Washington Ain’t Local to Nowhere.

A wise man once said “All Tweets leave from D.C.” Or maybe it was “All roads lead to Rome?” Something like that, anyway.  

In an age where rural America is revolting against the established order, the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Senate hopefuls everywhere have continued to craft their messages in glass walled conference rooms in the shadow of the Capitol while the pulse of the people beats in diners and dive bars in towns you’ve never heard of.

Washington D.C. is not like the rest of the country. Like many other major cities, it exists on an island of blue among a sea of red.  But in addition to being relatively liberal, it is also an intellectual capital for members of both parties.

All of the law firms, consulting firms, policy shops, political agencies that occupy the thirteen story buildings across Washington require college degrees and enough internships to ensure you’re broke as a mere conversation starter, so rarely will you find yourself on the Metro next to someone still knocking manure off his Stars and Bars emblazoned boots.

It is why Marco Rubio and John Kasich each took ~35% of the vote to Donald Trump’s 13% in D.C.’s primary.  They were the establishment choices, seen as smart, sensible, and capable of being president. But, it also is emblematic of how far removed D.C. is from the rest of the country considering Rubio and Kasich each only won one other state.

Former Speaker Tip O’Neill is famous for saying that “all politics is local.”  Yet, many national campaigns feature talking points fashioned in broad strokes discussing general platitudes that have been focused grouped by a $500 an hour paid consultant.  Obama is often critiqued as being out of touch because during visits to the Rust Belt he still touts the return of the auto industry and 75 consecutive months of job growth, but fails to realize that none of those metrics matter much when the fridge at home is still empty.

In March, I traveled to Topeka, Kansas, for the Democratic Caucus.  There, I grabbed a clipboard and walked through neighborhoods and apartment complexes, knocking on doors to gauge interest in the political process. The conversations I had there would have never occurred on Connecticut Avenue.

One young man, dressed in an American flag t-shirt and blue jeans, went from polite to vitriolic at the mere mention of Hillary Clinton. “Man, f*ck that bitch. She belongs in jail! Can I vote for handcuffs?” he exclaimed, quickly slamming the door in my face. Keep in mind, this is months before Trump would first declare “lock her up” as a policy position.

Then last week in Bradenton, Florida, a women spent a considerable amount of time expressing dismay at everything Donald Trump has ever done.  When it was implied that meant she would be voting for Clinton she stopped and said “Oh no, I could never do that. She has had people killed and paid off the media to cover it up.”

What.

These anecdotes are exactly why every time a crowd on a D.C. rooftop has predicted a Trump demise he has instead proven resilient. Trump isn’t speaking to avid readers of Roll Call, he is speaking to the person who glances at CNN as he flips between Duck Dynasty and the Steelers game.

Running national campaigns from Washington is how Republicans failed to stop Trump in the first place.  Rubio, Kasich, Cruz, and Bush all ran campaigns with a D.C. mindset. “Focus on policy, decorum, and talking points and everything will turn out okay, right?” Wrong.

Time and time again, polling from red states showed that traditional branding wasn’t working and yet the political class refused to believe it. Conservative lifers like George Will, along with every veteran of the Bush Administration predicted the end of Trump every single time he said something outrageous, not realizing that rebellion was exactly what made him stronger.

Politics may affect everyone, but it isn’t for everyone.  If you’re reading this, you’re probably into politics and will do your homework if you read a headline that says “Hillary Is A Serial Killer.” But there are plenty of people who were raised conservative in parts of the country where they may never travel to D.C. to see the Capitol in person. The prevailing opinion in those communities is that D.C. residents are bringing drugs, bringing crime, they’re rapists crooks and liars and gosh-darnit, Hillary very well may be a serial killer.

This is not to say that future campaigns should stoop down to the lowest denominator, but there does need to be a counterbalance to running a campaign targeted at people who understand how the sausage is made versus people who vote with their gut.

This is what Obama understood and why he was so successful. In 2008, he ran on “hope” which is in no way a policy position. Looking back on his candidacy it is this message that stands out, not his policy positions.  Sure, he mentioned how people need healthcare, but during the campaign that was about the idea of healthcare, not the nuts and bolts of how it gets passed.  Even now Clinton’s campaign keeps saying she has “detailed policy proposals” on her website. People are as likely to click on those as they are to get into a windowless, rusted, Chevy van with a cardboard sign saying “free massages” taped to the door.

Most Americans probably couldn’t come within 50% correctness of detailing the process of how a bill becomes a law and would stare blankly if you told them that most bills that pass the Senate start moving with the “Rule 14 process.”  Detailing a policy is good if you’re pitching yourself to an editorial board or to a union leadership. But when speaking to the average 2016 voter, all they want to know is how their life is going to get better.

This is why Trump still maintains his 40% floor despite being a horrifying mashup of Richard Nixon and Anthony Weiner. Like a talking doll with a pull string, he just continually repeats that he alone can fix anything and everything. Trade? He can fix it. ISIS? Dead. Common Core? Wharton. Nickleback? Banished.

Even though he’s more full of shit than trash can in a dog park, he knows his story and he’s sticking to it.  At some basic level he understands the “all politics is local” mantra and tells people what they want to hear in every situation. He may never be able to deliver, but in the short term it works.

It is still too early to tell if the nationalist pillars of Trumpism will survive this election to permanently soil our politics, but the disgust with insider baseball is likely here to stay (especially during a Clinton presidency).  As such, campaign gurus would be wise to start crafting their message on cocktail napkins in bars in Roanoke, Lawrence, and Evansville instead of on whiteboards in Chicago, Washington, and Boston.

Follow on Twitter @EighteenthandU

Photo Credit: Getty Images
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The Conservative Frankenstein

For the better part of the past decade, Republicans have been preaching the doctrine that Washington’s dysfunction is the sole barrier standing between the American people and the promised land.  They have railed against every facet of the federal government, decrying “career politicians” and looking for leaders from Main Street.

I wish I could name every conservative politician who has uttered the phrase “Washington is the problem,” but doing so would consume the vast majority of this article.  For the past eight years, Republican politicians have been using this slogan to define their party.  The strategy has worked, but maybe a little too well.

By the second half of the Obama presidency, most of red America was not only outraged at the Democrats for their policies, but at their own party’s  representatives for not fighting hard enough against those policies. Virginians went so far as to oust majority leader Eric Cantor in a primary election in favor of a college professor who ran on a tea-party, anti-Washington platform.

For the better part of Obama’s term, Republican thought leaders have set unrealistic expectations for what can be accomplished in Washington. When the initiatives inevitably fail, they cast Republican leadership as weaklings of the conservative movement.  

In the current campaign, Republican presidential candidates with legitimate governing experience have been cast aside in favor of candidates who lack any credible political experience, or who have spent their careers attempting to bring down the institution from within.

After eight years of hearing that Washingtonians are the problem, can you really blame Republican voters for rejecting those with Washington on their resumes?

By virtue of being Republican, many conservative voters are inclined to favor anti-Washington sentiments. Primarily this manifests itself through hostility toward Democratic policy: they want smaller government, less regulation, and lower taxes. Traditionally, strict adherence to these principles was good enough to be called a conservative leader.  Not anymore.

Since Mitch McConnell declared it his goal to make Barack Obama a one-term president, the only real way to be a conservative was to oppose anything and everything at each opportunity.  If you voted for a budget that included 99% conservative priorities but 1% of Obama’s priorities, you were cast as a traitor who enabled a tyrant.

Groups like the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth began scoring elected officials not on their traditional conservative principles, but rather on their fortitude in the face of Obama’s agenda.  By the time the midterm elections came the Tea Party revolt was in full swing and Washington as a whole, not just the left, had become the enemy.

The election of 2012 should have been a sign of things to come.  While relative moderate Mitt Romney eventually emerged as the nominee, several Tea Party darlings threw their hat into the ring as anti-Washington candidates.  In her speech announcing her candidacy for president, Michele Bachmann declared “More than ever, Washington is the problem.”  Throughout his first campaign, Texas Governor Rick Perry released a series of ads claiming that “Washington is the problem” that he needed to be elected to fix.

The fact that the Republicans picked up 67 seats in the House between 2008 and 2014 only helped reinforce the anti-Washington narrative among elective hopefuls.  It has become a classic case of short term thinking that caused long term damage.

Fast forward to the summer of 2015.  The field of Republican presidential hopefuls was taking shape.  Among the candidates are your traditional government executives.  Governors of Florida, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin. Senators from Florida, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas.  Among those individuals would you like to guess who generated the most excitement among conservative voters?

Answer: A bellicose real-estate mogul, a mild-mannered former neurosurgeon, and a sharp tongued former Hewlett-Packard Executive.

Meanwhile, former governors of Texas and Wisconsin, and senators from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina were the first to drop out.

No longer is good governance a starting qualification to run for President within the Republican party.  John Kasich helped balance the federal budget as a Congressman.  Sinful.  Chris Christie accepted President Obama’s help while New Jersey was recovering from Hurricane Sandy.  Unacceptable.  Rick Perry is the longest serving governor of the country’s second most populous state? No matter.

Rather, the most important qualification voters sought was that the candidate had nothing to do with Washington.  The well has been so poisoned by years of trashing the established political order that candidates who fight in opposition to this tradition can get away with almost anything.

Ben Carson, for all his success as a surgeon, would have been laughed off the stage in any other presidential election year.  He speaks with a tone more fit for a lullaby and he is about as charismatic as a throw pillow, except even those get fluffed up a couple times a day.  Yet, in 2015 the fact that he could say he had never held public office gave him great credibility to the conservative audience.  His star has since faded, but the fact that he ever led in the polls is a testament to the anti-Washington monster that has been created.

Donald Trump has a similar anti-Washington appeal, albeit in a slightly different way.  As was articulated in my earlier article Fear and Loathing in Washington he has been able to tap into voters frustrations by becoming the most untraditional campaigner ever.  He insults people, he makes outlandish statements, and he refuses to compromise or cooperate with any standard political norms.

Finally, Ted Cruz has become the ultimate example of the anti-Washington movement.  Despite holding the title of United States Senator, he has spent every waking second in that position fighting anyone with a pulse at the Capitol.

Since coming to Washington, Ted Cruz’s desire to prevent anything from moving through the Senate has been well documented.  His biggest claim to fame is the engineering of the 2013 government shutdown over the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  Cruz popularized the impossible theory that if only the Republicans would work together, the ACA could be successfully repealed.  This was pure fiction from the beginning, yet his branding of the issue made red America believe that the failure to do so was the fault of the weak within their party.

He has advocated for refusing to pass budgets unless Planned Parenthood is defunded.  Also a fictional theory.  These types of demands and negotiations conducted at the end of a barrel are not, and will never be, how Congress gets things done.

Cruz regularly gives speeches accusing his fellow Republican’s of wilting instead of fighting for conservative causes that he alone champions.  He has burned so many bridges that he often waits in his car until the end of votes, dashes inside, and returns seconds after casting his yay or nay.

All of his antics have increased the gridlock that many Americans have long lamented.  Yet, rather than fault him for being a cog in the wheel, they hail him as if he were Leonidas from 300 — though they forget Leonidas eventually finds himself riddled with arrows.  

If Ted Cruz manages to succeed in securing the Republican nomination, there is no doubt the United States will elect its first woman President.  Cruz may excite the extreme right of this country who believe that government default is more desirable than a budget that includes the ACA, but they are not the majority.  

A governor like John Kasich who shows a willingness to work across the aisle and speaks of America’s greatness rather than its demise would be much more likely to pick up independent voters against a candidate like Clinton who has dealt with years of trust issues.  

This will never happen though, because the Republican’s have created a Frankenstein that may not be able to be contained.  After seven years of setting unrealistic expectations for their leaders and then faulting them for failing to achieve those same pipe dreams, the Republicans have created an environment in which only one type of candidate can emerge from their primaries.

Ted Cruz versus Donald Trump may not be the race registered Republicans want, but it is absolutely the race they deserve.

Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images