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