Super Tuesday confirmed the phenomenon of the 2016 presidential election – the rise of the anti-establishment candidate, most notably Republican Donald Trump. Nearly nine out of 10 of his voters were looking for an “outsider,” according to exit polls.
Many factors explain the popularity of this election’s establishment bashers, who also include tea party darling Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and the self-declared democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont.
There’s globalization and the wealth gap, for instance, an ever-coarsening public discourse, and candidate overpromising. And here’s another big one: frustration with Washington. The government’s either doing too much or not enough, depending on your viewpoint, but in any case, it’s not working, many believe.
Among Republicans, at least 9 in 10 primary voters had negative feelings toward Washington, according to exit polls reported by the Associated Press. Among Democrats, it was less, but still prevalent. Just fewer than 6 in 10 had negative views of the federal government.
Which has some in Washington saying that they are part of the problem – and therefore part of the solution – to voter anger and frustration.
Take Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Tennessean let loose when asked at a recent Monitor breakfast whether a gridlocked Congress has played a role in the rise of the anti-establishment.
“I think the American people have every right to be angry. I tell them I think they ought to be angrier than they are.” he said. “Have we addressed the major issues of our nation? Not one! Not one! I mean, people should be upset.”
He ran through three long-simmering issues – the national debt, the wealth gap, the Islamic State – and pointed to the missed opportunity in this divided government to find the kind of common ground that Republican President Ronald Reagan could find with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Even though Congress passed several significant bills into law in 2015, making it one of the more productive sessions in recent years, “tell me how we’ve addressed any of those three issues,” Senator Corker went on. Americans are looking for leadership, he said.
“Let’s face it, they’re clamoring [for] it wherever they can find it this year.”
Many Republicans are alarmed about the crass-talking billionaire who looks like he's well on the way to becoming the GOP presidential standard bearer. They find Trump’s comments, his knock-heads manner, and his positions divisive and un-Republican – even undemocratic.
The main concern among many Republicans is that Trump would alienate wide swaths of voters and cost the GOP the presidential election. He may also hurt GOP chances in down-ballot races, particularly for the Senate, where Democrats need only five seats to retake control (four if a Democrat wins the White House).
“Mr. Trump's record is anything but conservative and he is not the best in temperament, disposition, or philosophy that the Republican Party has to offer,” says Rep. Trent Franks (R) of Arizona, who is a member of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.
Like Corker in the Senate, Congressman Franks, too, thinks Congress shares responsibility for the rise of Trump – not because the two parties haven’t worked together to solve the nation’s problems, but because Senate Democrats have blocked so many bills passed by the GOP-controlled House.
“Add to that Barack Obama taking the country over the cliff and the base wanting us to fight back, and along comes a guy like Donald Trump and says things he knows nothing about, and people just want somebody that will stand up and cuss at somebody,” he says.
But Trump simply reflects what’s been building in the GOP for years, others argue.
“Trump is no fluke,” wrote Robert Kagan, in a Washington Post column last month. “He is, rather, the party’s creation,” fed by obstruction tactics, contempt for compromise, and racially tinged Obama hatred, wrote Mr. Kagan, who served in the State Department during the Reagan years.
Voters are just following the lessons taught by Republicans such as Senator Cruz, who led the partial government shutdown in 2013, explained Kagan, who is no longer a Republican, though a critic of Obama's foreign policy.
Indeed, frustrated voters have elected members who play to the fringes, while other voters, discouraged by polarization, have stayed home, says Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.
“We, the frustrated” have fueled the anti-establishment, he says, but so have lawmakers who have torn down their own institution. “The number of members who have worked hard to get elected on the premise that the place needs to be steamrolled … has fueled that whole public imagination.”
Reversing course takes leadership and recognition that problem-solving necessarily involves engaging with people who hold different views, Mr. Grumet says.
New York Times moderately conservative columnist David Brooks, who recently pointed to the Founders' politics of compromise and dealmaking, put it this way: “The answer to Trump is politics. It's acknowledging other people exist. It's taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements.”
Over the last year, leaders of both parties have taken steps along that path. In the Senate, particularly, majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky has opened up the process to be more inclusive of members of both parties, while Democrats, as leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada often comments, have been a “constructive minority.”
Several key bills were passed, including a highway bill, education reform, a narrow fix to Medicare, and a two-year budget agreement. That cooperation has hit a mega-pothole over a Supreme Court nomination to replace Justice Antonin Scalia – a hugely polarizing issue. Lawmakers on both sides say it won't stop them from moving forward on other issues, but on Thursday morning, it got in the way of a bipartisan opioid bill.
It’s a long, steep climb to a better functioning Washington, says Mr. Grumet. He likens government to college basketball – a game of momentum. It’s not possible to leap from a year of modest gains to solving America’s biggest problems. But tackling smaller problems can inspire members and the country alike, and build momentum for tackling bigger ones.