Four of the last five presidents came to office as outsiders, campaigning fiercely against the way things were done in Washington, making the capital a symbol for the nation's ills, portraying themselves as crusaders against the status quo.
The exception in the string from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush is, ironically enough, President Bush's father. His administration represented the greatest example of the establishment of the Establishment in a half century. In his years, the whole world knew who wore the (striped) pants, and the whole world knew how things were done. It was tidy, to be sure, but in the modern world tidiness is not next to godliness. He lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, whose many gifts did not include tidiness.
Because columnists repeat themselves more than even historians, it is often said that President Bush learned a lot from his father and from his father's term in the White House. (The son, who favors baseball allusions, is the proof of one of Yogi Berra's aphorisms: You can see a lot just by observing.) But most interpreters say that the son learned primarily not to raise taxes, not to be skunked by the economy, and not to let Saddam Hussein go free when he is a sitting duck.
President Bush the younger may have learned those things, but the bigger lesson he learned was not to find himself inside the system when it is so much more productive, so much more provocative, and ultimately so much more fun to be outside it. Indeed, Mr. Bush - raised in comfort, educated in privilege, matured in leisure - may end up being the biggest outsider of all of America's modern presidents.
Mr. Carter ran as an honest farmer but governed as a lost alien trying to blend in with the natives. Ronald Reagan, who previewed his role in his two screenings as governor of California, ran as the plain-speaking man of simple truths but repeatedly bent to the prevailing truths. Mr. Clinton, who ran for president to alter Washington, was, along with James Garfield, William McKinley, and Richard Nixon, at heart a careerist, which is to say a career politician. He reverted to form once in the White House.
All of these status quo antis soon became enamored of, or co-opted by, the status quo, making it easy for the next guy to run against the guy who himself had run against everything else. It is the most unappreciated quality of the modern presidency, and yet the most enduring.
Now we come to the incumbent. All his life he was inside great institutions: Phillips Andover, Yale, Harvard Business School, Major League Baseball. (And the greatest of these was Major League Baseball, but that is another matter. No messing with sports on the op-ed page this morning.) The first three are the trifecta of the Trilateral Commission; you can't get any more blue-blooded - or, to change the metaphor but to retain the color scheme, any more white-shoe - than that.
Then there are the lost years - not the ones involving the draft, which so obsess the investigative reporters, but the ones involving the drift, which might be so much more revealing. In that period of drift, nothing seemed to go well, or well enough, in business or in his personal life. He was no rebel then, hanging around the barbecue with a beer but without much direction.
Yet the President is an outsider now, even here, in the capital where the big jobs are appointed by him and confirmed in a Congress controlled by Republicans who increasingly identify with his own interests. He's a rebel now with a cause, freedom, and in fact that cause is a metaphor: free Iraq from tyranny, free Americans from taxes, free America and Americans from the old ways of thinking - in fields ranging from diplomacy to retirement planning.
No president of our time has tried this, or sustained it over such a long period of time, which is one of the reasons the Democrats seem so befuddled this winter of their greatest discontent. Customarily the opposition in politics is trying to upend things, to throw the old out so as to install the new, but Mr. Bush has changed all that. The Democrats want to throw out the new to restore the old.
Thus the party that prides itself on representing the "outs" in American life - the poor, the infirm, the old, the striving, the reviled - is in an immensely awkward position. In defending the old, the Democrats seem to be (and this phrase comes from William F. Buckley, Jr., and his conception of conservatism) standing athwart history yelling Stop. That is no place for a progressive party to be.
There is a lot of the old to admire, which is the argument conservatives used to use but the one which liberals now enlist. The Social Security system, for example, is one of the hardiest aspects of American life, hated by almost no one, revered by millions. But somehow the Democrats are in the position of defending a program that has no opponents while the Republicans are in the position of urging change where there is minimal constituency for change.
The result is that the inside/outside calculus might just have been turned upside down inadvertently.
Even Republicans here are wondering whether the opportunity-society Republicans have just handed an opportunity to the Democrats. The Democrats have spent a lot of time this winter worrying about the identity of their new party chairman. Their future is more likely to be determined by sorting out the identity of their party - and figuring out how, by opposing change rather than being sentinels of it, they can be bigger outsiders than the one who is inside the White House.