First, the latest numbers. A new Marist/NBC News poll of Iowa and New Hampshire shows Donald Trump holding a healthy lead in both states, with Ben Carson coming in a strong second in Iowa and third in New Hampshire; Carson’s rise is not quite as entertaining as the Trump campaign, but it’s nearly as significant. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has cut into Hillary Clinton’s lead in Iowa and moved ahead of her in New Hampshire, where the race between the two has been closer for some time now. And a new Economist/YouGov poll shows Trump moving even farther ahead nationally, with his support at 36 percent, followed by Carson at 11 percent.
Most reporters have decided, based not just on poll numbers but also on their conversations with voters and the evidence they gather on the trail, that the state of the race can be explained by the American people’s dissatisfaction with “politics as usual.” Fed up with Washington’s gridlock and its inability to solve big problems, voters turn to outsiders who promise to do things like “shake up the system” and “change the way Washington does business.” These candidates supposedly possess fresh ideas and new perspectives that can turn everything around.
It’s hogwash. But people never seem to learn.
On the Democratic side, you can at least make a reasonable case for Bernie Sanders’ brand of outsiderism. Sanders is no political neophyte — he has held public office for most of the past 35 years, which gives him an insider’s understanding of how the system works. And his argument is a focused one, centered on the influence of big money and how it helps produce and sustain inequality. While tackling that problem is extremely difficult, one could at least imagine a President Sanders making some progress on it.
On the Republican side though, the two leading outsiders, Trump and Carson, have nothing so specific in mind. They argue that they’ll get things done, Trump through the force of his will, and Carson because he is untainted by politics. Ask either one of them about a specific policy issue, and it quickly becomes clear that when it comes to the issues a president deals with, they’re utter ignoramuses, which is perhaps understandable, if less than reassuring. I’m sure Marco Rubio doesn’t know much about brain surgery, which Carson knows a great deal about, but he’s not running for Brain Surgeon in Chief.
If you’re a voter attracted to these outsiders, you’d do well to ask yourself: What, precisely, will an outsider do as president that an insider wouldn’t? Would they pursue a fundamentally different set of policies? Not likely — the policies they’ll pursue will by and large be those of their party. Ben Carson may be a political newcomer, but the policy positions he takes are essentially the same as those of the other Republicans. And any Republican will appoint most of the same people to the thousands of executive branch positions. When it’s out of power, each party maintains what is essentially an executive branch in exile, spread among Washington think tanks and advocacy organizations, waiting to move back into government. It isn’t as though the outsider candidate can fill these positions from somewhere else.
And when it comes to things like government gridlock, you have to ask the question again: What is the outsider candidate going to do differently? Outsiders talk about things like “shaking up the system” and “changing the way Washington does business,” but they seldom get too specific about what those things might mean in practice. What would a shaken-up system look like? For instance, would it mean that Congress would swiftly and efficiently pass a bunch of bills instead of being consumed by bickering?
If that’s your idea of what the system ought to produce, then electing an outsider president isn’t the way to do it. The way to do it is to give one party control of Congress and the White House, preferably with at least 60 votes in the Senate to overcome filibusters. Then you’ll see the system work.
President Obama had that for a time in his first term, and Congress was extremely productive, passing a large economic stimulus, financial reform, health-care reform and a bunch of other stuff you’ve probably forgotten about by now. If you don’t remember that period as one in which the system worked the way it’s supposed to, it’s probably because you didn’t like the particular things Washington accomplished. The real problem you had wasn’t with how smoothly the system operated, but with the substance of what it produced. In fact, Republicans often complain that the Affordable Care Act was “rammed down our throats” — in other words, they think the legislation wasn’t mired in gridlock for long enough (the fact that on Planet Earth it actually passed after more than a year of hearings, debates and negotiations isn’t really the point).
Plenty of voters say they want to get beyond partisanship and just find someone who’ll “get things done,” but that’s not what they really want. Everyone has an agenda. They want some things to get done, but not others. No conservative looked at Obama’s first two years and said, “I don’t like his policies, but I do admire the fact that he’s getting things done, so I’d like him to keep going in the same direction.” When George W. Bush tried and failed to privatize Social Security, no liberal said, “I’m disappointed that he wasn’t able to get things done.”
It’s perfectly understandable that Republicans are attracted to outsiders at this particular moment in history. As I’ve noted before, the real source of discontent among GOP voters with their party’s leaders is less about the rift between the establishment and the tea party than it is about the belief that the party’s leaders are ineffectual. They keep promising their constituents that they’ll destroy Barack Obama, repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut government down to size, but they never deliver. So when someone like Trump comes along and says he’ll sweep aside every problem and make all their dreams come true, it’s quite compelling, no matter how removed it is from reality.
But the truth is that voters of any persuasion don’t want to shake up the system when it isn’t getting things done; they want to shake it up when it isn’t doing the particular things they want. Washington may not be working, but what we really care about is whether it’s working for us.