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OP-ED | Why the ‘Outsider’ Argument is Bogus - And Why it Works

by | Jul 18, 2014 8:22am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Election 2014, Opinion

Stop me if you’ve seen this political ad before: Dark skies threaten, ominous music plays, and a picture of an opponent with the label “career politician” or “insider” appears. But then the scene shifts to the healthy blue-sky outdoors, we hear happy music, and we see our candidate, an “outsider” who will clean up politics in the corrupt, decadent capital.

It’s a tired, worn-out message, and yet some version of this ad gets made dozens of times per election cycle.

Our first entry this year comes from Tom Foley’s campaign, which claims that Foley is the outsider to Senate Minority Leader John McKinney and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s insiders. Here are the relevant bits of the transcript:

Dan Malloy. John McKinney.
Career politicians. Insiders.
Pushing failed policies — costing us jobs
. . .
Time for new leadership — new ideas.
Tom Foley. An outsider.

Foley returned to this line of attack during Thursday’s debate against John McKinney, slamming his opponent for votes he’s made in Hartford. This time McKinney had a ready defense, saying that he was proud of the work he’s done, and that if that’s what “insider” meant, he was glad to claim the label.

If this sounds familiar, Linda McMahon trotted out this line in her 2010 and 2012 senate races. “I am an outsider,” McMahon said in 2010, explaining, “What I hear over and over and over again is, ‘We want somebody with real-life business experience.’” Mitt Romney tried the outsider mantle on for size, as well. “I am the only candidate in this race, Republican or Democrat, who has never worked a day in Washington,” Romney told a crowd in 2012. He had, of course, spent four years as governor of a populous northeastern state.

But what does that mean? What makes someone an “insider” vs. an “outsider?”

It often seems to depend upon the candidate and the situation. McMahon painted herself as a total political outsider; Romney as a Washington outsider. Foley sees himself as an outsider to Connecticut state government. Voters love this — when confidence in government is low, there’s a “throw the bums out” mentality. They want someone new to come in and clean house.

Of course, it’s not like Foley is some naïve political neophyte, either. He was a major fundraiser for the George W. Bush campaign before heading up private sector development for Iraq’s occupation government, and becoming Ambassador to Ireland. He’s been deeply involved in politics for well over a decade, just not in state government.

It seems like being an outsider is partly code for someone with a lot of money coming from the business world. Being an outsider is a useful response to charges that one is incredibly wealthy and out of touch with reality.

But do “outsiders” ever actually get elected, and if they are, can they govern effectively? In short, not often, and very rarely.

One such outsider was Wilbur Cross, who was Dean of the Yale Graduate School in the 1920s. He edited the marvelous Yale Shakespeare, among numerous other works. After he left Yale, he ran for governor and won, going on to serve four two-year terms. He was responsible for our first minimum wage, though you probably know him best as the namesake of a highway.

Cross was an outsider on the model of Woodrow Wilson, who gained the presidency from his seat as president of Princeton University. Someone who might be more familiar to Foley would be Prescott Bush of Greenwich, who moved from the business world to run for U.S. Senate in 1950. He lost his first race, much like Foley, but did manage to come back to win in 1953. His son and grandson, of course, were U.S. presidents.

These are outliers. Precious few true outsiders have found success in the post-war era. Eisenhower was the last president who had never held elected office before; every president since has previously been a senator, a governor, or vice president.

Voters love the idea of an outsider, but in practice that inexperience can be a handicap. When true outsiders like Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger win governorships, they often struggle to find their feet.

The whole outsider schtick is just another way of trying to convince voters that inexperience is a virtue, and that anyone actually involved in government is irrevocably tainted. In a year of anti-incumbent anger a candidate can sometimes ride it to victory; but after the election is over, voters might find they regret it.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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(9) Archived Comments

posted by: NoNonsense2014 | July 18, 2014  1:31pm

Excellent, Susan, and I agree. As far as I’m concerned, “outsider” also means “clueless”. There are things you can do as a CEO in private business than you cannot do when you’re a CEO in government. I don’t believe Foley gets that. If I don’t want Malloy for another term, that doesn’t automatically mean that I want some clueless neophyte in charge. So I’ll vote for McKinney in next month’s primary. He knows the issues, the rules, the constraints. I don’t know what Foley knows, since most of his answers are so vague or simplistic.

posted by: DanofiveO | July 18, 2014  5:27pm

Having a extensive background in democratic politics I can no longer support the craziness and giveaways. In fact I switched parties something I never thought I would do. John McKinney is part of the problem he knows the establishment and must be voted out. Tom Foley who I voted against last time has my vote this time. We need him to tear down the politics as usual to go after the entrenched special interest which have dragged us down the toilet and have ruined our state. Tom knows how to dismantle the establishment, the background of restructuring companies and he has the common sense to make the cuts we need to make which John McKinney can’t seem to do.
I would vote for anyone who can stop this crazy train and for better days for CT so should everyone else.

posted by: RogueReporterCT | July 18, 2014  11:56pm


NoNonsense2014: Good for you pointing out Foley’s vague and simplistic answers. I was wondering if I were the only one who noticed his penchant for sounding like he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.

posted by: shinningstars122 | July 19, 2014  8:13am


It is almost laughable that we always seem to go through this type of “pitch” from candidates, especially in Connecticut, as the under dog “outsider” will magically lift the weight of political dysfunction and do best for the majority of the electorate.

It is painfully clear that Foley is mounting the most simplistic of campaigns.

Foley’s campaign advisers are saying ” Hey Malloy is just so hated by at least half the electorate, that all our candidate has to do   is smile, which seems unnatural for Foley, and not say a thing about his platform…he just need to show up.”

If the voters of CT want to be seduced by mediocrity over substance…well let’s hear it for the outsider.

posted by: SocialButterfly | July 19, 2014  11:58am

NoNonsense2014: Your vote for McKinney is only your personal business when you vote.  Realistically, I don’t think he has the necessary backing to win over Foley. McKinney is a nice guy, but sometimes “nice guys finish last.”

posted by: DanofiveO | July 19, 2014  1:43pm

@ SS122 I have read your commentary which is trolling at its best.  I have helped elect several of the top dems in our state and worked for the unions and on numerous campaigns. I left politics in 2004 and got a real education running my own business having had at most 14 employees. My business was destroyed and my entire livelihood gone never to return under these policies and giveaways.
I better than most have seen it inside out and can tell you voting for anyone else will result in a better out come for our state, just not ever again for a democrat. So Foley Pelto or a rock a stop sign any inanimate object of your choice.
And another thing if our leaders can’t follow the rule of law what will happen when the rest of us decide we don’t need to or want to be the minority doing so anymore? Did you think the suppression of freedom of information and increased secrecy in government, the NSA and purposely flooding of the USA with illegal immigrants is something the democrats would champion? I certainly did not? It’s ruining our country for our kids! Vote for our citizens, for freedom and restoration of our liberties this time and be pro USA ! Let’s dump the law breakers and USA haters! Don’t vote democratic!

posted by: NoNonsense2014 | July 19, 2014  3:33pm

@RogueReporterCT: Thanks, and you are far from the only one who notices Foley’s vagueness and simplicity. Lots of people do.
@QuestionMark: Yes, sometimes “nice guys finish last”, but sometimes they don’t. If everybody who thinks McKinney is the better of the Republican candidates votes for him on August 12, perhaps he will win over the mealy-mouthed Foley. And even if he doesn’t, it just might send a message. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

posted by: Fisherman | July 19, 2014  6:27pm

McKinney enacted programs that saved lives?  He’s not Malloy, so Democrats won’t support him; and my republican friends tell me that his programs that “save lives” (SB-1160) make him un-electable. All the man is doing is wasting everyone’s time.

posted by: Noteworthy | July 21, 2014  11:07am

Core problem with voting for an insider: What you will get is the same old, same old. If you are happy with the current state of the State of Connecticut - be you Republican or Democrat - then vote for the insiders. They allegedly can continue exactly what they have been doing before the election. I’ll take my chances on an outsider simply because at least I have a chance at seeing real, positive change vs. no way will there be any change. At all.

Note to McKinney: Come up with a better comeback line. Being proud of what you have done? uh, how to say it in a nice way befuddles me. You and the GOP get shut out of the budget negotiations; the education legislation; nothing memorable comes to mind in terms of real bi-partisan legislation and negotiation except, oh yes, the draconian gun legislation. Not sure that’s a winner.

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