Why you should care
Because sometimes you’ve got to go outside in order to get inside.
Top Republican presidential hopefuls are gathering in California today for their second debate of the 2016 campaign, but don’t expect to hear much boasting about their Washington experience. Instead, these GOP candidates can’t sprint away fast enough from any connection to the nation’s capital or politics as usual. Leading the crowded pack are three candidates — businessman Donald Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina — who have never held any political office, but who collectively now command support from more than half of GOP primary voters.
The other candidates have taken note. While there’s a “long tradition of painting oneself as an outsider,” as Brian Balogh, a political historian at the University of Virginia, says, the Trump, Carson and Fiorina campaigns have done their best to make political experience itself suspect. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, three-quarters of GOP voters said they would prefer a president from outside Washington. That’s likely to force the rest of the field to adopt as much protective “outsider” coloration as possible. Here’s a preview of some of these pitches and promises you may hear from the more traditional politicians at tonight’s main event.
The D.C. Tourists: Former Govs. Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee
Apart from true political outsiders like Trump, Carson and Fiorina, those best positioned to make the D.C. outsider claim will be the governors — particularly former state execs like Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Jeb Bush of Florida, who’ve been out of office the longest. Look for both Huckabee and Bush to emphasize just how alien a place Washington is to visitors like them.
“I’ve never had a D.C. ZIP code,” Huckabee, a former Fox News pundit and former chairman of the National Governors Association, recently told Newsmax TV. “Never lived there more than probably three or four nights when I was in a hotel attending a meeting.” And despite the fact that his father and brother are both former presidents, Bush recently told reporters in Iowa that he too had never lived in Washington, nor would he know how to get around the city. “Yeah, I haven’t been in Washington, D.C.,” Bush said when asked if he was a “plausible” outsider. “I wouldn’t know how to drive … I think I could probably get there with GPS.”
The Flamethrowers: Govs. Scott Walker, Chris Christie and John Kasich
The three current governors will likely cast themselves as saviors of a broken system who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, though it sometimes requires some contortions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who’s held elected office since he was 25, recently denied being a career politician; now says he plans to “wreak havoc” on Washington if elected. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s “Telling It Like It Is” campaign emphasizes harsh truths, such as insisting that the federal government “doesn’t even pretend to work” and that both parties had “failed” there. Naturally, Christie presents himself as the outsider who can fix it.
Outsider garb doesn’t exactly fit Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who served nine terms in the House of Representatives. So he splits the difference: “I’m sort of an inside-outside guy,” he told a town hall in New Hampshire recently, emphasizing he is a reformer who is familiar with Washington, but one who knows “how to turn the dials to get things done.”
The Inside Outsiders: Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio
Things may be trickiest for sitting members of Congress. Prior to this year, the “maverick” Sen. John McCain was one of the only recent legislators to successfully position himself as an outsider to the very system he was elected into. But the senators running for the GOP nomination aren’t your average Washington glad-handers, and they’re sure to draw our attention to that.
Both Ted Cruz and Rand Paul came to Washington in a 2012 electoral wave that lifted up outsiders, and have worked hard to retain their against-the-grain cred, says Lara Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University. Cruz, for instance, has embraced the role of political pariah, and even wears it as a badge of honor. “The New York Times said Cruz cannot win because he is hated by the Washington elites,” the Texas senator told a cheering crowd in New Hampshire recently. “I gotta admit, I wanted to Xerox that and mail it to all 300 million people.” Paul, the Kentucky senator and son of a congressman who frequently ticked off GOP party elders, often cites his libertarian ideology and his medical background as evidence that he’s not a creature of Washington.
Then there’s Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who was only elected in 2010 but still faces a challenge avoiding the Washington taint. “Rubio, in some ways, is well-positioned in that he’s got the establishment credentials [and] is popular with the party leadership and the funders and so on,” says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. “But at the same time … he’s not an outsider.” Rubio has little choice but to keep emphasizing his own personal story — “living paycheck to paycheck” as the son of a bartender and a hotel maid from Cuba — to draw a distinction between himself and Beltway elites.
Of course, you might well wonder whether having a true outsider as president is actually good for the country. “It’s a vicious cycle,” says Brown of the outsider’s persistent political appeal. “You can never win because the only way to change an institution is with somebody who knows how that institution works.”
Nick Fouriezos contributed reporting to this story.