American Politicians Aren’t the Only Ones Who Have to Worry About Seeming “Too Washington”

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June 11 2014 6:11 PM

Ashraf Ghani’s Very American Political Problem

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Just plain folks.

Photo by Waseem Nikzad/AFP/Getty Images

The fate that befell House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday night may have been shocking, but it’s also just an extreme example of an age-old political problem: The more influence a representative gains in Washington, the easier it is for his opponents to paint him as out of touch with his constituents.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

This isn’t just an issue for American politicians. Influential politicians around the world have often put in time at American universities or “Washington consensus”-type multilateral institutions, but generally aren’t eager to let this be known during election season.

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The most extreme example of this at the moment is Ashraf Ghani, one of two candidates contesting a runoff election for the Afghan presidency on June 14. Having earned a Ph.D. from Columbia, put in time at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and the World Bank, co-founded a D.C.-based think tank, and co-written an influential policy book, Ghani is about as D.C. as it gets, a fixture of the Massachusetts Avenue think-tank circuit.

But in running for president, Ghani has not only traded in his Brooks Brothers for shalwar kameez, he now says his time in D.C. was all an act.

The Washington Post reports today:

“I learned English only so I could satisfy the foreigners and defend our national interests,” Ghani told the sprawling Afghan meeting hall one recent afternoon. The crowd cheered.

He certainly had this foreigner fooled.

Ghani was painted as too American when he ran in 2009 and received only 2.9 percent of the vote. (Hiring James Carville to advise his campaign apparently didn’t help.)

This time around, taking the populist route and playing up his Pashtun roots in contrast with his part-Tajik competitor Abdullah Abdullah, he’s obviously done much better. Though tapping the controversial Uzbek former warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as his running mate has raised some eyebrows among his former friends in Washington.