The Politics of Imagination
Air Date: August 29, 2022
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner. Your host on the open mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, Lis Smith, she’s a political operative, strategist consultant, communicator, and author of the new book now New York Times best-selling “Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story.” Welcome Lis.
SMITH: Thank you for having me, Alex.
HEFFNER: It’s our pleasure. Let me ask you, when you fell in love with politics, was it the authenticity, the humanity of it, or the trickery or some combination of the two?
SMITH: So I fell in love with politics when I was, and I know this is going to sound sort of sick, but I think when I was about eight or nine years old. It was during the 1992 campaign for president when Bill Clinton was running against George H. W. Bush. And then afterwards I watched the documentary, The War Room, which is an amazing, amazing documentary, for people who haven’t seen it, that really brings you behind the scenes of politics. And so at eight years old I don’t think you can fall in love with trickery unless, you know, you’re like Ted Bundy or something. But what I did fall in love with was the humanity, I think, of it. Even at that young an age, I could tell that this is a business that mattered, that touched people’s lives, that touched my life, that affected other people’s lives, people I never would know. And what I liked about The War Room was it brought humanity to the people behind the scenes, not just, you know, usually when you see political documentaries, it’s all about the politicians. It’s not about the people behind the scenes. And you don’t get to see what their lives are like, what their day to day is like. And so what I sort of wanted to do with my book “Any Given Tuesday” was not just to write about the, you know, the thrill of the game and of these high stakes contests, but to write also about the humanity, the things that happened behind the scenes, the personal sacrifices that people like me have to make when we do these sort of heady things, when we work on these presidential campaigns. So it really was humanity that touched me and the humanity that I tried to really channel in my book.
HEFFNER: And what is most memorable in what has crystalized in your career so far? Obviously most recently your work with Mayor Buttigieg and now Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg. But if you look at the whole span of your career and what most memorably, most impactfully most poignantly illuminated that humanity or authenticity? Was it a fellow campaign staffer? Was it an elected or a candidate for office? But most vividly in conveying that humanity, who did it, when did they do it? How did they do it?
SMITH: Well it turns out it’s a former guest of yours, Alex. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, now Secretary Pete. I refuse to call him by his last name. It’s either Mayor Pete or Secretary Pete for me. And I encourage everyone just, just call him Pete. But I, this is something I write about in my book that I had gotten sort of disillusioned with politics like a lot of people do. I mean, it’s a up and down business and like a lot of Democrats after 2016, I was sort of down in the dumps, disillusioned, confused by the fact that so many of my fellow Americans had voted for Donald Trump for President. And it was one of those moments where I thought, okay, maybe I should leave politics. Maybe this is it for me. And I, you know, sort of got a cold call about talking to Pete when he was thinking about running for a DNC Chair.
And of course, you know, the rest is history. I meet Pete Buttigieg and he sort of redeemed my faith in the political process, but also my faith in myself. I had been through some tough things in the years prior. I had become a tabloid target for my personal relationships. I had been fired by incoming mayor of New York. And so I had lost faith in my own self, I think, as well as the political process. And what I saw in Pete was something that I didn’t see in a lot of politicians, not politicians I work for, not politicians who I’ve seen dominate the political scene, which was a fundamental kindness and decency. And, you know, you know, him, you’ve interviewed him. He’s not someone who builds his brand on yelling and screaming and demonizing the other side. And he said something to me early on that really stuck with me and that I wish more people in politics understood, which is that so much of politics is how you make other people feel about themselves.
You know, I think sometimes we think about politics as how do the politicians feel? You know, are they getting big standing ovations. But no, it really is, are you making other people feel good about themselves, about the choices that they’re making? Are you making them feel comfortable in their own skin? Are you bringing them along with you as you’re trying to get them to embrace maybe policies that are more progressive than they are. And he would tell it in the story of when he came out in South Bend. And South Bend is a Democratic city, but it’s a culturally conservative city and he didn’t know how he was going to be received. And he tells a story about when he was at the supermarket and an older woman came up to him and was said, oh, you know, hey, hey, I met your friend last night, talking about Chasten who’s now husband and how he could have been like, you know, technically he’s my partner. That’s not the right terminology, but he could see in that moment that it was progress for her to sort of acknowledge that, you know, he was in a same sex relationship and that it made her feel good about herself that she could sort of acknowledge it as well. And that’s the sort of humanity that I wish we had more in politics. That it’s how you make people feel about themselves, not how much you make other people hate, you know, other people, not how much politics makes the politician feel about themselves. And so that’s why I think Pete really is the most important political person I’ve ever met.
HEFFNER: I can testify to that too, traveling around South Dakota for the past several years and hearing from folks who would ordinarily vote for Trump or be aligned with that brand of conservatism, that when it came to the early part of the campaign before the pandemic, there was real curiosity, openness, and even interest in him as the only Democrat they might consider voting for, notwithstanding the cultural identity that might be, might be different. You encouraged him and maybe he instinctually himself wanted to go on Fox News, wanted to tango, you know, with the fiercest ideological audience that might be traditionally opposite what you would conceive of his politics. That was a combination, you were on the same page about that. He wanted to do it. You wanted to do it. And that was different from a most Democrats who ran over the last two decades.
SMITH: Yeah. I remember the first time that I called him about it, and I was like, hey Chris Wallace wants to have you on his Sunday show. No 2020 candidate up to that point had done Chris Wallace’s Sunday show, Fox News Sunday for a couple reasons. I think the biggest reason is that Chris Wallace is a pretty tough interviewer. And I said, you know, Pete, it’s a gamble. And he said, well, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And it was an important lesson. And it sort of was indicative of our general strategy, which is that we need to go everywhere. And not only just to reach people, but to signal to voters, right, that if Pete is going to be the antidote to Donald Trump, he’s got to be the antidote to him in every possible way. And we know that Donald Trump only spoke to TV hosts who were, who shared his worldview.
He only did Fox News interviews. You never saw him on other channels. You never saw him on PBS. You never saw him on MSNBC. You never saw him on CNN. And what that signaled, you know, whether he meant to or not was that he was not going to be a president for every American. And so, the overwhelming majority of the Fox audience is not Democratic. I think Pew says that 26 to 31 percent of voter, Democratic voters, got some news from Fox within the past week in the 2020 election. But we went on Fox for a coup… for there were other reasons, right? So when, when Pete at the first Fox Town Hall, it got 1.1 million viewers, which was about four to five times what his CNN and MSNBC Town Halls got. And the next day his Fox clips led every hour of MSNBC, of CNN. They were covered in entertainment media. They were covered in the New York Times, Washington Post. So what happened on Fox didn’t stay on Fox. But just as importantly, he didn’t go on Fox and capitulate to them. He didn’t go on there and pander to a more conservative audience. He went on there and he denounced Laura Ingram and Tucker Carlson. He went on there and pushed back on right-wing talking points on abortion. And I think it’s really important that we understand that we do need to communicate and get our message out to audiences that might not necessarily be inclined to agree with us on everything. Because if we don’t, they’re just going to see a caricature of us. They’re just going to see the out of context clips that they, the worst faith hosts pull to, you know, mock Democrats, make us seem out of touch. And so it was really important for us to do it. It was I think a smashing success for Pete and I’m glad that he continues to do it. And he was, he’s, I think one of the administration’s best communicators, TV communicators, and one of the people who shows that you can go on Fox, you can communicate clearly on there and you can communicate a very strong Democratic message and, you know, break through to people who otherwise will never hear from you.
HEFFNER: It’s, there’s an element of imagination in Pete and that strategy. Were there things even more imaginative that Mayor Pete, you tell me to call him Pete, Pete, or you pursued that didn’t quite make it to the public because he was the Mister Imagination. And that is what we’ve, we who love politics have thought of, in a variety of contexts, whether that was Senator McCain, the late Senator McCain’s consideration of a Democrat as a running mate when he was the nominee. These moments where it takes this boldness and courage to break the system to return it to some of the values of earlier decades of U.S. politics, which were more conciliatory and more constructive. So were there things you imagined that you didn’t actually put to test?
SMITH: So two things. I’ve heard Pete called a lot of things. Mr. Imagination is a great one. I can’t wait to tell him that. And two, no one has ever asked me this question before. So I was, I’m giving it some thought. There were, yes. So there were some things that we wanted to do, which we didn’t get to do. I’m not going to say that they’re the loftiest greatest things in the world. You know, one thing that we did actually do and you, you invoked John McCain, was we did do sort of, we sort of revived the straight talk express and did it in the age of social media, which was really cool. And we had a lot of people doubting the strategy of doing that, and it was important thing to signal. We did want to do, you know, some things that we wanted to do was we, we wanted to test out more how to sort of build our own media operation internally with, you know, podcasts, with TV shows, because he did, one thing we found with Pete was that he was a really good communicator and you’re talking about South Dakota and he was able to break through to people who otherwise would tune out Democrats. And one thing I was very curious about was whether if we could build up sort of our own communications channels – a Pete centered podcast. So Pete centered, you know, TV show for the campaign that maybe he hosted and talk to people who were outside of the political realm and had interesting conversations like the one you and I are having right now, that sort of busted through the political talking points and busted through the sort of partisan stuff that we think about with politics. Because you call him Mr. Imagination but a lot of people said that Pete did have this sort of Mr. Rogers quality to him. And let’s say we had done that. And he could have had, you know, maybe Republican guests on there. He could have had guests who had ideological disagreements on there, but maybe found common ground. And that was something that I wanted to try out. But we just didn’t have the time or resources to do it. But that’s a way that I think that we could have maybe tested, you know, his communication skills and his ability to reach different audiences. And it’s one of my regrets of the campaign.
HEFFNER: I’m thinking also in terms of framing. So for example, when we pay our taxes each year, we get an acknowledgement, but we never really get a pie chart of how those expenditures are going whether that’s municipal, state or federal. And it strikes me that whether you’re South Dakotan or from New York originally, the question of public service and public utility means being diligent and careful and considerate about taxpayer money. And it, and it strikes me that that’s something that the Democrats could be talking about in this midterm cycle, or that if Mayor Pete runs again, he could be talking about, and that is acknowledging that, as Kennedy invoked in his inaugural, it’s a two-way street and we want to understand what we’re doing for our country and what our country is doing for us simultaneously. And something as simple as that. And as a dear friend of mine says, just getting a thank you for paying your taxes along with that pie chart of here’s what it’s paying for in terms of police, firefighters, health administration, and I don’t ever hear anyone talk about that, but it sounds, but Pete is the person who would talk about that.
SMITH: No, and that’s a brilliant idea and I’m sorry, I’m such a political hack. I’m such a tactician that I was just thinking in terms of tactics for your question. But yeah, no, those are the type of things. And you know, when he was mayor of South Bend, he was someone who was very much about telling people exactly where their tax, where their tax dollars were going. And he would make sure to go out and to be the person sometimes who was filling the pothole. And to your point about using imagination to rethink how we do politics and how leaders lead. One thing that I would like to see more of is politicians actually, yes, giving you a thank you for your tax sellers. But you see that politicians who do workdays, right. You know what I mean, where they go out and for one day on the job they’re out there, I don’t know, filling a pothole, or they’re doing a ride along with police officers. And we all know that that’s essentially a photo-op. But the more like, especially with a president and people at high levels, the more that we could see them, and I understand there are security considerations, but the more that we could see them sort of being like mayors, being on the ground, living, you know, among the people that they represent, I think would be better. You know, the Rose Garden strategy is you typical for presidents, but I don’t know necessarily how you carry it out. But there’s a thank you element, but there’s also that I’m like living like you element. And the bubble that exists around politicians, whether they’re mayors, whether they’re presidents, whether they’re senators, the dozens of staff around them, the security, the police details, it does insulate them, oftentimes from, you know, what people, real people are feeling, what the pain they’re feeling. And that’s why you often see politicians the longer they’re in Washington, the more they become out of touch. I don’t know how exactly you implement that.
HEFFNER: From The journalistic perspective, you need something like Undercover Public Servant, right,
HEFFNER: CNBC program. I hear what you’re saying,
SMITH: You know what I mean? You know, what I mean, is to do it like, there’s, there’s something that, because year after year, after year, the American public gets, their faith in public servants and politicians doesn’t go up, it keeps going down. It keeps going down and why does it keep going down? It’s because they think that politicians, public servants don’t actually represent them and that they’re out of touch. And so there’s got to be a way I think, to combat that and, and part of it, and it’s got to be getting more on the ground and being more in touch with people.
SMITH: And there, I haven’t figured out the tactics yet. You know, you just, you sprung this question on me, but it’s a really good question. And it’s something I’m going to think about and ruminate on for people, because we do need to figure out how we restore trust and how we make people understand, okay, when you are paying that tax bill, the money is going to something good. It’s not just going to, you know, fund researching, you know, these, whatever
HEFFNER: The most inconsequential funds.
SMITH: Exactly, exactly. Right.
HEFFNER: So another framing technique here is in something that I think most Democrats have viewed as a third rail and in connection with Medicare, Medicaid, social security, but this idea that yes, there ought to be a safety net. And there also ought to be a demonstration on the public’s part, every citizen, that they want to serve in the context of public service, military, volunteer fire department, or for that matter, just have a job that contributes to the livelihood and health of their community. And that’s why work requirements from those early years in which we were both immersed in politics for the first time, the nineties and ..
HEFFNER: Work requirements… that became a third rail.
SMITH: I haven’t seen it as much as a third rail. But it was clearly an, it was a very big moment in the 1990s when, you know, Bill Clinton sort of led the charge of adding work requirements for various social programs.
HEFFNER: And because that’s the stigma to this day, right. In, in communities that, that there are folks who are benefiting from programs that aren’t doing that, that, and that’s why I allude to it, even if it’s sounds sort of obsolete.
SMITH: Right. And, but I mean, I think it’s more, it’s a nuanced conversation because if you are a, you know, a single mom, three kids, and you are receiving government assistance, you can’t really expect someone like that to go work a, you know, a nine to five job every day, because that’s, the money you receive from public assistance isn’t necessarily going to be able to cover childcare and all of that, that’s a longer conversation about how we cover all of these things. But no, an important thing for Democrats to understand, and sometimes that we don’t understand is that we can’t just like give everything to everyone for free. Like I, of course we would all love that.
HEFFNER: So let me ask you this, where are the Democrats off-track as they anticipate these midterms in 2022? Slowly but surely it does seem like there were legislative victories that Biden and company achieved. And at the time that we’re recording, this we’re in the dark as to whether Sinema will join Manchin, but where, where are the Democrats on track and where are they off track headed into 22?
SMITH: So on track right now, in terms of, you know, getting all this legislation through, whether it’s chips. I, I’m very hopeful about the reconciliation bill and I hate using that term because no one understands what that means, but it would be to negotiate lower drug prices, close corporate tax loopholes, make massive investments in climate. So, that’s great. Where we are off-track is I think sometimes understanding the pain that people feel right now with inflation, with gas prices. And we can go out there and scream to the rooftops about all of our accomplishments, but it doesn’t matter to people if they are still feeling pain from the economy. And so we do have to always lead with that fact, which is people don’t care about our accomplishments if they themselves don’t feel secure. And then two, I would say that we need to understand that this, this election cannot be a referendum. It cannot be just a referendum on the Democrats. We need to make this into a choice election. As Joe Biden says, don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative. And we see that Republicans across the board in Congress have voted against every Democratic effort to offer relief to American families. And why? Why do they do that? Because they understand that if people are feeling pain, the more misery Americans feel, the more likely they are to take it out on the party in power, which is the Democrats. And it is a very cynical, dark strategy that Democrats need to call out because it’s not that the Republicans aren’t an alternative that are that’s offering like some grand plan to ease Republican, ease the American people’s pain. They have no plan. They don’t want to help you. They actually want to make your life worse so that you vote for them. And I think we need to do a better job of getting those messages out.
HEFFNER: We’re basically out of time, and I’ll just share with you that I think it was the ‘96 election that they were selling the Bill Clinton costume. And I was participated in that. So I, that era of politics contributed to my falling in love with it, not Bill Clinton specifically, but right. I relate to what you said and also to your fundamental analysis as it relates to 22, and I’m sure 24, that is 2022 and 2024. It’s the economy stupid right back into the war room. Right. and even if it’s the economy stupid, I should say even with Roe being overturned, which some of us expected because of the conservative attack on the judiciary the economy in your mind, if it’s not in a good place that trumps the impact of Roe being overturned?
SMITH: So, you know, what’s fascinating here is, I’m going to say some of, a lot of people don’t say maybe in my business, which is, I don’t know, I don’t quite yet know and what the answer is here. Because I got to tell you last night you know, we are doing this interview the day after Kansas just voted to uphold abortion rights. And most people were saying, no, that’s not going to happen. That they’re going to over, they’re going, you know, vote to ban abortion in the state. And that surprised a lot of people because when you think of Kansas, you don’t exactly think of it being a very liberal, socially liberal state. And Kansas is very important by the way, in the you know, in the abortion community, because there that’s a, a state where a lot of doctors are, a handful of doctors are trained to do late term abortions. I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole. But I…
HEFFNER: We we’re out of time, if it’s the economy we don’t know yet…
SMITH: Yet also it’s the economy stupid. Yeah. But also Roe is on the ballot and Roe is really, is going to have an impact.
HEFFNER: And thanks to Governor Kelly, the economy is different than when Governor Brownback was there, which is a factor folks should consider. We are out of time, Lis. Congratulations on your New York Times bestselling book “Any Given Tuesday.” I love that name. What a, what a great name for book. Thank you, Lis.
SMITH: Thank you. And thank you so much for having me, Alex
HEFFNER: For sure. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.