Making the Turn from Insurgent to Establishment

The banner headline for this presidential primary so far has been “insurgents vs establishment.” For the Republicans, the insurgent candidacies of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are blowing away the establishment candidates in all the polling. On the Democratic side, the big news lately has been that the insurgent Bernie Sanders is threatening the lead of the establishment Hillary Clinton.

With all the caveats about how this election might break all of the old rules about presidential primaries, it is fascinating to listen to Sam Stein’s podcast with the 2004 insurgent candidate Howard Dean.

Towards the end (at about the 33:00 minute mark), they are talking about the infamous scream speech following Dean’s loss in the Iowa caucuses. Dean explains that long before that happened, he knew his campaign was in trouble for two reasons. First of all, the campaign staff was terribly disorganized (something they discussed previously during this podcast). But the second reason is fascinating. Here’s what Dean said:

I was an insurgent candidate who couldn’t make the turn to become an establishment candidate.

People don’t want an insurgent as president. They love insurgents because they are always mad at the government. But at the end of the day, if you are going to be president, you’ve got to look like one and I never quite could bring myself to do that.

They [his supporters] were deeply invested in having somebody who wasn’t going to be putting up any with crap from the establishment. And having been a governor for six terms, I knew very well that the governor has to put up with crap from everybody. Your job is to make things work and that means that you can’t exclude people, whether you like them or not…

So I knew I had to make the turn. It was very, very hard and I didn’t successfully do it…It was really a tug of war. I could actually feel the tugging as I would try to do it and I would give a measured speech and the audience would be completely flat and I wouldn’t let myself leave them flat.

I also realized that I was giving them something they deeply valued, which was hope. And to pull back and become the establishment figure that I knew I had to become to become president was really hard to do because I had to teach them an incredibly unpleasant lesson, which was that people like me don’t win presidencies behaving like that. You have to deal with the reality that includes a whole lot of people that aren’t progressive…and I was going to have to teach them that that was going to be part of the deal.

What Dean captured there is precisely why so many progressive Democrats became disillusioned with President Obama almost from the day he was inaugurated. Obama could no longer play the role of the insurgent because, by definition, a president is part of the establishment. I think he tried to do a better job of explaining that during his campaign. But a lot of people simply didn’t want to hear it.

And so the question becomes, what happens when/if the current crop of insurgents has to face that moment when it becomes necessary to make the turn? Dean was feeling the pressure because, as a governor, he knew it had to happen. None of the insurgents this time around have that kind of executive experience. I suspect that with them, only a shift in expectations from the voters before the general election will bring this reality home prior to the time they actually walk into the White House (if any of them manage to get there). Talk about a rude awakening!

The reality is that insurgents are good at railing about all that’s wrong with the government. Presidents find themselves in charge of, as Dean says, making things work. That puts them right in the crosshairs of people who are mad at the government because it means working with the opposition to find compromises, so no “fix” is ever complete. Understanding that is what it means to be part of the establishment.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.