Last week, when Barack Obama announced his intention to set up an exploratory committee to pursue a presidential run, he sounded some timeless, if bland, themes:
"Our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way," he said. "Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions." Rhetorical attacks on partisanship and corruption in Washington are standard for presidential candidates. So is the theme of the outsider coming to Washington to clean up the mess insiders have made:
"One thing that I'm convinced of," Obama also said last week, "is that people want something new."
In our snarled political climate, such appeals are easy to understand. After all, the idea of the outsider is stored deep in American culture, from our revolution (led by the most inside-outsiders in history) to the outlaw heroes of the West, from Huck Finn and the Great Gatsby to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and film noirs and rock stars, and whatever was in yesterday's paper.
It's also stored deep in our politics, though today the bar for outsiderness is much lower; almost anyone can try on the label if he isn't serving in the present administration or the Congress. That's how John Edwards, a mere two years removed from Washington, has cultivated his outsider status. While Obama is a sitting senator, his brief tenure and his race make up for it. He more than qualifies as an outsider by today's standards.
Presidential candidates who pretend to be outsiders are bad enough, but worse are the ones who are outsiders for real. They have to learn everything on the job. Watching its outsider president flail around, the country begins to wish it had given the gig to the dull insider he defeated in November. Four years later they re-elect the president, since he has become an insider and is now their only protection from the uncertainties of a country governed by his outsider opponent. Given a second term, the insider president disappoints, and the nation turns to an outsider to clean up the mess he has made. And so on.
DAVID AXELROD, A POLITICAL CONSULTANT who worked for Obama on his Senate campaign and will be with him on his presidential quest as well, was recently asked about the most difficult challenge of running as an outsider. Axelrod replied that the challenge lay not in overcoming "the skepticism of insiders" but rather in assuring "good people that it's safe to believe again, that you can suspend your cynicism and invest your hopes in a campaign."
Axelrod surely knows better. In reality, outside of national calamities like great depressions or civil wars, getting Americans to believe and be hopeful is not the most strenuous endeavor. In America, where life for the vast majority of citizens is far from bleak or mean in any material sense, it's encouraging people to be skeptical that is hard.
What's hard is getting people to look at "outsider" candidates and see them as self-aggrandizing newbies with insider ambitions -- or as self-aggrandizing insiders posing as outsiders. It's getting them to recognize, or remember, that the country's institutions were set up to make radical change difficult, ensuring that the path of outsiders on white horses is a winding one, maybe even "gummed up." It's reminding them that even if outsiders promise a "new politics," as they usually do in one form or another, they will clutch to the old politics like a lifeline the moment they take power.
We're not getting a new politics anyway, whatever that would mean. We'll have to slog through the old politics and see if we can prevail in the struggle we're in despite being more unified against each other than against the enemy. If any country can get away with this, it's America; and if there is anything that could spell our defeat, it is this, too.
WHEN IT COMES TO RUNNING the Pentagon, managing foreign policy, building and maintaining alliances, and the rest of it, being an outsider is the sheerest rhetoric. Such work is for inside hands, and always will be.
President Bush's senior foreign policy advisors -- compellingly examined in James Mann's 2004 book, Rise of the Vulcans -- were experienced insiders with ties to Washington leadership circles going back as far as 30 years. When the Bush team took office in 2001, some said that "the adults are back in charge," contrasting heavyweights like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Powell with the undistinguished foreign policy figures of the Clinton years. But Bush and his Vulcans gave the country the Iraq war, and that has made it easier than usual to give the word "insider" a bad name (time will tell whether the war also gives "adults" a bad name).
Emotions aside, though, if the venture in Iraq fails, its failure will reflect the flawed planning that went into the invasion and the aftermath; the strategic and tactical mistakes; the assumptions about what the war might achieve; and perhaps most of all, the "profligate self-doubt" of our political leaders. It will not be an indictment of insiders, or excess Washington experience, or lack of new ideas. On the contrary, the Vulcans, though they were insiders, were also trying to shake up the institutions they knew so well -- insiders acting like outsiders, you might say. And this is as much outsiderness as we need for the time being.
In 2008, we'll need more gray hair, not less; more humility and gravitas; and we'll need people who know how to work the levers of power on day one. Though Bush's foreign policy team had collective experience spanning many decades, the president himself was a neophyte. Six years in, it's hard to argue for a repeat of that formula.
I even have a campaign slogan for my older, wiser insider: "Vote for me -- I know where all the bodies are buried."
He'd lose, of course, but he could always come back and run again -- as an outsider.
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