In Praise of Inside Players

Politics, like basketball, has an inside game and an outside game. You can win either way. But rarely do you see a political player who is good at both.

Two of the North Carolina Democratic Party’s all-time all-star inside players died this year: former state Senator Tony Rand and former state Senator and Lieutenant Governor Bob Jordan.

Both were masters of the legislative inside game. From the mid-70s until Republicans took over the legislature in 2010, either Jordan or Rand were go-to players in the Senate. They had their hands in every big issue, and they got big things passed.

Tony Rand

But in the 1988 election, they showed that legislative insiders rarely make great statewide candidates. Jordan tried and failed to unseat incumbent Republican Governor Jim Martin, and Rand lost the race for lieutenant governor to Republican Jim Gardner.

Insiders are adept at legislative maneuvering, negotiating and compromising. They come alive in floor fights, in committee and, especially, in backroom, bare-knuckled wheeling and dealing.

One lobbyist recalled talking with Rand about a knotty issue in the Senate. “He waved his hands around in circles, he talked in circles and I was totally confused. But he worked it out.”

The same skills don’t work well in the outside game. In fact, they can become negatives.

In a televised debate during the 1988 campaign, Gardner blistered Rand for being part of “the gang of eight,” a small group of powerful legislators who decided the state budget behind closed doors. Rand’s reply was famously weak: “There were not eight people there. There were six or seven people there.”

His campaign never recovered.

Jordan was often visibly uncomfortable as a candidate. He was even less comfortable with his campaign’s ads attacking Martin.

Bob Jordan

Ironically, Rand’s campaign spawned a great outsider candidate. Mike Easley, the district attorney in Southport, did a TV ad defending Rand’s crime-fighting credentials. Easley was good on TV; he went on to be elected attorney general twice and governor twice.

Some politicians are good inside and outside. My old boss, Governor Jim Hunt, was. So were Governors Martin and Jim Holshouser, both Republicans. Governor Roy Cooper was a legislator and attorney general.

Inside players rarely are great speakers. Instead, they talk inside baseball (to switch sports metaphors). They bog down explaining the legislative process, arcane things like committee substitutes, conference reports and parliamentary procedures. Remember John Kerry: “I voted for the bill before I voted against it.”

That kind of talk is fatal in the outside game. Which is why most Presidents weren’t legislators: Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both Presidents Bush. President Obama was in the Senate and the Illinois legislature, but he was never an insider. Those Presidents’ strengths were giving big speeches, painting big pictures and setting big goals.

Lyndon Johnson, “Master of the Senate,” lost to John F. Kennedy, a lackadaisical back-bencher. Then it took LBJ to get Kennedy’s program – and a lot more – through Congress.

Let us not dismiss inside players. They can be MVPs.

When Rand died this month, he was eulogized for his work for public education, economic development, the UNC system, UNC law school and his adopted hometown of Fayetteville.

When Jordan died in February, he left a lengthy legacy: the N.C. Rural Center, the N.C. Biotechnology Center, the Basic Education Program, highway funding reform, school construction and the Teaching Fellows Program.

Rand’s obituary said, “Like they sang in ‘Hamilton,’ he wanted to be in the room where it happened.” Rand and Jordan worked their way into the rooms where it happened. Then they made things happen.

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