MEREDITH, N.H. — The would-be presidents of the United States agree on at least one thing: All of them will fight the “establishment.” All agree that this “establishment” has held Americans back too long. All agree that the “establishment” is pulling the strings and levers behind their opponents.

They just can’t agree on who the “establishment” is.

“The Washington establishment is rushing over to support Donald Trump,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., said in multiple New Hampshire news conferences last week.

“We’re taking on not only Wall Street and the economic establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., now the frontrunner in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary, in an interview with Rachel Maddow.

For Sanders and Cruz, who have neither expected nor received many endorsements from Senate colleagues, the “establishment” is a four-syllable explanation – one that perfectly jibes with their narratives.

For others, the “establishment” brand has become as handy as duct tape, allowing candidates to fix any problems that come into their paths.

“It’s pretty hard to label me as an establishment figure, because I’ve always fought the establishment,” Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, a former congressman, insisted on Fox News this month.

Even Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, senator and first lady, is in the game, accusing Sanders in a CNN interview of being in office “a lot longer than I have.”

Descriptions of this bogeyman differ wildly, especially with voters. Steve Goddu, a 56-year old Cruz supporter from Salem, New Hampshire, described the “establishment” in the same terms as his candidate. “Rubio… Christie; Kasich, certainly Jeb Bush, those are the guys who come to my mind,” he said. “When I hear somebody like Bob Dole saying he would vote for Hillary instead of Ted Cruz, it’s obviously an establishment group that’s trying to promote some talking point.”

Ninety minutes up the road, at a town hall hosted by Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., Mark and Carolyn Carwell suggested that the “establishment” really included Cruz.

“I wouldn’t lump governorships, people in local government, with that definition,” said Mark Carwell, 62. “For me, it’s not that you can’t hold office. It’s that the office you’re seeking has not been part of your back yard. Senators qualify for that.”

“For some people, it’s anyone who has had anything to do with politics, ever,” said Carolyn Carwell, 60.

To people back in Washington, the confusion over what the “establishment” might be is both frustrating and completely predictable.

“There are some who believe controlling the levers of power is the goal in politics, and there are some who think advancing an ideas-based agenda is the goal,” said Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action for America. “The former is the establishment.”

“It means whatever you want it to, OK?” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. “The ‘establishment’ is a creature out of Greek mythology, some bizarre imaginary thing that is stopping us from getting a narrow majority in the House and Senate to govern like a supermajority.” In fact, Norquist said, simple math is the enemy there: Republicans don’t have a supermajority, so they can’t govern like one.


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