The Media, Disaster Politics and What We Can Do About It.

I watched TV this morning. I was embarrassed and a little bit angry.

In our great state of Texas, the floodwaters are still rising. We have 20 or more inches of rain yet to come. Our brothers and sisters in Texas are fighting for their lives, their property and their loved ones.

But instead of giving people in need the information they need to cope with this disaster, much of our news coverage was dedicated to conducting a political “meeting to assess blame.” Was the Houston Mayor wrong not to order an evacuation? Was the president wrong to send tweets that were not about the storm? Did local officials lack foresight in allowing development projects that may have contributed to the severity of the flooding?

I once served in a Governor’s office in a coastal state, South Carolina, that has seen the devastating landfalls of major hurricanes such as Hurricane Hugo which caused 27 fatalities in South Carolina in 1989. It is no stretch to say that people may live or die today based on their ability to get accurate information from authorities and make good decisions. The media is a critical channel for making sure that information reaches the people who need it.

Instead, this morning I found the airwaves crowded with folks arguing about the politics of the storm. Questions about who to blame and for what. Tongues wagging, fingers pointed.

That is just counterproductive and sorry. It is stuff like this that Americans are sick of hearing. And, yes, it is a big part of why Donald Trump is president of the United States and the ratings of the media in public opinion polls are so low. It is not what people need or want to hear, and it needs to stop.

The mayor of Houston, a Democrat, made a judgment call about the evacuation. The president, a Republican, took 15 seconds to send a tweet about a book. There are many people in the Trump administration, in the Texas Governor’s office and in the office of the Houston Mayor who are doing everything they can to help people in the face of a generational disaster, and doing it at the direction of the mayor and the president.

They are doing their jobs. Our job as citizens now is to come together to support their efforts at every level – federal, state and local – to help and serve, regardless of political party. Yes, of course there will be a time for analysis of political decisions. But that time is not today.

In 2011 a devastating EF4 tornado tore through my wife’s hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It remains one of the costliest and deadliest tornadoes in American history, leaving over $2.4 Billion in damage and a horrible 64 fatalities in its wake. It passed directly over my wife’s childhood home and left thousands in the community in which she grew up homeless.

Hearing of the devastation and seeing the media accounts, my wife was motivated to help organize a support drive here in Northern Virginia called NOVA for BAMA Tornado Relief. She ended up with five drop-off locations and enough recovery supplies to fill a Wal-Mart tractor trailer. We delivered the trailer full of supplies to a church in Tuscaloosa where they were distributed to homeless families in the area.

It was a truly beautiful thing to see how the inspiration of a few well meaning people up here touched the lives of so many people in need down there in such a meaningful way. Shouldn’t that be our focus today?

So lead by example. Ignore the political noise. Pick up a sandbag, organize a relief drive, give some money to the Red Cross, say a prayer and do your part. Standing on the sideline blaming and moaning isn’t doing a thing to help someone who is wondering how to stay safe, how to begin rebuilding their lives and wondering if the rest of us care.

The new Trump Doctrine just might be Consensus

This week, I believe we have seen three examples of how President Trump is fundamentally changing and improving his approach to governing. In three particular instances over the last ten days, we have seen President Trump listen to the wise counsel of those around him and come to a full understating of a situation, demonstrate the courage to adapt his positions based on that feedback and the conditions around him and take actions designed to align with, create and build consensus.

This is encouraging. It reflects the leadership capacity that President Trump possesses and that many Americans elected him to demonstrate. We see fresh examples of this consensus driven leadership style in three key arenas – domestically, internally and internationally.

Domestically, President Trump endured a firestorm with respect to his comments on the terrible, racially driven violence in Charlottesville. On Saturday, Trump denounced “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” seemingly condemning the conduct of both the Nazi, KKK and white supremacist groups who embarrassingly and disgustingly incited the mess, and those who came to protest it.

When he did not single out the white supremacist groups by name, many people accused Trump of creating a “moral equivalency” between hate groups and those who protest against them. While in a follow up statement Trump condemned Neo-Nazis, the KKK and white supremacist groups by name, he also openly expressed his frustration with the perception of his response at a Tuesday news conference where he made the now famous “very nice people” statement, among others.

President Trump could have stubbornly stopped there, but he did not. Rather than accept division, I believe he listened to his advisors and agreed that many Americans wanted and the country needed more clarity from his words. President Trump then made a course change designed to clarify that his views, his intentions and his heart were squarely within the American consensus on race. In perhaps the most played-back line from last night’s speech, President Trump said that “when we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry and no tolerance for hate.” Trump was shifting from a place of confrontation to a path of consensus. CNN analyst Chris Cilizza, who has been very critical of Trump, called his tone a “stunning turnaround.” In making these additional statements, I believe President Trump wanted to make it clear that his views on Charlottesville and race are within the consensus view of the American people. I will be surprised if the president does not continue to echo the theme of American unity against prejudice, bigotry and hate in the days and weeks ahead.

Second, Trump demonstrated he was also seeking internal consensus with the dismissal of Steve Bannon. As I said in this piece in USA Today, Bannon committed the cardinal sin that every political staffer should not commit – public disagreement with your principal. But the issue with Bannon ran deeper. It has been widely reported that the Trump White House has been beset with factionalism and infighting. With the appointment of General John Kelly as White House Chief of Staff, Trump has clearly and decisively moved to end the public and private staff conflict and build a unified team that can more clearly define and advocate on behalf of the goals and objectives of his presidency. The president and General Kelly, a brilliant no-nonsense strategist, have begun making staff changes designed to build the internal consensus necessary to drive message discipline and policy vision. The dismissal of Bannon was a seminal change in this area. Even though Bannon played an outsized role in helping Trump beat Clinton, and Trump is surely grateful to him, the need for staff consensus to drive vision and policy was judged more important and the move was made.

Finally, President Trump made a demonstrative act of consensus driven leadership in announcing his position on Afghanistan. President Trump is strengthening his commitment to resolving this conflict in a way that protects American interests. Here he made his clearest statement yet that he was capable of listening, learning, changing and leading:

“My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, in other words, when you’re President of the United States.”

In three distinct areas – domestically, internally, internationally – and in three distinct ways – creating clarity with a consensus view, building internal consensus within in the White House staff and providing consensus driven leadership on the international stage, President Trump has demonstrated the qualities of listening, learning, changing and leading that are hallmarks of good leadership. In the soils of what many may say was one of the worst weeks of his presidency, we may be seeing a renewal of purpose and vision capable of leading his presidency and the country to brighter days ahead.

One Thing Trump Can Do Now 

As a strategic communications practicioner, I’ve been watching the new presidential administration with great interest.  Would a strategy emerge?  Is there a clear narrative?  What rhythms and cadences for communicating would they establish?  And, ultimately, what kind of success would they have? 

Yesterday afternoon I shared a few thoughts in Real Clear Politics. I hope you find them interesting and useful. This administration could arguably do many things but this is the thing that interests me most. Thanks as always. 

One Thing Trump Can Do Now – Real Clear Politics

The Tide Has Come In

In March of this year, and as early as October of last year, and here and here, I wrote in this space about what I believed to be happening in our politics and the movement that was building. It was evident to me that this was something big, that had been building a long time. The political establishment was having trouble seeing it and understanding it. And that establishment was deeply resentful of it.

I described two fundamentals that were present in this election. First, there was a movement forming that had been building for decades, a backlash against economic and cultural globalism. This perspective was driven by an understanding of the economics of thousands of American communities and the changes in our culture as result of educational and demographic changes in many of those same communities. The impact of these changes and the perceived lack of responsiveness of people in power – people with names like Bush and Clinton – drove this movement.

They wanted change. The personification of that change was not as important as change itself. This was fundamental to this race.

Second, Clinton was not change. She, like Bush, was the very personification of the status quo. And not only that, but she is and was a terrible political candidate. She wreaked self inflicted wounds upon herself at every turn. She failed to connect with voters. She ran a campaign that offered people nothing. Her electoral record still consists of beating the second string candidate in a New York Senate race and a 74 year old Socialist in a Democratic primary.

So why did I not more firmly recognize these things and boldly predict a Trump victory?

I let myself get taken in by two things. First, the data. I believe in data. Its essential to understanding. There was, however, a failure of data in this election, in polling and in information and analysis. I can’t pull it apart the day after. It will be studied for months to come. But when systems that project an 85% chance of a Clinton victory at 6pm swing to project an 85% chance of Trump victory in six hours, something is broken. It “got me.”

Second, I didn’t tune out the noise. This is the bigger, more personal failure. I always knew what the fundamentals of this race were. I wrote extensively about them and commented extensively about them. But the noise was so plentiful, so outrageous, so compelling.

And, so irrelevant.

Nothing in the noise changed any of the fundamentals. The fundamentals of this race never changed from the moment Donald Trump set foot on the escalator in Trump Tower to announce he was running. People wanted change, he personified it. They didn’t want the status quo. He won two races, one against a Bush, another against a Clinton.

This wasn’t hard. The data and noise obscured the underlying fundamental truths about this race.

My mistake was not believing what I saw, what I heard and what I wrote so extensively about through the Republican convention. Never forget the fundamentals. Tune out the noise. It’s a mistake I won’t make again.

Congratulations to President-elect Trump and his team. I’ll take some time over the next two weeks to unpack some interesting things apart about what happened. But for now, our nation’s challenges are many and our focus should be on finding ways to come together and address those challenges for the benefit of all the American people.

Midwestern misgivings? Trump needs work in the Rust Belt.

Donald Trump has often alluded to building a new electoral coalition that runs through the Rust Belt. Our new Bloomberg Politics/Purple Strategies poll suggests that building remains a work in progress.

In the poll of middle income voters in the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Trump trails Clinton 46-39. 15 percent of voters remain undecided. A few things jump out when you look at the data.

Policy vs. Prosperity. A battery of questions we asked about phrases people use to describe the candidates reveals a key difference. Clinton scores high on questions about foreign policy and questions that suggest she would pursue policies that directly benefit middle income voters. Trump scores higher on more broadly themed statements such as having new ideas to lead us into the future, creating new jobs and changing the way Washington works. Hillary is the candidate of specifics, Trump the candidate of generalities.

Hillary is more empathetic. Trump has made the “likable enough” Clinton more empathetic for these middle income voters. Clinton wins on questions like fighting harder for the middle class, caring about and understanding the challenges of “people like me,” being a good role model for children and a good guest in someone’s home.

A pox on both houses. 56 percent of middle income Rust Belt voters disapprove of Clinton; 64 percent disapprove of Trump. This is why 45 percent of voters surveyed are willing to consider a 3rd party candidate.

Obama may be helping Clinton with middle income voters. Obama’s approval rating is 47-44, mirroring his improvement in other surveys. These numbers are not far off from where the race stands overall, and presidential approval is often a key factor in an open seat election (just ask John McCain).

Paul Ryan matters. While 64 percent of Trump voters in the survey say a Ryan endorsement would make no difference, 29 percent say it would make them more likely to support Trump. Only 7 percent say Ryan’s endorsement would make them less likely to vote for him. Despite being called an establishment figure by some, Ryan’s nod could help solidify Trump’s support.

Temperament matters too. It will be hard for Trump to win if he remains this disliked by these voters. In addition to almost 2/3 of voters viewing him unfavorably, he trails by 25 on “temperament to be president,” 25 on being a good role model and 25 on being “a good guest in my home.” Today, Clinton is “likable enough.” Trump is not.

Both have enormous weaknesses. Of the criticisms of the candidates we tested, nothing hurts Trump more than his statements on women. Criticism of Clinton’s truthfulness on Benghazi was her biggest weakness. Several other issues were of great concern.

Opportunities for Trump. There is a lot of information suggesting Trump has many things of which he can take advantage. The one thing voters seem to universally reject is the status quo. Take at look at these data points which could favor a Trump candidacy:
• 66 percent think the country is “seriously off on the wrong track”
• 74 percent want “major changes to the way that the government does things”
• Trump leads by 11 on “new ideas” for the future, 28 on changing Washington and 16 on reining in Wall Street

With middle income voters in the Rust Belt, Trump should continue to play to his strengths. He is the candidate of action, the person who will force change upon Washington, create jobs and demonstrate strength abroad in a way Clinton cannot. But he has to shore up his “likability.” Trump simply must become a figure these voters don’t mind hearing from and representing them over the next four to eight years. They clearly want to do more than “hold their nose.” For Trump to lose an election to Clinton on personality would be quite a political epitaph indeed.

I invite you to look over the survey and share the results. There is plenty for fans of Clinton and Trump – and for those who don’t like either one – to debate, criticize and take comfort in.

Why Donald Trump and the Washington Redskins are both winning.

This morning my email brought new news on the controversy surrounding the name of the Washington Redskins NFL football team. The news probably left jaws bouncing on marble floors all around the D.C. Beltway.

Elite figures and institutions both nationally and in our nation’s capital have told us for years that “Redskins” was a deeply offensive name that must be changed. President Obama said so. 50 Democratic U.S. Senators sent a letter to the NFL demanding the name be changed. Many national and local sportswriters and broadcasters have equated the name with Voldemort, refusing to speak it, including the editorial board of The Washington Post.

It was a shaming campaign of the first order, making people who felt like the name was not a big deal – or even liked it – feel like Neanderthals. Or worse.

But a funny thing happened when The Washington Post actually asked Native Americans what they thought about the name. Today, the Post released their own new poll revealing that 9 out of 10 Native Americans are not offended that Washington D.C.’s football team is named “Redskins.”

Turns out, all these elites had Native Americans confused with somebody who gave a damn about the name of a professional football team. Surprising? Not really. Native Americans have a few other things going on they find a little more pressing:

Those interviewed highlighted repeatedly other challenges to their communities that they consider much more urgent than an NFL team’s name: substandard schools, substance abuse, unemployment.

That’s right. Most people – Native Americans, African Americans, All Americans – actually care more about the day to day personal problems and struggles in their own lives than the agenda of the liberal elites.

When Donald Trump rails on political correctness, he is connecting directly with these Americans. People are tired of hearing politicians and media figures wail on about things like the name of a football team and other issues that they don’t believe make a bit of difference in their lives. This is just one more piece of evidence of the disconnect between liberal elites and the people they aspire to govern.

Americans are worried about a failing economy that blinds their once-held vision of a bright future. They live in communities changing at a pace so rapid they sometimes feel lost in their own hometowns. And threats like substance abuse have invaded their cities, sometimes their own homes, bringing death, the destruction of families and tearing apart the fabric of communities.

Hopelessness for most folks is not the name on someone’s jersey, the bathroom someone uses or whether or not Donald Trump retweeted something inappropriate about Megyn Kelly. These matters consume the thoughts of many in Washington who launch hashtag campaigns, fire out press releases, make speeches and start petitions.

Real hopelessness is months or years of being unable to find work, not being able to send your kids to college, seeing your brother or sister fight addiction and feeling like no one cares. It’s feeling stuck, trapped, alone and left behind.

Sure, there are initiatives on the left and right designed to help. But too many of them are either insufficient, not working or can’t get passed. So, a generation of people begin to conclude the American dream is dead while the President, Senate Democrats and media elites wring their hands about the name of a billionaire’s football team.

That’s more shameful than the name of any football team.

Meanwhile, Trump’s strategy is simple. Rather than tell people what to think, he holds up a mirror to this phenomenon. Yes, it’s populism, and yes it lacks principle or any real governing philosophy. But these voters don’t care. That Donald Trump is the GOP nominee has very little to do with Donald Trump himself. His campaign represents the reflection of millions of Americans who simply want someone to hear them, and to tell them they can fix what they believe is broken in America.

The answer for these people has to be something more than #NeverTrump. It has to be to listen to them and convince them there is a better answer. Until then, the movement behind Trump will continue to grow.

Trump is struggling. Here’s a big reason why.

Donald Trump has had a bad two weeks, culminating in a blowout loss in Wisconsin. I’ll take a look at what’s happened, and explain what I believe is the reason why.

In the last two weeks, Trump shattered all three legs of the Republican stool – social, economic, and national security. First, he took approximately five positions in three days on one of the most fundamental and important GOP social issues ever, abortion. No credible corner of the pro-life movement calls for punishing a woman who has had an abortion. As bad as that statement was, it was Trump’s confusing string of follow ups – an Olympic gymnastics level round off double backflip with a full twist that earned him a 9.995 from the Russian judge (whom for which I am sure he has “great respect”) – that were so stunning. Sure, abortion is a difficult issue for some to discuss, but it should not be for a Republican candidate for president.

Then, Trump told the Washington Post he could erase a $19 trillion deficit in 8 years. First, we have a $4 trillion annual budget, which limits how much you can actually cut. And of course, the debt goes up every year its not paid off. Then consider that his tax plan is estimated to add another $10 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years. Presumably a successful businessman has at least some ability to do simple math, but a fourth grader with a crayon could have done better in this case.

After demonstrating how difficult it is to take him seriously on social and economic issues, Trump hit the gaffe trifecta by suggesting we should give the Japanese, Saudis and South Koreans nuclear weapons. Giving out nukes like Halloween candy, especially placing them in marching distance of Kim Jong-Un, is foolish.

It was one thing when Donald Trump was thin on policy. It’s quite another when he’s mind numbingly wrong or ignorant. And, in the last two weeks, Donald Trump has made a case he’s the most uninformed candidate for president of the United States since Pat Paulsen.

How could this happen? Trump has made misstatements before, but he’s typically brushed them off and pivoted to offense, resetting the agenda and earning praise from many quarters, including this blog. Where is that Donald Trump?

I think he’s buried underneath his mess of a campaign.

Most consultants have been in a campaign that is rife with internal conflict. Leadership gets challenged, long knives come out and staffers are not growing the campaign – they’re watching their backs or packing their bags.

Eli Stoklos, Ben Schreckinger and Ken Vogel of Politico give us good insight here and here into the depths of the mess. Rivalries, firings and open dissent in the press suck the enthusiasm and efficacy out of a campaign.

No wonder Trump is ill-prepared or unprepared, booked on the wrong shows, and unable to pivot out of bad spots. Everyone in the campaign is eyeballing each other, not voters and the critical delegates needed to win the nomination.

Ironically, Trump needs to look no further than his rival Ted Cruz to understand how this is properly done. After the South Carolina primary, Cruz was off message, struggling under the weight of a controversy around the truthfulness of his campaign that had the Rubio camp mocking his “culture of dishonesty” and earning him the dreaded “Lyin’ Ted Cruz” moniker from Trump.

Cruz acted decisively, firing the advisor deemed to be at the center of the biggest controversy 48 hours after the South Carolina primary. Cruz righted the ship, saved his “TrustTed” brand, going on to win eight primaries and become the main challenger to Trump.

Conversely, since the March 8 incident that culminated in Trump’s campaign manager having battery charges filed against him, the Trump campaign has been a picture of distraction, inwardly focused, unable to match Cruz in the critical task of courting delegates needed to win a likely open convention.

Trump’s calling card is strength and the key political attribute of strength is certainty. The longer Trump appears to be uninformed, indecisive and uncertain, the more he will struggle. For Trump to have a chance to save his shaky campaign, he needs to make some decisions, make them publically and make them soon.

Two Trends, One Trigger. The 25 Year Tide That Gave Us Trump.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you today to visit Real Clear Politics where you’ll find my latest rambling about two trends and a trigger that, over 25 years, caused the rise of Trump.

Real Clear Politics – The 25 Year Tide That Gave Us Trump

It is a little long, and there are surely points I’ve left on the table. But a book could be written on this and, alas, I have this little day job that I love and clients I care about. So, this will have to do.

But I do think it hits the high points. I also offer this appearance I made with John Seigenthaler where we touched a little on the subject, including what Romney has had to say and whether this all correlates to Goldwater in 1964. If you’d like, please sign up to receive the blogs when they publish. Thanks for reading and caring about America.

#NeverTrump or #MaybeTrump? Why it’s a difficult question.

#NeverTrump is the new hashtag sweeping the social media channels of Conservative and Republican columnists, consultants and media types. It is a general pronouncement that, based on what has been seen, read and heard about Donald Trump, that there is no way you could or should ever vote for him.

I get it. The KKK dodge is merely the latest example. In this interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Trump claims he did not disavow David Duke and the KKK because he had a bad earpiece and could not hear. Yet he responded to a question he could not hear by referencing David Duke and white supremacists not once, not twice but three times.

We have a highly technical term for this in politics. It is called a lie. It is a Trump tower sized pile of bat guano and an amazing display of weakness to not directly and strongly respond to a question about the KKK. Trump should show his strength immediately by not only clearly and unequivocally disavowing David Duke, the KKK and white supremacists, but he should tell us why their views are despicable and wrong, why he believes them to be wrong, and why American leadership can never be associated with those views. He should say he’s sorry and show some strength.

On the face of it, it is easy to understand why people hear this stuff and say they would never vote for Donald Trump. As a Southerner who has fought most of his life to shake the stench of racism off my home and, consequently, off of myself, it makes me especially angry.

So, #NeverTrump, right? I can’t go there yet. Because this election is about a lot more than Donald Trump and the things he says.

We have three co-equal branches of government. Trump is running for my party’s nomination to lead one of them. But there is a high likelihood that the newly elected president will have the opportunity to put as many as three justices on the US Supreme Court. Conservatives should think about that. The legacy of President Hillary Clinton could be a 6-3 liberal majority on the US Supreme Court for 20 years.

Think of the damage a 6-3 majority could do to many causes conservatives care deeply about. Human Life. Religious Freedom. The Second Amendment. Privacy.

This is not about who might be president for the next four years. It’s what America might look like for the next forty years if Hillary Clinton becomes president.

It is no secret that, personally, I prefer some candidates to others. I’ll make that known at the ballot box in Virginia on March 1.

But to say, today, that I will never vote for Donald Trump is a bridge too far. I believe that some of our most cherished freedoms, even people’s lives are at stake in the outcome of this presidential election. I care more about these things than who our next president is.

Thankfully, I have until November to see who comes out on top of our nominating process and what my choice has to be. Until then, with what is at stake, I’d prefer not to paint myself in a corner. The long term consequences of that act are simply too serious.