‘Outsiders’ governing have record of failure


The media’s take on 2016 is that politically it will be the "Year of the Outsider." The presumption is that voters have concluded that someone without government experience can’t do much worse than those now governing.

So the operative question is, which is worse, an experienced incompetent or an inexperienced amateur? For example, a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

What is lost in the political muddle is whether an "outsider" is synonymous with "independent." Do voters want someone who is not in sync with the mainstream of the political parties — a so-called outsider — or do they want someone who is neither a Democrat nor Republican — an independent?

According to Webster’s Dictionary, an "outsider" is someone who is "not a member of or in sympathy with the philosophy of a given group" or a candidate "given little chance of winning." An "independent" is defined as someone "apart from" and "not an adherent of or committed to any political party."

That, in essence, is the problem with America’s two-party system. Forty percent of the population is center-left, or Democratic liberals, who detest the Republican philosophy and the religious-oriented culture it represents, and 40 percent of the population is center-right, or conservative Republicans, who detest the Democrats’ "government can solve everything" philosophy and the secular culture it represents. The remaining 20 percent want neither but have no alternatives.

The problem is that whoever governs, from the president down, is beholden to their ideological base. President Barack Obama can’t consider approving the Keystone XL pipeline because environmentalists will scream, just as Republican presidential candidates can’t consider amnesty for illegal immigrants because their base will scream. Both parties in Congress care only about protecting their majority (or achieving it) and spend their energy demonizing their opponents, so as to pander to their base, and extracting money from their sympathetic special interests, so as to keep themselves in office.

The United States is governed from the extremes inward, not from the center outward. To get nominated for office, candidate needs to appeal to, or at least not alienate, their respective right- or left-wing base, and to govern (and get re-elected), incumbents need to placate their base, while moving to the center. Thus, it is impossible to get into office as an independent, much less govern as such.

Think of the possibilities of a president like the long-forgotten Ross Perot, who lost in 1992 and 1996. Instead of being beholden to and a captive of his party’s congressional majority or minority, an independent president could pick and choose the right issues, build a consensus, play off the parties against each other, and govern from the center outward. That’s how it’s done in Europe . . . which may not be much of a recommendation. There, all the fringe parties ally with a centrist party to form a parliamentary government.

Instead of political parties demonizing each other, an independent U.S. president could selectively demonize the party which opposes his or her initiatives, breaking party solidarity and essentially restructuring the two-party system. There would be pro- and anti-president Democrats and Republicans, and there would be a plethora of independents running for office, realizing that 35 to 40 percent of the vote could be enough to win. An independent president would set the country’s agenda, not the party’s agenda.

More than a century ago, California and Wisconsin were trailblazers in political and government reform. They replaced party conventions with party primaries, so voters could nominate candidates instead of party bosses picking candidates; they initiated recall, so that elected office holders could, in a special election after the submission of petition signatures, be removed from office; they initiated both binding and advisory referendums, so voters could directly change their state’s constitutions; and California was among the first to impose term limits on elected state officials and legislators. However, that won’t cure the problem of Washington gridlock and partisanship, yearly augmented by special interests donating huge amounts of money to incumbents and party committees.

Only two of the 100 senators are independents, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is a self-described a "democratic socialist" who now is running for president as a Democrat. Not a single one of the 435 House members is an independent; the Republicans have a 247-188 majority. According to the Rothenberg/Gonzales Political Report, 222 of the Republican seats are rated "safe," meaning that the incumbent or Mitt Romney in 2012 won with more than 55 percent of the vote. Of the 188 Democratic seats, 182 are rated "safe." That means that 31 seats are "in play," and close to $500 million will be spent to win them, with most of that money coming from political action committees and Washington special interests. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is budgeted at $1 billion.

The newest "reform" wrinkle is the nonpartisan primary, which originated in Louisiana but which has morphed to California. That means that instead of choosing Democratic and Republican nominees in separate primaries, with the winners facing off in the election, the top two primary finishers, if neither has more than 50 percent of the vote, be in a runoff election. It’s not quite the same as the nonpartisan Chicago aldermanic system, where there is no party identification. Instead, in California, all candidates have a Democratic or Republican party designation, so the runoff can be between candidates of the same party, but since few unaffiliated people vote in primaries, having an independent label or nothing next to one’s name is the kiss of death. Since the revision began in 2012, no independent has prevailed in the primary.

In the 1980s, after a Republican gubernatorial win in 1979, the concept of a "jungle primary" was conceived by Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards to thwart the nascent Louisiana Republicans. For state and federal office, a Democrat had to survive a primary, a possible runoff, and then a general election against a Republican. That was a nasty and expensive ordeal, often leaving the victor vulnerable, so Edwards and the Democratic legislature simply abolished the election, scheduling the all-candidate "primary" on election day in November, with a runoff in December. It worked. Only Democrats made the runoffs until the mid-1990s.

However, the political establishment finds the California/Louisiana model to be horrific. It would be a nonstop drain on party resources in safe districts, and it would only benefit the electronic media and political consultants, who would have year-round cash flow.

Illinois and Chicago have had some experience with "outsiders," who never truly evolved into "independents."

Dan Walker: A wealthy corporate attorney, Walker gained fame when he chaired a commission that determined that there was a "police riot" at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. That did not endear him to Mayor Richard J. Daley. He then decided he wanted to be the governor, and his gimmick was to walk 1,197 miles through Illinois in 1971 with a red bandanna around his neck. He proclaimed himself an outsider, blasted Lieutenant Governor Paul Simon for his servility to the Daley machine, and won the Democratic primary 735,193-694,900, carrying Downstate 299,709-238,459 but losing Cook County 456,441-435,484.

In the election against Republican Governor Dick Ogilvie, who signed into law the state income tax, Daley did nothing to aid Walker or presidential nominee George McGovern, but anti-Ogilvie animus, plus Walker’s glamour and momentum, gave him a 2,371,303-2,293,809 victory, a margin of 77,494 votes, despite a plurality of 874,707 votes for Richard Nixon.

As governor Walker was both predictably combative and ineffective. His modus operandi was to engender conflict, with the Republican legislative majority or the Daley forces. It was always "good" versus "evil." He was the "good." Walker had some accomplishments, such as the creation of the RTA and campaign finance reforms, but in 1973 he embarked on an anti-Daley crusade, recruiting 1974 anti-Daley legislative candidates. His goal was to run for president in 1976 as the outsider. Jimmy Carter beat him to the punch. Daley strong-armed Secretary of State Mike Howlett to challenge Walker in the 1976 primary, and Howlett won 811,721-696,380. Howlett went on to be trounced by Jim Thompson, and after leaving office, Walker went on to spend 18 months in federal prison for bank fraud.

Jane Byrne: Department of Consumer Affairs commissioner in the Daley Administration, Byrne was a nuisance "outsider" mayoral candidate in 1979. Mike Bilandic had won the 1977 primary with 51 percent of the vote, getting 340,363 votes in a turnout of 666,164. The election followed the 1976 death of Daley. The humongous (and unplowed) snows of the 1978-79 winter created great dissonance, and Byrne beat Bilandic 412,909-396,134, winning by a margin of 16,775 votes in a turnout of 809,043.

Would Byrne govern as an outsider? Not a chance. She made whatever deals were necessary, and it was status quo ante. She was the new boss, same as the old boss. The outsider became the insider.

Byrne’s ineptitude on racial issues, coupled with Rich Daley’s candidacy, doomed her in 1983. Harold Washington galvanized the black vote and won 415,050-382,708-340,702, a margin of 35,887 votes over Byrne, with Daley third.

Forrest Claypool: Now the Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer, Claypool, then a county commissioner, ran as an independent for county assessor in 2010 against Democrat Joe Berrios, losing Chicago 640,882-424,549, but winning the suburbs 243,990-242,403.

As long as black voters stay wedded to the Democrats, no "independent" can win.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.