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Rich Rubino Headshot

The Establishment is Not Quite as Established as One Might Think

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There is no greater term of derision in American politics than to be called an "establishmentarian." No one wants to be portrayed as a tribune of the status quo, especially at a time when politicians are held in such low esteem. There is no shortage of candidates who characterize themselves as populist insurgents with a phalanx of grassroots supporters challenging the political machinery, and sometimes an insurgent rises to great political heights and becomes the face of the establishment. Barack Obama is the quintessential example of this phenomenon.

In 2008, the preponderant frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination was U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY). She had redoubtable early institutional support. Traditional Democratic benefactors contributed early to her campaign.

In sharp contrast to Hillary, Obama ran as an agent of change, actually using his lack of national political experience to his advantage. Obama asserted: "There are those who tout their experience working the system in Washington. But the problem is the system in Washington isn't working for us, and it hasn't been for a very long time." Obama consolidated a coalition of young professionals, disenchanted Independent voters and African-Americans, defeating Clinton and the Democratic establishment.

Turnabout is fair play in American politics, and ironically Obama is now the poster child for the Washington establishment. He now stands with the bipartisan Congressional leadership on a litany of issues, from the launching of predator drone strikes, to the defense of the NSA domestic surveillance program, to defending a $633 Billion defense budget. His opposition comes from progressive Democrats on the left and Libertarians on the right who are now challenging the bipartisan establishment.

Obama's 2008 General Election opponent, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), finds himself in a similar predicament. In 2000, McCain challenged Texas Governor Bush for the GOP Presidential nomination. Similar to the case of Hillary Clinton's backing by the Democratic establishment in 2008, Bush had the support of the Republican establishment and held an early commanding lead for the nomination. McCain ran as the insurgent. He put a scare into the GOP establishment by running on reforming the political process. Surprisingly, he scored a searing 18-point upset in the New Hampshire Primary with the support of Independents and some crossover Democrats.

The establishment eventually recovered and Bush won in the establishment firewall state of South Carolina. McCain's insurgent army was never able to repeat the magic of New Hampshire and Bush garnered the nomination. Today, McCain is seen as the embodiment of the GOP establishment. He is often the prime defender of established Republican orthodoxy against Libertarian insurgents intent on reorienting the GOP as a party against intervention in the economy and in foreign affairs. McCain was a supporter of the $700 billion bailout of the U.S. financial industry, and is the foremost advocate in the U.S. Senate for a continued robust U.S. military presence in the Middle East.

The quintessence of the paradigm of a rebel becoming the face card of the establishment is Gerald R. Ford. Today, many Americans think of Ford as the quintessential establishment Republican. He served 25 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming House Minority Leader before becoming Vice President and President. Ironically, Ford got to where he was by being an insurrectionist, challenging the GOP establishment.

Ford began his GOP career as chairman of the Kent County GOP. In that role, Ford challenged the supreme reign of the corrupt system within the Michigan GOP led by patronage dispenser and GOP benefactor Frank "Boss" McKay. In 1948, Ford won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives by challenging 9-year incumbent Bartel J. Jonkman in the Republican Primary. Jonkman had been a product of the McKay machine.

In the House, Ford became active in the "young turks," a coterie of Republican rebels who became disenthralled with the GOP establishment in the House. Ford thought the GOP establishment had become too complacent in its role as the minority party, and felt that the party could regain its majority status by recruiting GOP candidates to challenge conservative Democrats in the South. He came to feel that the leadership was too willing to work with Conservative Democrats in the House, rather than working to defeat them. In 1963, Ford successfully challenged incumbent U.S. Representative Charles Hoeven for the Chairmanship of the House GOP Caucus. Two years later, Ford shocked the GOP establishment by defeating House Minority Leader Charles Halleck (R-IN) in his bid for re-election. Accordingly, Ford reinvented the GOP Establishment by supplanting it.

Alternatively, some products of the political establishment went rogue. Eugene McCarthy entered the U.S. Senate in 1959 as a rank-and-file establishment Democrat. In 1964, he was on Lyndon B. Johnson's shortlist for Vice Presidential nominees. However, McCarthy broke with the Democratic establishment over the volatile issue of Vietnam and challenged Johnson in his re-election bid in 1968, declaring: "No nation had a right to destroy a nation." McCarthy mustered an astounding 41.9% of the vote in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary, helping to force Johnson from the race. McCarthy eventually lost the nomination at the Convention to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. McCarthy continued on the rogue trajectory, eventually waging a quixotic Independent Presidential campaign in 1976, advocating nuclear disarmament and a shortened workweek.

Ramsey Clark took a much more radical departure from the Democratic establishment. Clark was the son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark (1949-1967.) Clark followed in his father's footsteps, earning a law degree from the prestigious University of Chicago and becoming a partner in an esteemed law firm. He became U.S. Attorney General under the Johnson administration in 1967 at a time when the administration was combating domestic unrest caused chiefly by the Vietnam War.

Once the Johnson administration left office, Clark became a vociferous opponent of U.S. foreign policy. He traveled to North Vietnam in 1972, excoriating the U.S. for its bombing of Hanoi. He later became a vocal critic of the Gulf War and the attendant U.S. Sponsored Sanctions on Iraq, labeling them "the clearest form of genocide." Clark also branded the so-called Global War on Terror "A war on Islam" and provided counsel to dislodged Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at his 2006 execution hearing.

Political candidates revel in styling themselves as the populist insurgent. They try to brand a scarlet "E" for establishment on the forehead of their opponents. While an establishment candidate benefits from institutional support and an existing army of benefactors, they usually downplay this significant asset, trying to present themselves as independent-minded. However, once insurgents are elected, they become the face card of the establishment. As the late humorist Art Buchwald opined: "If you attack the establishment long enough, and hard enough, they will make you a member of it."