MEREDITH, N.H. — The would-be presidents of the United States agree on at least one thing: All of them will fight the “establishment.” All agree that this “establishment” has held Americans back too long. All agree that the “establishment” is pulling the strings and levers behind their opponents.
They just can’t agree on who the “establishment” is.
“The Washington establishment is rushing over to support Donald Trump,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said in multiple New Hampshire press conferences this week.
“We’re taking on not only Wall Street and the economic establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), now the frontrunner in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary, in an interview with Rachel Maddow.
For Sanders and Cruz, who have neither expected nor received many endorsements from Senate colleagues, the “establishment” is a four-syllable explanation — one that perfectly jibes with their narratives.
For others, the “establishment” brand has become as handy as duct tape, allowing candidates to fix any problems that come into their paths.
“It’s pretty hard to label me as an establishment figure, because I’ve always fought the establishment,” Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), a former congressman, insisted on Fox News this month.
Even Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, senator and first lady, is in the game, accusing Sanders in a CNN interview of being in office “a lot longer than I have.”
Descriptions of this bogeyman differ wildly, especially with voters. Steve Goddu, a 56-year old Cruz supporter from Salem, N.H., described the “establishment” in the same terms as his candidate. “Rubio... Christie; Kasich, certainly Jeb Bush, those are the guys who come to my mind,” he said. “When I hear somebody like Bob Dole saying he would vote for Hillary instead of Ted Cruz, it’s obviously an establishment group that’s trying to promote some talking point.”
Ninety minutes up the road, at a town hall hosted by Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), Mark and Carolyn Carwell suggested that the “establishment” really included Cruz.
“I wouldn’t lump governorships, people in local government, with that definition,” said Mark Carwell, 62. “For me, it’s not that you can’t hold office. It’s that the office you’re seeking has not been part of your back yard. Senators qualify for that.”
“For some people, it’s anyone who has had anything to do with politics, ever,” said Carolyn Carwell, 60.
To people back in Washington, the confusion over what the “establishment” might be is both frustrating and completely predictable.
“There are some who believe controlling the levers of power is the goal in politics, and there are some who think advancing an ideas-based agenda is the goal,” said Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action for America. “The former is the establishment.”
“It means whatever you want it to, okay?” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “The ‘establishment’ is a creature out of Greek mythology, some bizarre imaginary thing that is stopping us from getting a narrow majority in the House and Senate to govern like a supermajority.” In fact, Norquist said, simple math is the enemy there: The GOP doesn’t have a supermajority, so it can’t govern like one.
The establishment as punching bag dates to the 1960s, when Phyllis Schlafly published her conservative manifesto, “A Choice Not an Echo” — taking readers through a generation of Republican nominating fights and arguing that an east-coast “Establishment” — capital “E” — had always managed to conspire against victory.
In 2016, Schlafly has joined Sarah Palin and some lower-profile conservatives to support Trump, the most obvious establishment nightmare.
The Democratic Party, which has seen its progressive wing grow as conservative white voters have bolted, has discovered its own family argument. On MSNBC, Sanders grouped the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood into an “establishment” that the grassroots needed to challenge. Both groups rejected the term immediately, as if Sanders had called for their offices to be demolished and replaced by Chick-fil-As.
“It‘s regrettable and surprising to hear Senator Sanders describe the very groups that fight on behalf of millions of often marginalized Americans — people who still have to fight for their most basic rights — as representing the ‘establishment,’” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
But many Sanders supporters understood and agreed with what Sanders had said.
“Look, I’ve been on the DNC for 10 years so I’ve got to admit being part of the establishment,” said Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America, who immediately endorsed Sanders after giving up his post. “The D.C. progressive organizations are part of a progressive establishment. It’s not necessarily a pejorative term, ‘establishment,’ but the issue is: How do you encourage movement-building and grassroots activism, versus even a progressive establishment deciding what’s best? The Democratic Party has an established power structure, and many of us believe it should be opened up.”
At the senator’s rallies, supporters define“establishment” with ease. “We’re talking about a political system that has taken shape over the history of the country that somehow over the last few decades seems to have gone in a direction doesn’t take care of the needs of people who have paid for the system,” said Laura Slitt, 61, a videographer for a local television station who attended a Sanders rally in North Conway, N.H., on Friday morning. “It’s sort of a box that’s been created to serve the economic infrastructure and not the best interests of the citizens.”
This weekend, most of the remaining Republican candidates were scheduled to appear in Nashua for a “first-in-the-nation town hall” meeting. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a freshman whom Cruz had endorsed in his primary, gave a keynote address Friday.
The title: “Why I’m Anti-Establishment and Why That’s Not Enough.”
John Wagner, Sean Sullivan and Katie Zezima reported from New Hampshire. Jose DelReal reported from Las Vegas.