When a writer has a thought piece published by a major news outlet, he or she hopes the piece will be noticed. Indeed, practically every writer hopes his or her work will be read, considered, and talked about by as large an audience as possible.
To this extent, Jim VandeHei, a co-founder and former CEO of Politico, has succeeded beautifully with a new op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about his desire for a third-party presidential candidate. His provocative thesis has, as intended, become the subject of widespread conversation, and if the point was to get people talking, it’s worked.
There is a difference, however, between receptive chatter and hostile chatter, and VandeHei’s piece is generating the latter for a reason.
I have spent the past two decades in the Washington, D.C., bubble – the heart of Establishment America – covering politics and building a company, Politico, focused solely on politics. But I’ve also spent a lot of time in my hometown of Oshkosh, Wis., and my adopted hometown of Lincoln, Maine, two blue-collar towns in the heart of Normal America.
Note, right off the bat, VandeHei seems to consider “Normal America” small, rural towns that are overwhelmingly white. Given that most Americans live in cities, it’s unclear why we should perceive urban areas any less “normal.”
Here are my two big takeaways: Normal America is right that Establishment America has grown fat, lazy, conventional and deserving of radical disruption. And the best, perhaps only way to disrupt the establishment is by stealing a lot of Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s tricks and electing a third-party candidate.
When someone uses “disrupt” and “disruption” twice in a paragraph during a “Shark Tank” pitch or at a TED talk, it’s annoying. When someone does it in an op-ed, it’s a reminder to start pacing your eye-rolling, because what follows is likely to be exasperating.
Mr. Trump’s vulgar approach to politics is a terrific middle finger to the establishment but a terrible political and governing paradigm. Same goes for Sanders-style socialism. But if someone turned the critique, passion and disdain shared by the two movements into a new one, they could change the system in meaningful ways. Only an outside force can knock Washington out of its governing rut – and the presidency is the only place with the power to do it.
First, assuming that meaningful change has to start at the White House before it trickles down is wrong. Second, there is a “governing rut” at the federal level, but it’s not because of a lack of outsiders; it’s because a radicalized congressional Republican majority with no real governing agenda and no tolerance for working cooperatively towards common goals or compromise has taken root on Capitol Hill.
At this point, VandeHei starts laying out his template for a third-party platform, which he believes is necessary because voters have “watched as the two parties chose selfish spats and rarely dared to do the right thing, or hard things or often anything.” This kind of “both sides are always to blame” framing is a hallmark of the Establishment America that VandeHei claims to have no use for, and it’s also woefully incorrect. The more President Obama, for example, has pleaded with GOP lawmakers to tackle pressing needs, the more they’ve balked.
Granted, the White House hasn’t tried “disruption,” but I haven’t the foggiest idea what that means.
As for VandeHei’s dream agenda, it apparently includes “eradicating corporate welfare,” means testing social-insurance programs, and some kind of “National App” to promote volunteer opportunities.
In one paragraph, the writer celebrates American voters’ sophistication and appreciation for nuance, only to argue two paragraphs later that his dream ticket should “exploit the fear factor” on matters of national security because when it comes to counter-terrorism, “there is no market for nuance.”
Pointing specifically to Trump and Sanders, VandeHei added, “Anger has its limits. The fringe can win primaries but it can’t win national elections. You draw in the 40% of people who don’t vote or big blocks of dissatisfied independents with a call to a higher purpose. In this case, the purpose is cleaning up the mess the leaders of the two parties created.”
But again, blaming both parties is absurd for anyone who cares about real-world details, and to think entitlement cuts and better smart-phone apps represent “a higher purpose” is a mistake.
As for who VandeHei would like to see lead his imaginary movement, the op-ed concludes, “Why not recruit Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg to head a third-party movement? Maybe we can convince Michael Bloomberg to help fund the movement with the billions he planned to spend on his own campaign – and then recruit him to run Treasury and advise the president.”
Oh. So what “Normal America” longs for – and desperately needs – are billionaires capable of “disruption” and a willingness to “exploit the fear factor”?
By any fair measure, VandeHei’s piece is unfortunate, but the core problem is not just that his thesis is wrong. Rather, what’s striking is VandeHei’s lack of self-awareness.
His thesis is warmed over No Labels pabulum peddled by Joe Lieberman in D.C. ballrooms. VandeHei is probably well-intentioned, but while his argument claims to take aim at Establishment America, it ends up reflecting Establishment America’s worst instincts. He’s not disrupting a stagnant inside-the-Beltway worldview so much as he’s reinforcing it.
The great irony of VandeHei’s piece is that he claims to have no use for “lazy, conventional” thinking about national politics. To prove his point, he sent 1,000 words to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, making lazy, conventional observations about parties, policy, and politics.
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