So What’s Wrong With an Insider?

In the final weeks of his surprising but ultimately futile presidential campaign, John Edwards lingered just a little too long in places reserved for the modern political scoundrel. His cornpone populism and anti-Washington rhetoric may have been delivered in a pleasant ol’ drawl, but the words were sort of silly all the same. Worse, you can expect to hear it all again, and then some, once George W. Bush and Richard Cheney get rolling this summer.

I personally enjoyed Mr. Edwards’ attacks on the new economic order, which supposes that American workers (that would be anybody not employed in politics or journalism) simply have to lower their expectations in order to compete with dollar-a-day workers in the Third World. As Gandhi said of Western civilization, free trade would be a good idea-if only trade were, in fact, free. At the moment, it certainly is not.

Free trade is free trade only when patriotic American companies wish to rid themselves of expensive domestic workers and their outlandish perks (health insurance, etc.), but it is not free when Third World farmers wish to compete with subsidized American agriculture. That’s why so many wonder if we-are-the-world free trade is being used not to spread the wealth, but to make the uppity American work force more pliable. You don’t like reductions in benefits and cuts in overtime? You don’t want to work more than 40 hours without extra compensation? Fine-software workers in India are waiting to take your place on the global assembly line.

Whether or not he really believed what he was saying, Mr. Edwards did a nice, demagogic job of talking about the human cost of free trade-a subject that many would prefer we not discuss. Unfortunately, he couldn’t help but designate himself as the feel-your-pain candidate of 2004, an ordinary Joe from the South who was so poor that he worked 25 hours a day and ate mud for breakfast and lived in a shoe box, etc. Gee, you’d never know he was a wealthy trial lawyer who has made millions from that dubious art form. In an age when all politics is autobiography, poorer-than-thou stories are inevitable. But Mr. Edwards nearly made them the core of his candidacy, and that gets awfully tiresome, especially if your listeners really are downtrodden and vulnerable.

Even more annoying was Mr. Edwards’ portrayal of himself as a Washington outsider, Jimmy Stewart for the 21st century, in contrast to John Kerry, a mean, nasty insider . When the two Senators debated free-trade agreements, Mr. Edwards mocked Mr. Kerry by telling him, “Don’t worry, we’ve got a Washington committee that’s studying this for you.” Oh, that’s got to hurt! You get the connection: Kerry, Washington insider, bad; Edwards, outsider, ate mud for breakfast, good.

The notion that any Senator is somehow an “outsider” is almost as absurd as the notion that somehow an outsider is preferable to a professional who knows how to get things done, i.e., an insider. The political world is filled with the mangled remains of outsiders who tried to run governments. They don’t often succeed, because they don’t often know how to govern. I wouldn’t want an outsider fixing my car, snaking my shower or operating on what’s left of that tiny gray mass in my head. Why would I want an outsider running the United States of America?

Mr. Kerry survived these awful accusations-He never lived in a shoe box! He’s a professional politician!-but he can expect to hear them again in the fall. What, do you think the Bush-Cheney team won’t be dropping their “g’s” and chewin’ on beef jerky and making NASCAR references and otherwise posing as simple-livin’ folks who happen to be living in the District of Columbia?

Not so long ago, the first President Bush tried to deodorize himself from the scent of old money by confessing to a taste for pork rinds. And when he was out campaigning for a second term, he expressed his delight to be away from Washington and among the real people. His distaste for the capital was remarkably well-hidden during his decades of service in Washington. You’d almost think that he, well, rather enjoyed being at the center of power and influence. But no-he told us that he’d rather be eatin’ pork rinds with the real people.

The current President Bush has been hangin’ with the real people of NASCAR and the rodeo circuit in recent weeks, a sure sign that we will soon hear of his disdain for the city where he works and lives. It’s rather stunning to hear so many people who live in Washington speak so poorly of the place-I suppose if I were a Washingtonian, I’d be offended.

But then again, that would make me an insider who never lived in a shoe box and ate mud for breakfast.

So What’s Wrong With an Insider?