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Tea Partiers Should Be Terrified of Herman Cain's Reliance on Experts

The candidate insists his dearth of specific knowledge is no problem -- that there are plenty of people to advise him. Actually, they'll dominate him.

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One of the most trenchant criticisms of Herman Cain I've yet seen comes from James Poulos in his latest column at The Daily Caller, where he muses on how absurd it is that "a political outsider fields basic questions about his approach to fundamental policy matters by invoking the wise counsel of expert bureaucrats." It really is something when you think about it. The reason a political outsider is attractive to some voters is the notion that the existing system is broken. The politicians and the bureaucrats always conspire to flout the will of the people. But asked what he'd do about a specific policy issue, Cain often responds with some variation on the idea that he'll supply the general principles that guide policy, and leave the rest to better informed advisers.

Does he understand that the experts are themselves members of the establishment? No, not on every issue, but on a lot of them with which a president must grapple. It's naive to imagine that a leader with no detailed knowledge of policy, foreign or domestic, can summon to the Oval Office a bunch of wonks who'll defer to whatever principled framework is laid down. A wonk briefing a man who knows as little as Cain will inevitably influence policy by framing questions in particular ways, exercising discretion over which options he presents, failing to be an honest broker among ideas. A populist movement more mature than the Tea Party would understand that the ideal vehicle to shake up the system and challenge entrenched behaviors is someone knowledgeable enough to call out experts when their version of reality is incomplete.

Were Cain elected, he'd go to Washington, D.C., where, having no specific ideas of his own, he'd adopt the approach of the various permanent think tanks and policy shops that served the Bush Administration. Tomorrow's equivalent of the health-care debate would arise, the Heritage Foundation would come up with tomorrow's equivalent of the individual mandate, and the conservatives who elected Cain would be surprised and upset by the fact that he turned out to be just as bad as all the other politicians -- never realizing that right from the beginning, he signaled that if elevated he wouldn't be implementing his own ideas so much as the ones that "plenty of experts" supply. Alternatively, Cain could compensate for the probability that he'd be run over by the experts and hire folks who aren't nearly so intimidating because they know little more than he does, and that doesn't sound like it would turn out well for the country either.

Poulos suggests a way forward. "If Cain wishes to triumph... he must pivot now, and hard, away from the trap that awaits anyone trying to master the political scene without becoming its slave," he writes. "His campaign must be about more than marrying the business world to the federal professionals. We've been there, we've done that, and the outcome -- no matter how well-intentioned, and no matter what the precise configurations of players -- has been crony capitalism root and branch." Unfortunately for Cain's supporters, a man whose only experience of politics was heading an industry lobbying group is unlikely to execute such a pivot. Unless you own a fast food franchise, there is little reason to think voting for this guy is in your interests.

To me, the larger lesson here is one that the grassroots on the right must learn. The appeal of an outsider is understandable, and naturally lends itself to the talking point that "I have the right core philosophy -- the details will work themselves out." But Washington D.C. is a town more adept than any other at ensuring that the devil is in the hard to parse, apparent only after the fact details. If you're searching for a champion to change things, find one knowledgeable enough to succeed.

Image credit: Reuters 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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