Outsiders And Opportunists, But No Moderates In Race

By WGBH News

Jan. 3, 2012

romney in IA

Mitt Romney campaigns in Iowa. Though he's only held one political position, Romney's been on the national stage long enough to be political scientist Lara Brown's pick for GOP front-runner. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

BOSTON — 2011 may go down as the year political rhetoric reached a new high. Instead of rehashing the obvious, we start 2012 with a conversation with a self-proclaimed "flaming moderate" who's tired of ideological extremes. Lara Brown is an associate professor of political science at Villanova University and author of "Jockeying for the American Presidency." After researching the book, she told WGBH News' Bob Seay, she's concluded that Americans' desire for Washington "outsiders" is inhibiting politicians' ability to fix the system.
WGBH News: Is there any room in U.S. politics for a "flaming moderate"? 
Lara Brown: The way the parties are currently structured, not really.
WGBH: It’s been said America is really in the middle politically — but the caucus/primary structure seems to reward the extremes of both parties. Is this a flawed process?

Lara Brown
Lara M. Brown is an associate professor of political science at Villanova University.

LB: I would argue yes. These nomination contests do winnow the likely candidates. The problem with them is that they are too exclusive. I do think that both Iowa and New Hampshire are better off than many of the states because they in fact do have an open primary. You can, as an independent or an opposition-party adherent, go in and register and vote that day. But that’s not the way it is in most states and as a result we see most parties tend to the extreme.
WGBH: The first political test for the presidential candidates is tonight in Iowa. You've said that without Sarah Palin, the GOP nomination is Mitt Romney's to lose. Why?

LB: One of the things I found when I wrote my book is it tends to take a candidate about a cycle and a half to win a presidential nomination. The groundwork that has to be laid is significant and it’s very rare that anyone can do it without having been on the national stage in the cycle before.
WGBH: You call politicians "opportunists." Is that characterization negative?
LB: I don’t think [it's] a negative word. It’s somebody who’s capitalizing on the opportunities in the environment.
WGBH: We're now electing, you say, “amateur opportunists.” Why call them that?
LB: [Most presidential candidates in the past] tended to have a great deal of political experience. For instance Thomas Jefferson, who we tend to think of as some kind of gentleman farmer, was in fact an individual who’d either run, served or been nominated to 17 political positions prior to his winning the presidency. George W. Bush — he had only served in one position. It’s quite a difference. Nowadays our opportunists tend to be far less experienced. And I would argue that’s also the reason they aren’t able to “fix the system,” because they don’t know how it works.
WGBH: Is President Obama an amateur opportunist? What about Romney?
LB: President Obama is something of a quintessential opportunist in that he stays a very short time in each one of the political positions he’s served in. Mitt Romney is right there with the rest of them. He’s served in one office and served for a total of four years in government.
And part of this is our desire to be picking outsiders. Really since the 1960s and ‘70s, when both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon sort of failed us as a country — these were two of the most experienced politicians on the national stage, one from each party. Between Vietnam and Watergate, America was just, I think, completely disillusioned and disgusted with what they saw of the political system… but there’s no way an outsider can fix a system they know nothing about.
This interview has been condensed and edited.

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