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What Andrew Jackson has in common with Donald Trump

Of the nearly two dozen major candidates running for president, the ones getting the most attention are the political outsiders. Is this a rare situation, or have American voters seen this before? Gwen Ifill talks to presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith and Lara Brown of George Washington University.

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  • Gwen Ifill:

    There are nearly two dozen major candidates running for president this year, and the ones getting the most attention are not all elected officials. They are the outsiders, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders, Carly Fiorina, using YouTube, Instagram and other social media to build huge followings and get onto debate stages.

    But is this really brand-new? Or have we been here before?

    We turn to three political historians, Lara Brown, who directs George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, and NewsHour regulars Michael Beschloss, the author of nine books, and Richard Norton Smith, whose most recent book was on the life of Nelson Rockefeller.

    So, Michael Beschloss, a lot of people are running. We seem to be paying attention to them. But the ones catching fire are not necessarily the politicians or at least seen or perceived as being the politicians. How unusual is that?

  • Michael Beschloss,

    Presidential Historian: Well, it has happened before a lot in history. And maybe the best example of that would have been Ross Perot in 1992.

    What he basically said was, I’m a businessman. I have never held public office. And that means I’m not implicated in these party establishments that have taken the country the wrong way. So he went on “Larry King” in February of 1992.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    Remember.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    And he said, if you Americans want me to run, I will run as a third-party candidate, and I will attack the federal deficits, which neither party is doing anything about.

    He allowed himself, at least in his language, to be recruited. He ran, and at one point early that year, at least in the late spring, he was running ahead of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the two major-party candidates.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    And he was a third-party candidate.

    But we have seen people even from the establishment parties, Lara Brown, who have broken out of this and changed up the whole feel of an election race before Ross Perot.

  • Lara Brown,

    George Washington University: Well, I think that’s right.

    What we really have to do is make a distinction. And that distinction is those who call themselves outsiders, who really mean they’re just outside Washington, vs. those who call themselves outsiders because they’re outside of politics altogether.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    For example?

  • Lara Brown:

    For example, we can see the governors who run. They often say things like, I’m outside of Washington. I’m going to go and fix that government and get it back on track. We have seen that with Jimmy Carter. We have also seen that with Ronald Reagan.

    But then you do have those who say that they’re outside of politics altogether, and certainly Ross Perot fits that model, as Michael Beschloss has written. So too has Wendell Willkie.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    Wendell Willkie. You never get to use Wendell Willkie.

    OK, Richard Norton Smith, there’s your cue. Who is your favorite outsider who people didn’t see as someone who was part of the establishment and managed to upend things?

  • Richard Norton Smith,

    Presidential Historian: Yes.

    Well, actually, go back 200 years. Andrew Jackson transformed American politics and in many ways reinvented the American presidency running as an outsider. Certainly, the establishment was horrified. It’s one of the great set pieces of American democracy, the scene of Inauguration Day, 1829, when Jackson and his fellow Westerners descended on the town, took it over. And it was never quite the same.

    At the end of the 19th century, you had William Jennings Bryan, who gave voice to the feelings of mostly Southern and Western farmers and others who felt victimized by Wall Street. A lot of this is — the question is, what are you outside of? It’s not only the Washington establishment that they run against, but oftentimes the economic policies that it represents and that in turn are centered symbolically on Wall Street.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    Michael, let’s go back the Jimmy Carter, who Lara mentioned. I forgot. There were 17 candidates, Democratic candidates for president in 1976.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Right.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    It’s remarkable.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    It is.

    And that’s one reason why Jimmy Carter packaged himself as an outsider. And to some extent, that was a big sham, because he Jimmy Carter had been in politics for over a decade. He had been in the Georgia State Senate, been governor of Georgia.

    But he knew that in the wake of Watergate and also with all these other people to differentiate himself from, it would be most helpful for him to say, I’m not from Washington, I’m not a lawyer. That was very much with design.

    And as Lara mentioned, the same thing with Ronald Reagan when he ran for president in ’76. His announcement speech, he said, elect me because I’m not part of the Washington buddy system.

    And, yes, he wasn’t from Washington, but I wouldn’t nominate Ronald Reagan as with pitchforks and the first person who is going to overthrow the establishment.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    Well, let’s think about this for a moment. Are outsiders outsiders because they themselves represent something new and different, or is it because of what the mood of the American public is at the time, Lara Brown?

  • Lara Brown:

    Well, a lot of it is a reaction. They’re trying to essentially claim legitimacy to a feeling that’s in kind of reaction to something else that is going on.

    So, as we have discussed, Jimmy Carter came about because there was Watergate. There was this opportunity. You know, you can also look back to, in fact, 1924, when John Davis wins the nomination at the Democratic Party convention after 103 ballots. There are issues in that election because William McAdoo had been caught up in the Teapot Dome scandal and had taken money from Edward Doheny.

    So there was a sense that he was corrupted and that that nomination shouldn’t go to him. So there is this way in which outsiders come in, or there is essentially surfeit ambition, a number of candidates running when there are opportunities to do so.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    Well, we certainly are familiar with surfeit ambition in any campaign, but certainly in this one.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Gwen Ifill:

    So, let me ask you, Richard Norton Smith, a little bit about what this does to the process. But does this actually change or weaken the establishment parties, this — the rise of the Donald Trumps, the rise of the Wendell Willkies, or does it just — is it just predictable?

  • Richard Norton Smith:

    Traditionally — I emphasize, traditionally, it’s been a blip. I mean, there was no age of Willkie. That’s for sure. And who knows what will happen over the next few months.

    What is, however, seemingly unique about this, and we saw some of this particularly on the Republican side for years ago, when, if you remember, there were a number of unconventional candidates who stressed the fact that they were not part of the Washington establishment — both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in effect went to the electorate with a case that, we’re outsiders, we’re not part of the mess, but we have the right experience, we have the right skill set, as governors of major states, to fix what is wrong.

    What is really unusual about this set of professed outsiders is that they are running against the very qualifications that have traditionally been viewed as necessary to be a successful president.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    And I wonder, Michael, whether this is all sped up because of the rise of the Internet or conservative radio.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Absolutely.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    That people who maybe would have just thought about running before now have instant platforms.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    And for most of American history, if you wanted a major party nomination, you would have to be chosen by officeholders, and officeholders would have been the last people who would have chosen someone who had not run for office or served before.

    So this is something that’s relatively new. But Richard also makes a good point, and that is that outsiders do wonderfully when people are really angry about something, but if there is an overwhelming issue of foreign policy, Americans are probably going to think twice about giving the keys to someone who doesn’t have that kind of experience.

    Ross Perot got 19 percent in 1992. One reason he could do that is that the Cold War was over and the country seemed as peaceful as it had been for a long time.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    So, as a protest candidate just for the sake of protest, does that actually add to or perhaps enhance our political process, Lara?

  • Lara Brown:

    Well, throughout most of history, what protest candidates have really done is raised issues that the major candidates have then adopted or co-opted.

    And they have moved on to essentially express those ideas in their platforms, in their campaigns and, if they have won, their presidencies. In fact, you can see the focus of both Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich on issues surrounding the budget as really being about those issues that Ross Perot was raising in ’92.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    And I remember, Richard, covering Jesse Jackson in 1998 and 1984. He was an outsider candidate who brought up issues nobody else brought up.

  • Richard Norton Smith:

    He was, absolutely, and had significant, lasting impact.

    You go back a few years earlier, very different candidate, an outsider named George Wallace, who ran first in the Democratic primary in ’64, and then a third-party campaign in ’68. He never came close to winning, but there is no doubt that he had a disproportionate impact both on the debate that year and arguably on the heralding of a conservative wave that really incorporated not only the Nixon presidency, but for a couple decades thereafter.

    He was an agent of change who had a transforming effect, even though he never won the presidency.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    OK.

    Well, we will be watching for that disproportionate, or maybe proportionate, effect in this election year.

    Richard Norton Smith, Michael Beschloss, Lara Brown, thank you all.

  • Michael Beschloss:

    Thank you.

  • Lara Brown:

    Pleasure. Thanks.

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