An enduring feature of our cultural landscape is the lore of the outsider. From scripture to screen play we seek reassurance in the faith that a messiah – spiritual or temporal, depending on the circumstances – will deliver us from villainy and oppression. Thus David slayed Goliath in the name of the Israelites, Robin Hood vanquished Prince John to save King Richard, Maid Marian and Britain, the Seven Samurai disposed of bandits on behalf of defenseless farmers and Mr. Deeds humbled the cruel habitués of Depression-era café society.
Needless to say, the outsider trope has flourished in American politics since Andrew Jackson animated the narrative that seduces voters to this day: the rugged-individualist savior who casts out the kingmakers and restores the nation to its natural, noble state. A century later, the director Frank Capra refined the canon in the form of Mr. Smith, the freshmen Senator and Christ-figure who exposes a senior colleague and the corrupt order he represents.
And so it goes. In 1972 Robert Redford updated the genre for the Nixon age in The Candidate with the help of a scriptwriter who penned speeches for the liberal insurrectionist Eugene J. McCarthy. Since then a trio of former U.S. Presidents campaigned successfully as outsiders of one species or another: Jimmy Carter from a peanut farm, Ronald Reagan from Hollywood and Bill Clinton from a place called “Hope.” Of the three only two could be regarded as successful presidents, largely because they decided to ditch the outsider conceit and work with Washington, not against it.
Recall how Clinton wagered his credibility early into his first term on a bid to reform the nation’s health-care system – an ambition that is to U.S. Presidents what Afghanistan is to empire. Not only did that initiative fail, its demise coincided with a scandal involving the White House travel agency, executive dithering over the Balkans crisis and the President’s decision to have a pre-departure hair-cut at LAX on Air Force One, shutting down two runways and delaying incoming flights for an hour. With his presidency on the rocks, Clinton had the good sense to relieve his Arkansas hangers-on and, with the help of beltway stalwarts like David Gergen, a former aid to three Republican presidents, staunched the bleeding.
Reagan, an ex-film star, two-term California governor and maestro on the stump, leveraged his charm and celebrity to cast himself as an outsider he never was. Once in office, he surrounded himself with establishment operatives like Mike Deaver, Lyn Nofziger, Don Regan and Gergen. Far from launching a slash-and-burn conservatism The Gip – like his vice president, the consummate insider George H.W. Bush – was a pragmatist with an instinct for common ground. When his initial round of tax cuts proved to be excessive, he took his budget planner’s advice and raised them. In 1983, when Social Security was heading for bankruptcy, he worked with Congressional Democrats for entitlement reform. Once it was clear that the costs of keeping troops in Lebanon outweighed the benefits, he listened to his area experts and withdrew them.
Then there is Reagan’s predecessor. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a nuclear engineer, Carter was a political maladroit who treated members of Congress like radioactive waste. Although he launched the defense buildup and deregulation drive that Reagan would claim as his own, he showed little interest in the kind of coalition politics that could have enhanced his legislative achievements. When longtime aide Hamilton Jordan invited a group of powerbrokers to the White House for tennis and a bit of schmoozing with the boss, Carter said nothing between sets, called every foot-fault and after match point curtly saw his guests to the door. Small wonder Carter himself, an outsider to the end, was not invited back to the White House after his first term.
There is a lesson to be learned here, for both President Trump and the Republican Party: It is one thing to campaign for high office as an outsider and to criticize Washington thoughtfully and constructively, but to argue with all three branches of government at the same time is bad politics. Reagan and Clinton understood that engagement and conciliation is the most constructive way forward in a political system based on dynamic equilibrium. Washington may be filled with self-interested functionaries but it is also home to valuable experts in their field that can make a valuable contribution to running our nation. To borrow from Tennyson, they should shine in use, not rust unburnished.
In a climactic scene of 1776, the famous play about the events that culminated in the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the sage Benjamin Franklin lambastes the headstrong John Adams for antagonizing members of the Continental Congress whose support is critical for statehood. “These men,” Franklin bellows in a near-empty congressional chamber, “are not ribbon clerks to be ordered about; they’re proud, accomplished men, the cream of their colonies – and whether you like it or not, they and the people they represent will be a part of the new country you’d hope to create. Either start learning how to live with them or pack up and go home!”
It is an enduring sentiment, one that frames the outsider conceit as the fable that it is. As he nears his first hundred days in the White House, President Trump may well consider using the resources at his disposal rather than neglecting them. As Reagan and Clinton proved, politics is the art of the possible, not the way of the street fight.