order to do it. When politicians are talking about how everything's gonna change because they're a different sort of person, they never explain exactly how they're gonna do it, because the how is the really tricky part.
BROOKE: Senator Marco Rubio since he took his senate seat in 2011 he's missed 12.3% of all votes, which is, you know, 10 times more than the average senator. And he's taken some heat for it. But this week the Washington Post ran an article saying that his skimpy voting record is in fact principle.
WALDMAN: yeah so if you're a sitting senator how are you gonna define yourself as an outsider. What Rubio is essentially saying is I hate it there. I don't have anything to do with that place. It's not surprising that he would be frustrated and feel like nothing's getting done because nothing is getting done. Then you can have someone like Ted Cruz, also a senator who has never passed a piece of legislation. He actually has a legitimate claim to be something of an outsider because apparently everyone in Washington, Republicans and Democrats can't stand him. And when you ask him what he's accomplished, he'll say well I stood up to Obamacare, I stood up for this, and I stood up for that. Which basically meant he gave a bunch of speeches. He didn't actually do anything practical, but engaging in that fight against the entrenched power, both the Democratic power in the White House and and the Republican power in his own party, to him is what makes him an outsider, and there's a fair number of people who think that's a persuasive argument.
BROOKE: Okay so the two main establishment candidates, Jeb Bush and hillary Clinton, argue they're outsiders. So at this point, the terms become meaningless.
WALDMAN: Yeah, absolutely. When Hillary Clinton got asked this question she said something like well, you can't be more of an outsider than being the first woman president.
BROOKE: It's not altogether far fetched.
WALDMAN: No, but it's not really about that same thing of searching for someone's who's not tainted by the ways of Washington. Her best argument as a presidential candidate is probably that she knows a lot about the way the system works, and she's been inside the white house, and she's been a senator. And she's been a cabinet member. She could argue that I understand this system better than anyone and if you want to accomplish the things you want to accomplish, I'm the one who's going to be able to navigate it. But the voters are feeling like all the insiders have screwed everything up, then candidates feel like they have to say, well i'm not one of those people. I'm an outsider just like you.
BROOKE: I think you've hit on the fundamental thing that makes a candidate a winner. It's the picture of America and of the voter that they reflect back.
WALDMAN: We demand that they be one of us. We want to know what's on their ipod and what tv programs they like, and are they real authentic people. And that's why they always want to tell us that they started from humble beginnings. They're a little smarter than we are, they have a little more integrity than we do, and they're just like us only a little bit better as they go and represent us in Washington.
BROOKE: Paul thank you very much.
WALDMAN: My pleasure.
BROOKE: Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for the American Prospect and blogs for the Washington Post.
ERNST: I'm Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I'll know how to cut pork.
VO: Joni Ernst: mother, soldier, conservative.
ERNST: Let's make 'em squeal.