During the Republican presidential primary debate, candidate Vivek Ramaswamy stood out. Not because Ramaswamy plagiarized former President Barack Obama within seconds of opening his mouth, but because he’s running as an outsider.
Ramaswamy spent his career as a multimillionaire businessman, leading biotech companies. He’s never done anything in government before. And, according to Reuters, he didn’t vote in 2008, 2012, or 2016. Yet, he wants to be President of the United States.
Ramaswamy was asked why voters should choose him over more experienced politicians. His answer was familiar: Saving our country is “gonna take an outsider.” Outsiderism vs. experience is a recurring theme in Philadelphia politics. But are outsiders healthy for governance?
Inexperienced government executives
When we elect outsiders, it’s because we’ve grown tired of business-as-usual, and outsiders offer new ideas. But ideators are better suited to be burgeoning legislators (councilmembers, representatives, and senators) than government executives (presidents, mayors, governors, and district attorneys).
Running the government is akin to flying a plane. Passengers want a pilot with a record of flying safely, not a list of new ideas. New ideas are for flight attendants and legislators, not pilots or government executives. We need leaders who can pilot our government without training wheels. This issue played out in Philly’s Democratic mayoral primary.
Former mayoral candidate Allan Domb talked about wanting to be mayor in 2015 but choosing to get his feet wet as a City Councilmember first because he knew he’d need experience before running America’s sixth largest city. And then there was Jeff Brown, the ShopRite magnate, who ran as an outsider, poised to clean up messes wrought by career politicians. But voters didn’t buy into outsiderism. Instead, they voted for Cherelle Parker, the most experienced candidate in the race.
Inexperienced legislators are less dangerous
Outsiders can be helpful as legislators, bringing to government their new ideas and freshman vibrance. And if they, as freshmen often do, try legislating something stupid, more experienced lawmakers can block them.
The peer review baked into the legislative process shields the public from poor decision-making. But the public lacks such protection from capricious government executives because all executives need is a pen and phone, which former President Barack Obama touted. What Obama meant was if the legislature rebuffs what a President wants, the President can do it through executive action.
The new-to-government afterglow belongs in legislatures, designed to contemplate and debate new ideas and how government should be. Government executives — our mayors, presidents, governors, and district attorneys — however, should come ready to do the job well.
Going around Congress with executive orders is an imprudent way to govern, and the potential for presidents to do it is a power too great for someone who needs training wheels. When Donald Trump, plucked fresh from reality television, was President, we saw why we can’t trust the presidency in inexperienced hands.
Courts frequently wrestle with abuses of executive authority, but most administrations maintain a win rate of about 70 percent. By the time he left office, Trump’s win rate was only 21 percent. Administrative law experts credit this to the Trump administration not “doing their homework” and “short-circuiting” the process. This is only to be expected when rookies assume executive positions. Philadelphians see this play out with our District Attorney.
Outsider chaos in our own backyard
Philly’s chief law enforcement officer, District Attorney Larry Krasner, was elected in 2018, having never prosecuted a case before. He’s a career defense attorney who made his bones suing police officers. When he ran, Krasner was the typical outsider candidate, running against the system. This, in and of itself, isn’t bad. But, upon taking office, Krasner did the worst thing a leader with no experience could do. He fired people who knew what they were doing.
After four days on the job, Krasner canned 31 rank-and-file prosecutors — many of whom had institutional knowledge of Philly courts and experience keeping criminals off the streets. Judges are lamenting the inexperience of the DA’s office, and police officers lack faith in prosecutors’ ability to protect the public from dangerous people. We see the consequences of this inexperience even now.
Earlier this year, Common Pleas Court Judge Scott DiClaudio convened a hearing almost exclusively to scold an Assistant District Attorney for mishandling an appeal. Last fall, Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara A. McDermott admonished prosecutors for bungling grand jury instructions in a high-profile case against an ex-cop. And federal District Court Judge Mitchell Goldberg chastised the DA’s office for misleading the court in a death row appeal.
Meanwhile, Philadelphians are living in perennial fear, and Krasner, the person responsible for our safety, isn’t seriously pursuing gun arrests, giving criminals the perception that they can be arrested on Tuesday and “Uncle Larry,” as they reportedly call him, will let them out on Thursday. Even police officers feel this way.
After three SWAT officers were shot in a standoff last fall, frustrated Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw told reporters, “We are tired of arresting the same suspects over and over again, only to see them right back out on the street to continue and sometimes escalate their criminal ways.”
In case there was any doubt about whether experience matters, notice that what Krasner does well is holding crooked cops accountable and exonerating defendants. This happens to be what he, as a career defense attorney, is experienced at. In 2021, Krasner reported 21 exonerations and 88 active investigations led by his Conviction Integrity Unit. Clearing innocent people of charges where prosecutors and police acted unethically is laudable work. But Krasner is only able to orchestrate that because he’s a seasoned defense attorney. But what about locking up those who ought to be away like prosecutors are supposed to do?
Outsiders’ inability to retain staff
Outsiders, with their paranoia of phantom bureaucrats lagging the country’s progress (Republicans call it the deep state), have notorious trouble respecting civil servants. And civil servants have trouble respecting them. Recall Krasner’s decision to fire 31 prosecutors after four days on the job and the exodus of over 70 attorneys he hired. Trump had the same issue.
In 2021, the Brookings Institute crunched the numbers and found that Trump had a 92 percent turnover rate among senior officials. Trump couldn’t hold onto staff if they clung to his toupee.
And already, Ramaswamy’s fitting into the mold, promising to cut 75 percent of executive branch jobs. Oh, and he wants to shut down the FBI, Department of Education, and National Regulatory Commission. How ridiculous.
We see outsider candidates all the time. But outsiders come with a know-it-all complex that corrodes the effectiveness of their office, public confidence, and morale among civil servants. The new-to-government afterglow belongs in legislatures, designed to contemplate and debate new ideas and how government should be. Government executives — our mayors, presidents, governors, and district attorneys — however, should come ready to do the job well. Lest we elect another President who does weird things with government documents and toilets or a District Attorney who manages to draw the ire of state and federal judges and basically everyone he has to work with.
Jemille Q. Duncan is a public policy professional, columnist, and Gates Scholar at Swarthmore College.
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