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

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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.

Throughout 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 do.

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.

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