Chapter 1: Mea Culpa CHAPTER 1 MEA CULPA What I Got Wrong in 2016
Everyone got 2016 wrong, so I am in good company. But that is small consolation. Here’s what I got wrong the last time, and how to avoid repeating this fatal mistake in 2020.
I forgot Bill Clinton’s First Law of Politics, taught to me a quarter-century ago by the smartest political mind I’ve ever known: elections are about the lives of the voters, not the candidates’ lives. When we were mired in scandal—either real or manufactured—Clinton would inevitably look at me and say, “If we make this about the voters’ lives instead of mine, we will both be better off.”
I knew this in 2012. I was an adviser to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA. We had voluminous research on Romney, and one thing was clear from the jump: he is a man of good character. Fine. (Also, great hair, which sent Carville and me into jealous fits.)We weren’t interested in attacking his character. My experience in campaigns against people like George H. W. Bush (another man of upstanding character with whom I had important political and policy disagreements) had taught me that attacks on issues are far more effective than personal attacks.
With character attacks ruled out, we decided to define Romney as a rapacious financier who had gotten wealthy in part through business deals that sometimes hurt the middle class. As the top man in the private equity firm Bain Capital, Romney played a role in scores of deals. Some of them, truth be told, were terrific. Great companies like Staples owe their existence in part to Romney and his firm. But this was a campaign and he was the opponent. We didn’t mention Romney’s good deals. We figured he’d do that.
But there were other deals, like the paper plant in Marion, Indiana. Bain had bought a paper plant, loaded it with debt, drove it into bankruptcy, then laid off all the employees, canceled their health care and pensions, and left the town a desiccated shell. We sent a camera crew to Marion. We interviewed a carpenter from the plant named Mike Earnest. (I know: somewhere Charles Dickens is smiling.) Mike told his story: one day the boss told him to build a stage on the shop floor; the new owners were coming to town and wanted a team meeting. So, Mike and the boys built that stage, and Romney’s suits stood on that stage, closed the company, and laid off every worker. Mike, who truly was earnest, looked in the camera and said, “I didn’t know it at the time, but when I was building that stage, I was really building my coffin.”
GOP strategist Frank Luntz called it the most effective ad of 2012. Barack Obama won a second term. (In truth, he would have won without me or our ad; he is that talented. But I am proud to have played a small role in his winning a second term.)
But when 2016 came around, I took my eye off the ball. This time around, our super PAC took as its mission electing Hillary Rodham Clinton, someone I have known and loved for more than a quarter century. And her Republican opponent, Donald Trump: well, I could not stand him.
I was so shocked by Donald Trump’s sewer-level character that I could not avert my eyes. Look! He’s saying POW John McCain (R-AZ) was not a hero, because he was captured. Look! He’s mocking a reporter’s physical disability. Look! He’s bragging about grabbing women by the… well, you know.
We made ads about those outrages. Our first ad—I loved it—featured people, mostly women, wearing T-shirts bearing various pictures of Trump, unsmiling, often mid-shout. They lip-synced while the audio track repeated some of Trump’s most odious vulgar comments: “There was blood coming out of her eyes, there was blood coming out of her… wherever.” A man has his arm around a woman (presumably his partner) and looks on in astonishment as she mouths these words of Trump’s: “Does she have a good body? No. Does she have a fat ass? Absolutely.” A young father stands with his daughter and lip-syncs as Trump’s distinctive voice says, “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” A white-haired woman throws her hands up in anger as Trump’s bellow comes out of her mouth:
“And you can tell them to go [BLEEP] themselves!”
We ran another ad, designed to shock the conscience of the electorate—especially Christians. The ad featured a girl in Columbus, Ohio, named Grace, who was born with spina bifida. We see a photo of her as a newborn, with tubes coming out of her. Then as an infant, sleeping peacefully, with a simple wooden cross next to her in her crib. Finally, we see her as a child, shooting hoops from her wheelchair. The ad then shows Trump mocking the physical disability of a journalist. Even years later, it is appalling. Grace’s mother says, “The children at Grace’s school know never to mock her. And so for an adult to mock someone with a disability is shocking.” Grace’s father, his eyes heavy with disappointment, says, “When I saw Donald Trump mocking someone with a disability, it showed me his soul, it showed me his heart.
And I didn’t like what I saw.”
Spoiler alert: Trump won white evangelicals by an astonishing 80–16 margin, narrowly breaking the record held by
George W. Bush, who is an actual, honest-to-goodness born-again Christian.
We attacked Trump for
paying zero dollars in federal taxes. Trump’s response, “That makes me smart.”
He also did better than Romney with voters making less than $50,000.
We attacked his racist rhetoric about immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”
“We’re going to have a deportation force.”
Trump got 1 percent more of the Latino vote than Mitt Romney had in 2012.
We attacked his misogynistic comments, including his infamous Access Hollywood
remarks. “She ate like a pig.” “When I come home and dinner’s not ready, I go through the roof.” “
I moved on her like a b—h.”
Trump won just 3 percent fewer female voters than Romney.
We attacked his racist remarks, including his refusal to disavow former KKK leader David Duke: “I know nothing about David Duke, I know nothing about white supremacists.” “Oh! Look at my African American over here!” “You’re living in poverty,
your schools are no good, you have no jobs.” Trump exceeded Romney’s percentage of the African American vote,
albeit by a measly 2 percent.
In a particularly poignant ad, we featured former Indiana governor Joe Kernan, who, like John McCain, was a POW in Vietnam. The ad featured Trump denigrating McCain: “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” In a soft but steely voice, Kernan says, “What Donald Trump said about members of our military who have been captured is a disgrace,” and as he shakes his head, the war hero Kernan says, “
He’s unfit to be president.” Trump
defeated Hillary by 27 percent among veterans,
surpassing Romney’s 20-point margin from 2012.
I admit it: I didn’t get Trump. Didn’t see the appeal. And I usually have a pretty good eye for political talent. From the first time I saw him in my home state of Texas, I always knew George W. Bush was enormously likable. And everyone who ever met the young Bill Clinton and Barack Obama came away predicting they’d be president. But I did not appreciate Trump’s greatest gift—the ability to slip a punch; to avoid the collapse that any other politician would have suffered if they’d done and said half of the vicious, foul things Trump has. In short, I didn’t realize he was Teflon Don.
I came to understand why only after the election. I was riding around Houston with my brother David. He’s spent his career in construction, where he’s built a successful business. He’s my big brother, so I’ve always known that David was smarter than me, but I’d deluded myself into thinking I knew more about politics. As we sat in traffic on Loop 610, he gave me this epiphany about the election: “You treated Trump like a politician. He’s not. He’s a reality TV star. So when he got caught lying, it wasn’t because he’s a lying politician; he’s just a bullshit artist on TV. When he said outrageous things, he was just being provocative for ratings.”
Dear God, David was right.
I saw Trump as a politician: a candidate, a nominee, a potential president. Much of America saw him as a swaggering CEO, even if his boardroom was a cardboard set. His many outrageous statements were met with eye rolls or even laughter. Much of America was shocked and repulsed, to be sure. But a significant percentage of Americans just thought, There he goes again! I wonder what The Donald is gonna say on the show next week?
My Hollywood friends have a name for this: they call it a Pre-Aware Title. A pre-aware title is something the audience is already familiar with. Think of the Lego movie. Even if you’ve never seen it, you know what Legos are. Or Iron Man XII
: you know what you’re getting there. But a movie called Harold and Maude
, well, we have no idea what that is when we first hear the title. Hollywood is replete with pre-aware titles because they sell. And the studio doesn’t have to pay tens of millions of dollars to introduce the audience to the lead character. It is only a matter of time before we get a Play-Doh movie.
A great many of Trump’s savage, obscene character flaws were already known to the audience. Or at least they were assessed less critically because they came from a man whose flamboyance earned him a place in your living room every Thursday night for fourteen years.
Boy, that was a depressing recap.
But I go through all of that not to depress you—although if right now you want to set this book aside for a long, tall glass of Zoloft, I understand. And lest you get too bummed out—or think I’m a total idiot—allow me to remind you of a very important number: 2,864,974. That’s how many more votes Hillary received than Trump. If We, the People actually got to pick our president, my friend Hillary would be ramping up for her reelection campaign right now. As you’ll see in chapter 7, I hate the Electoral College, and I have some thoughts on how to put the people in charge of picking the president. But for now, rather than complain to each other about how unfair the system is, let’s focus on how to win.
I want us to learn from this dreary history—to ensure we are not doomed to repeat it. What should we have done? Well, I had a revelation, much like the one I had listening to my brother. It was a revelation about what really matters to voters, and why Trump won.
About three sleepless weeks after the election, it came to me. I thought about a farm family in Wisconsin, where my wife was born. They work their hearts out, rising before dawn to milk the cows, repair the tractor, clear the snow, or harvest the corn. Wisconsin being a swing state, they would have certainly seen our ads. I can imagine the family’s matriarch (let’s call her Esther) being shocked and turning to her husband (call him Ralph) and saying, “Well, Ralph, we can’t have a man like that as our president!” The God-fearing, patriotic, kind, generous people of the rural Midwest could never countenance such a thoroughly awful person.
But then, in my imagination, a day before the election, Ralph sees Trump on TV shouting about ending unfair trade deals and saving manufacturing. He promises to take care of farmers and veterans. Esther is skeptical, but Ralph turns to her and says, “Well, ya know dear, he’s not gonna grab YOU by the privates. But he just might reopen that factory that laid off our boy Harold.”Here’s what I got wrong:
I made it about Trump’s life instead of Ralph and Esther’s. We should have made ads like the ones we made against Romney. Mitt is a fundamentally good person who had some business deals that hurt him politically; Trump is an awful person of the lowest character. And he had a lot more business deals that screwed working people. We should have filmed the plumbing contractors he drove out of business when he wouldn’t pay his bills. The housekeepers and cooks and blackjack dealers who lost their jobs when his casinos went bankrupt. The undocumented workers he used and abused at his golf courses. The veterans who lost tens of thousands of dollars on a worthless “degree” from Trump University. We should have shown how Trump has hurt people like you.
I focused too much on Trump and too little on voters. I fell into the Trump Trap.