Don't Be Fooled: Incompetence is Masquerading as "Anti-Establishment" in 2016

"Anti-establishment" candidates in 2016 have something in common: poor (or non-existent) records of getting things done in policy.

"Anti-establishment" candidates in 2016 have something in common: poor (or non-existent) records of getting things done in policy.

In 2016, it's a fad to run against the establishment, at least some hacked up perception of it that each "anti-establishment" candidate gets to make up and change on the go. There's little agreement on what this "establishment" is, except that this beast lives in Washington, DC, and that it is the root of all of our problems, whatever these problems happen to be for a given campaign. Government doing too much, ala Ted Cruz? It's the establishment's fault. Government doing too little ala Bernie Sanders? Get pitchforks and go after the "establishment."

One reason for this is that it is a lot easier to "fight" an abstract enemy than to try to define it.

But more than that, each candidate selling themselves as the "anti-establishment" candidate in 2016 has one thing in common: they have poor records of actually getting things done in public policy. The "establishment" has become an excuse for why these people are incompetent legislators or why, in some cases, they never bothered to seek to effect change in government ever before in the first place.

But the reason each of these people - almost every viable candidate on the Republican side and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side - has been unsuccessful in making legislative or government marks in their career is because they have not been willing to try. They have consumed themselves with ideological purity rather than practical reality. They have found it preferable to make a point than to make a difference.

This is evident among every candidate that is running this year on the sole claim that they are the "anti-establishment". They have all repackaged their incompetence in effecting big policy changes as "anti-establishment". Ted Cruz's proudest claim to fame during his time in government is his green-eggs-and-ham non-filibuster-filibuster to shut down the government over health care reform. Donald Trump's is having challenged the current president's birth certificate. Even Marco Rubio, who isn't having such a swell time selling himself as the anti-establishment candidate, spends his days telling voters how he ran away from his own immigration reform bill.

Then there's Bernie Sanders, who's been a politician since 1972 and in Congress for 25 years, selling himself as the True Revolutionary (TM) anti-establishment candidate in the irony of the decade. He's selling himself as the sudden savior whose proudest moments in Congress, according to his own campaign, were spent opposing this or that rather than constructing any building blocks of progress. He is supposedly going to be able to deliver in 2017 what he hasn't since 1991.

Actually doing things that change the established realities of our time - for example, putting banking regulations back in place, making credit card companies more transparent, forever casting to the dustbin of history the practice of denying sick people health care - is a lot harder than just talking about them. It's a lot easier to complain about what is wrong than to make it right.

Because real change - as opposed to bloviating about torches and pitchforks - takes real work. Homework. Legwork. Grunt-work. Work no one gives you credit for. Work without spotlight or adoring crowds.

But you can avoid having to take responsibility for being in Congress for 25 years and not having much to show for it if you can just blame the "establishment". Why do your homework when you can simply tell your adoring fans the dog ate it, and they will eat it up?

There used to be real anti-establishment candidates who sought to solve specific problems, and ran with records of having solved a few on their own. Although his campaign organization turned out to be bust, before Howard Dean had run for the Democratic nomination in 2004, as a governor he had already accomplished real progress in his state: 90%+ health insured rate and 11 straight balanced budget in a state where budgets are not required to be balanced. He ran against the establishment, but we all knew what that establishment was: the Republican administration that threw the country in the midst of a dumb war in the middle east and the Democrats in Congress too afraid of being called unpatriotic.

Barack Obama ran on the message of change, running a decidedly anti-establishment campaign. Once again, though, we knew what this establishment was and what its sins were. We knew what he was running to change with specificity. He ran to change the banking deregulation that led to the financial disaster of 2008 - an actual response to an actual crisis caused by an actual set of policies. He ran to change the poverty of actions and ideas that had kept American women, men and children without health coverage because they couldn't afford it, or if they could, they had pre-existing conditions.

Obama ran also on the actual record of accomplishments to affect change. As a freshman US senator, he had already had his name on landmark legislation to enforce nuclear nonproliferation, federal transparency and SCHIP expansion (though the last one was vetoed by his predecessor - then signed by him when he became president). As a state senator in Illinois, he had passed into law major reforms in welfare that expanded benefits and access for families and children and a major victory in criminal justice law requiring police in his state to videotape confessions.

We knew Barack Obama would be an agent of change because he already had been. We knew that Barack Obama would be effective because he already was. We knew that he could change the specific established policies he was running to alter because he had already shown the tenacity and perseverance to do so from platforms much smaller than the presidency. We did not have to guess what this "establishment" he was running against was, and more importantly, he did not have to constantly claim the "anti-establishment" mantle for the people to be able to identify him as the agent of change we badly needed.

The same cannot be said for the current herd of candidates each selling their brand of anti-establishment rhetoric to simply cover up their embarrassing lack of contribution to public policy. In fact, this crowd - and their supporters - seem to be viewing public policy accomplishments themselves as the devilish establishment's spawn and leaders key to those achievements as accomplices for the establishment devil, some even going so far as to berate advocacy and rights groups who have shed blood and sweat to build progress.

This is not how change happens. A president needs to roll up his or her sleeves and get to work, and do the hard work and achieve results even if those results don't tick off every checkbox in some ideological list. We cannot govern in angry rants, and we certainly cannot govern by excuses.

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