Rules of the Game: Insiders, Outsiders and Knowing the Difference

Capitol Hill is not a game, but games can teach you a lot about navigating this weird culture.

I grew up playing board games. Mainly we played as a family or on vacation: When cousins came to town for the holidays we would play late into the night, just to get up the following morning and start again. Even now, my grandmother loves to joke that the Johnson grandkids would be perfectly content playing board games all day, every day—which, we did in fact do on one family vacation a few years back. We’re always finding new games to play, and bringing them back for our friends or stashing them away for whoever has the next birthday.

Whenever someone introduces a new game, the process is similar: The first game is full of questions, “open hand” playing, and multiple consults of the rulebook. When all the players are new to the game, we don’t get much done; rather it usually takes a few rounds before anyone is comfortable enough with the rules and gameplay to actually come close to winning. Those first few rounds are crucial trial and error for learning which strategies work, which do not, and how the others approach the game.

My experience was similar when I started working in politics. Before transitioning to the Hill almost three years ago I had worked in congressional relations, so I figured that I was coming into my new job with a decent network and a pretty good understanding of how to get things done. I was wrong. I knew nothing. For the first few months that I was on the Hill, I sat at my desk struggling to figure out what to do, which staffers or offices I should connect with, and ways to get involved. I asked a ton of questions and felt generally lost for the better part of six months. It was challenging to try playing the game when I didn’t understand the rules or who the players were.

Even for Members of Congress, there are certain advantages that come with experience. You’re more likely to get placed on the committees you’d like; you have a deeper understanding of what issues are most important to your district and how to effectively address those issues; and you’re better able to discern which battles are worth fighting. The longer you’re in office, the more time you have to build relationships with other Members, which in turn allows you to build better coalitions for things that will ultimately help the people who elected you to represent them. There’s a reason many people are drawn to incumbents with robust portfolios and years of experience or candidates from politically active families, such as Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton.

On the other hand, as campaign season has begun, there has been a decent amount of enthusiasm for the idea of being a political “outsider” instead of an “insider.” Candidates like Ben Carson and Donald Trump have gained early favor in certain constituencies because of their lack of involvement in the political field. There are real merits to being an outsider: Outsiders bring fresh perspectives to the game and different ways of approaching the issues and challenges before them. Some of the cynicism and bad habits that are developed over years of living and working in Washington politics have not yet had a chance to take hold, so outsiders tend to have more of a “Leslie Knope” approach to government and reform than some of their longstanding counterparts. There are those that might even argue that Congressional outsiders are more in touch with the constituency because they’ve been consistently present in the district rather than splitting time between home and D.C.

Sometimes change is a good thing, and bringing in new blood can pull a tired and broken system out of a rut. But there’s an advantage that comes with knowing who the players are and how to use the rules in your favor, and that’s something that’s slowly and painfully developed over time.

Discerning which type of candidate is best-suited to bring about your desired change can be extremely challenging, and I think more often than not we’re inclined to get rid of the establishment and start over with someone new – especially as frustration with the status quo builds. However, campaign promises and debate speeches paint an oversimplified picture of the political process, and often times outsiders make claims that go unfulfilled once they take office because they lack the knowledge and experience to know what is realistic.

As Christians striving to be engaged in political discourse, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of both insiders and outsiders, and to recognize the complexity of the job into which we are voting people. We need to seriously consider what might be lost when we give incumbents the boot and see the merits of those who have held office for a while. Taking this kind of broader look at the field of candidates is not common, but it’s an easy way to set ourselves apart from the rest of the crowd.

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  • Kathy Johnson is a politically moderate Midwesterner who now calls DC home and works in the U.S. House of Representatives. She speaks fluent sarcasm (thanks mom!) and most days needs two things to function: grace and coffee.

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