Autopsy of a Blown Story: I Was Thinking Like a Policy Dork

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

I cannot
help but keep churning over in my head Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler’s
57-43 drubbing of Bob Franks in the New Jersey Republican gubernatorial primary
last month. One reason is that I was wrong about it in a way that I didn’t
have to be. Having seen the pair of them at joint appearances, I was certain
that Schundler (a) was doing much better whenever the two met head-to-head,
and (b) had a more enthusiastic coterie of followers. The misprediction was
due, if I may be immodest, to modesty: I took the word of my interview subjects
(who’d been following the race a lot longer than I had) that Schundler’s
momentum was a mere figment of my inside-the-Beltway imagination, that I’d
only been covering the campaign for a few days, that I didn’t know how
the mighty New Jersey GOP machine worked, etc.

But the
second reason I’ve given the race so much thought is that it scuttled a
working hypothesis I’d been toying with for the previous few weeks: that
the era of the political outsider that began with Ross Perot was over, and that
the professional politician was back. The New Jersey governor’s race looked
like the perfect illustration. When Franks entered it in late April, he cast
himself as an outsider who would wrest the state back from grabby professional
politicians. “For too long,” he said, “Trenton has been influenced by special
interests, not the people’s interests.” Good message, wrong messenger.
Not yet 50, Franks had been in politics for three decades. He had been a leader
of the New Jersey Young Republicans, a hugely influential state assemblyman,
the legislative mastermind behind two-term governor Tom Kean, the two-time chair
of the state Republican party, a four-term congressman and a candidate for Senate.
The press, understandably, snickered. So what did Franks do? Just weeks after
soft-pedaling his experience in Jersey’s backrooms, Franks started trying
to sell it. “Having served in the government,” he told a reporter last month,
“gives you better insight into the kinds of changes that are necessary to revitalize
our democracy.” The Franks campaign struck me as a piece of evidence that, after
a decade of calumny, the professional politician was back.

the 1990s, nothing was so unfashionable as an incumbent. Voters across the country
developed a strong distaste for play-it-safe political careerists, and turned
instead to people who were strangers to politics—the stranger the better.
In 1992, Americans concerned about lobbying and welfare spending gave a fifth
of their votes to the delusional Perot, who had built his fortune by lobbying
for welfare spending. Oliver North ran for Senate in Virginia on a few minutes
of decade-old Senate testimony, and Michael Huffington rode his inherited millions
into Congress (and nearly the Senate). Bob Dole even gave up his Senate seat—and
post as Senate majority leader—so he could pretend to run for president
as “just a man.” The outsider wave crested in 1998, when Jesse Ventura became
governor of Minnesota, having won the law-and-order vote with the claim that
his opponents “wouldn’t know crime if it came up and bit ’em on the
ass.” And throughout the 1990s, a growing term-limits movement held that that
government that governs best governs briefly.

Every indication
of the past 12 months has been that that era is over. Last election, term limits
disappeared from the political map. Ten of the 18 states that passed term limits
in the 1990s are now moving to repeal them. George Nethercutt, the Washington
congressman who was elected in 1994 on the promise that he’d limit himself
to three terms, ran for a fourth and got elected anyway—despite the efforts
of a dwindling core of activists who dressed in weasel suits to follow him on
the campaign trail. President Bush appointed a cabinet full of political lifers—and
veterans of one another’s former political staffs.

Then Mike
Bloomberg, a real political outsider in the shoot-your-mouth-off moneybags mold,
announced his mayoral bid and got laughed off the hustings. Then James Hahn
became mayor of Los Angeles, after a race that pitted the city’s old (highly
professional) Democratic machine against its new (highly professional) Latino
one. Then Robert F. Kennedy’s son Max decided to claim (no other word will
do) the 9th Congressional seat in Massachusetts, which had been held by the
late Joe Moakley. And what happened? He dropped out, because the polls showed
he’d get whipped in the primaries by state Sen. Stephen Lynch. Lynch’s
advantage was that he was more of a career pol than Kennedy. The same could
be said of Brian Joyce or Ray Flynn, both of whom were also polling ahead of
Kennedy. “I’ve represented a good part of this district for 30 years,”
said Flynn, who’s now dropped out too, “so I wouldn’t exactly be somebody
just starting out without any demonstrated track record or experience.” If even
a Kennedy can get bounced from a Massachusetts congressional race for not knowing
the political ropes, it seemed safe to say political expertise was at a premium.

So I started
looking for reasons why a quality that Americans had so recently reviled—know-how—was
reemerging as something politicians could acknowledge without hanging their
heads in shame. For one thing, the term-limits movement collapsed under the
weight of its own successes. Term limits were an appealing gimmick dreamed up
by a Republican Party claiming the system was so rigged against them that they
could never take power. So the GOP’s electoral sweep in 1994 was a paradox:
it immediately showed the party to be wrong about one of the most heartfelt
points in its platform.

Under the
circumstances, there was only so much dubious “outsider” rhetoric that even
a riled-up public could swallow. The vogue for outside-the-Beltway mavericks
produced a rash of disingenuousness as unsettling as the one it meant to correct.
Political hacks went to comic lengths to build make-believe regular-guy resumes
for themselves. Some passed off political perquisites as entrepreneurial attainments
(as George W. Bush did with his ownership of the Texas Rangers). Others passed
off youthful, pre-political enthusiasms as the real core of their life’s
work (as Al Gore did with his negligible journalistic attainments).

As faux
outsiders were making themselves less trustworthy, the insiders who actually
ran things won trust back. Since politics is conducive to insider dealing, most
rants against elected hacks have more than a grain of truth. But the biggest
economic boom in the history of the world, a reformed welfare system and a country
at peace left the disgruntled with a real starvation diet of grievances. And
legislators achieved their successes even as the business of government was
growing more complex by the day.

That was
crucial. Outsider political movements run in cycles. To thrive, they need not
just failures of government, but failures of a government that has been set
in its ways for so long that those failures are easy for the “common man” to
diagnose. We had such a government a decade ago, but we don’t anymore.
The government that Perot-era citizen-legislators sought to take over was a
cumbersome welfare-warfare state that had changed little in 40 years. But by
midway through the Clinton era, politicians were addressing lots of new issues:
regulating the Microsoft cybermonopoly, setting rules for gene (and animal!)
patents and deciding whose life would get saved by new and expensive medical
technologies, to take just a few of the more straightforward ones. This is not
stuff that anyone who’d ever fixed a carburetor automatically felt he could

It had always
been an article of faith among antigovernment activists that Washington ought
to work more like the private sector. That criticism had merit. But as the 1990s
wore on, the private sector changed, too. No trend more typified the information
economy than the rise of expert analysts and specialist craftsmen. People who
(as consumers) won’t trust a hardware store to repair a laptop were unlikely
(as voters) to trust a political novice to review a treaty or score an appropriations
bill. And…

But you
can see I was already beginning to think like a policy dork—the kind of
Washingtonian who is programmed to back the wrong horse. DC pundits and
scholars never had much patience with term-limiters and all their works. Witness
the response when Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist took over as the head of the National
Republican Senatorial Committee this spring. Frist, elected in 1994, is a real
outsider: a millionaire heart surgeon who had never even voted until
he was 36. He told reporters that he’d look for candidates from “outside
the arena of politics.” That struck the Brookings Institute’s political
analyst Stephen Hess as plain dumb. “This isn’t an entry-level job,” Hess
said. “You’re talking about the Senate.” CNN’s Tucker Carlson has
been similarly (if more wittily) skeptical, complaining about the “isolation
from reality” that exists outside the Beltway, and settling the debate
between “the politicians” and “the American people” on the side of the former.
After all, Carlson says, “the American people never bought me lunch.”

My theory
about the decline of the outsider politician was true as far as it went. But
as I watched the New Jersey returns coming in, showing that Schundler was whoomping
Franks by 14, I had to admit that it didn’t go far enough.