Presidential candidates have railed against the “establishment” so often this election cycle that the term has lost all meaning.
On the Democratic side, it’s Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign -- or so says Sen. Bernie Sanders, the candidate with the 30-year political career. On the Republican side, it’s Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and everyone else now “unifying” behind Donald Trump (Sarah Palin?) -- or so says Sen. Ted Cruz, the candidate with the Ivy League degrees and Supreme Court clerkship under his belt.
The “establishment” is supposed to refer to an elite class of leaders that holds all the power. It’s fixed; it’s exclusive; it’s the embodiment of the status quo. But for 2016 presidential hopefuls, the “establishment” has turned into nothing more than an overused buzzword and nefarious label to slap onto anyone who doesn’t like them. And for some of these candidates, it’s starting to apply to a laughably wide range of people -- including themselves.
"It doesn't have any meaning in the context of these candidates," said GOP strategist Stuart Stevens, who was the top adviser to Mitt Romney in his 2012 campaign. "There have been anti-establishment figures in American politics before. But I don't see many of them on stage up there."
A big part of the problem is that the self-professed “anti-establishment” candidates don’t seem so outside the group they’re promising to dismantle. Take Cruz: Yes, he has zero supporters in the Senate -- a fact he considers a badge of honor. But as The Washington Post’s Philip Bump notes, Cruz also “went to Ivy League schools, clerked for the chief justice of the United States, worked as counsel to John Boehner, served as solicitor general for Texas, worked in the Justice Department and now serves in the Senate.”
"If that's not the 'establishment,' what is?"'
"If that's not the 'establishment,' what is?" asked Stevens.
The same could arguably be said of Sanders, who was first elected to Congress in 1990 and served as mayor of Vermont's biggest city, Burlington, for eight years before that. Yes, he is a middle class socialist who has called for a “political revolution” to overthrow the "economic establishment.” But again, as Bump notes: “You can't be a member of the Senate and not be a part of the establishment, even if you are a senator from a small state who's doing unexpectedly well against the personification of the Democratic ‘establishment’ … You can’t be in Congress and not be in Congress.”
Of course, the candidates themselves aren’t the only reason their crusade against the “establishment” has turned into a farce. The other part of the problem is that those accused of being members of the “establishment” don’t quite seem to fit within the term’s nebulously drawn lines. Often, they’re quick to deny any attachment to such a group -- like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of a handful of candidates frequently described (or in many cases, maligned) as part of the GOP establishment.
“Let me just say this, every time I’ve ever run for office, whether it’s to the Senate or now as president, I’ve had to take on the Republican establishment, and we’re doing it again now,” Rubio told reporters Thursday after a campaign stop in Manchester, New Hampshire. “For example, I mean, I’ve had like a 20, over $20 million spent attacking me. That’s not grassroots money; that’s money from the establishment. We have always had to take on the establishment. We’ll do it again because the Republican Party needs to turn the page and move forward, and we will.”
Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign reacted similarly this week after Sanders characterized them as "establishment" groups. Both organizations, which have endorsed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for president, immediately rejected the label.
For other so-called “establishment” types, if they’re not denying being part of such a group, they’re outright questioning its existence.
“[I’ve] never known what the establishment was,” said former Republican presidential nominee and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole in an interview last month with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “I mean, who are all these people who are in the ‘establishment?’”
According to Cruz, they’re people like Dole. Shortly after the 92-year-old warned in a New York Times interview that the GOP would suffer “cataclysmic” losses if it nominated Cruz and predicted that Trump would fare better, the Texas senator said Wednesday night that the “Washington establishment” was “abandoning Marco Rubio and unifying behind Donald Trump.” It wasn’t exactly clear who he saw “unifying”; Cruz did not name names. But the attack followed several nods of support for Trump, including an endorsement from Sarah Palin, a relatively kind editorial from The Wall Street Journal and a plea from Gov. Branstad in Iowa to literally vote for anyone besides Cruz. (Trump and Cruz are running neck and neck in the Hawkeye State.)
Most people could probably get behind lumping Dole, Branstad and The Wall Street Journal into an “establishment” category. Trump, despite his anti-establishment appeal, could even fall into that camp based on his lifestyle, said Stevens. ("A trust-fund billionaire who lives on Park Ave., is that not establishment?") But Palin, the original anti-establishment candidate? Not likely. The former Alaska governor even made it a point to repeatedly lash out at the Republican “establishment” in her endorsement for Trump on Tuesday. In total, she said the word eight times.
“We need someone new, who has the power, and is in the position to bust up that establishment to make things great again. It’s part of the problem,” said Palin. So is the term "establishment."