The Sweep: What Happens When Politicians Don’t Do Their Homework
Campaign Quick Hits
Outgoing Bridgewater CEO Eyes GOP Senate Run in Pennsylvania: David McCormick announced Monday that he will step down as CEO of Bridgewater Associates, a move that allows him to press forward with his widely anticipated Republican bid for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania. Should McCormick formally announce a bid for retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat, he will face off in the state’s GOP primary against TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz, Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands, and businessman and former Republican nominee for lieutenant governor Jeff Bartos. McCormick is a Gulf War veteran and previously served in the Treasury Department under the George W. Bush administration.
NFT for $$$: Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters is using new technology to create buzz for his campaign. Masters was pitching “a limited-edition NFT, based on early Zero to One cover art” from his book with Peter Thiel for a $5,800 donation to his campaign. NFT, in the most simple terms, is getting to say that you are the owner of a digital image–in this case, one of 99 owners. While some NFTs are considered an asset that will appreciate in value as time goes on, the Masters campaign isn’t using that argument here: “We think the NFT is cool, but we make no representation about its value or possible future value.” Instead, Masters says that he is trying to attract support from "less conventional political donors and more founders and builders who want to see new thinking and new energy in our politics.” So far, it looks like the fundraising campaign worked. The NFT is already sold out, according to the website. And, yes, they said they would accept bitcoin or ethereum.
Surprising Redistricting Update:
Quote(s) of the Week: There’s plenty of intraparty mudslinging in primary season—that’s what anonymous quotes are for. But they’re not anonymous when it comes to Madison Cawthorn, it would seem. The Asheville Citizen Times got an earful after Cawthron announced “his plan to abandon Western North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District to seek reelection in a neighboring — and seemingly friendlier — district.”
“What conservative policy has Cawthorn ever delivered for his district? He’s barely even a lawmaker. He just plays one on TV.”—GOP legislative attorney Brent Woodcox.
“Madison Cawthorn is a callow and appallingly ignorant young man who regularly embarrasses conservatives and Republicans, whether they admit it or not.”—CEO and President of the John Locke Foundation John Hood
“This is ambitious cowardice at its worst. He’s an embarrassment that we need to defeat.”— Charles Jeter Jr., an influential former Republican state representative.
As the clownfish said, ‘With friends like these, who needs anemones.’
Sweeping Into 2022
As we start a new year, I thought it was worth a reminder as to why this thing is called The Sweep. The title comes from this piece in which I argued that:
Curling is the perfect analogy for political campaigns. The underlying dynamics of an election cycle (the economy, the popularity of the president, national events driving the news cycle) are like the 44-pound “stone” hurtling toward the (please hold while I google what the, you know, bullseye thing is called) ... “house.” Once the stone is moving, this thing is heavy and it’s got momentum that is out of the “skip’s” control. The campaign staff are like the guys with the brooms that are frantically sweeping the ice as this 44-pound rock slides along the ice.
First of all, our USA curling team is set to defend its Olympic gold medal in just a few weeks. I’m as unhappy as anyone that China is hosting this year, but if our team is going then I will scream at my TV with all my might—with my USA Curling gear—and I hope you will do the same.
Second, I thought this was a good time to give you a recent example of what I mean when I say that campaign staff can’t make a 44-pound stone make a 90-degree right turn.
In an interview with CBS News last week, Vice President Kamala Harris walks down the hallway of what looks like the Old Executive Office Building—that Victorian-era architectural monstrosity next to the White House. The interview was wide-ranging and it appears that the vice president’s staff agreed to more than 30 minutes of sit-down time with Margaret Brennan and another 10 or more minutes of “walk and talk” wandering the checkered marble hallways in front of the vice president’s ceremonial office.
Such an interview requires a substantial amount of preparation. Staff would have been coordinating with the CBS production team for days to set ground rules on the amount of time and where portions of the interview would air, along with the nitty gritty stuff like getting camera and sound technicians through security hours in advance to set up.
Senior staff would have spent hours in media prep “running questions” with the vice president, too. This is often the most important skill for any communications staffer: being able to guess every question that a reporter will ask to your boss in advance. To build this muscle, an up-and-coming comms operative will read every Sunday show transcript, study which stories go in what order for each network’s nightly news program, and go to coffees with as many reporters as possible to try to understand why they ask what they ask. The best way for me to learn was to watch the White House press briefing—it’s like getting to watch each of the best NFL quarterbacks do a quick scrimmage every day when you’re training to be on the defensive line.
Back in my day, I could hit close to 100 percent if I knew the reporter and it was a busy news cycle. (Slow news cycles are the worst because reporters tend to get more creative with their topics to try to gin up news.) But the only way to hit 100 percent for a 45-minute interview is to ask at least three hours worth of questions. Understandably, some principals—the vice president included—don’t have three straight hours to spend on media prep, so you try to find the time shoved into the back row of seats in the motorcade or on the plane between briefings. If you’re the principal, it can feel like every time you think you’ve got 30 unscheduled seconds to breathe, your comms person pops up like a jack-in-the-box with another annoying question.
And lots of principals HATE running questions. They will inevitably say, “let’s just talk about each topic.” Why? Because it’s not actually very fun to “role play” with a smarmy staffer often 20 to40 years younger than you. But—and here’s my advice to any rising comms people who may be reading this—do NOT let them get away with it. Discussing how the other team organizes its offense is not the same as running practice drills. And to quote the inimitable Allen Iverson, “We talkin’ ‘bout practice.”
I say all this because when I watched the interview I was struck by how … unpracticed … some of Harris’ answers were.
Let’s take this one (and it’s worth watching the clip here, but I’ve included a transcript for those who aren’t in the mood):
Question from Brennan: Was it wrong to consider inflation transitory? These price spikes seem like they’re going to be with us for a while.
Answer from Harris: We have to address the fact that … We gotta deal with the fact that folks are payin’ for gas, payin’ for groceries and are are are … need solutions to it. So let’s talk about that. Short term solution includes what we need to do around the supply chain, right? So we went to the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Savannah, Georgia; and said “hey guys, no more five days a week, eight hours a day, 24/7.” Let’s move the products because people need their … they need what they need. We’re dealing with it in the long term and that’s about what we need to do to pass Build Back Better. It strengthens our economy.
To start, this was a long interview, as I said, and this was her worst answer. Some were very good answers, some less so, but this one was … difficult to understand.
Inflation was an obvious topic. Maybe her comms staffers didn’t come up with the exact question (though I wouldn’t be shocked if they did), but they would have had multiple versions of an inflation question like “do you think any of this administration’s efforts to curb the spread of COVID have contributed to the rise in prices that we’re seeing?” or “in July, President Biden said he was ‘confident’ that the rise in prices was temporary but prices have continued to rise—what steps are you prepared to take if it turns out these price increases continue into next year?” In fact, I’ll bet that her staff had at least 10 versions of that question ready to go.
So what happened? I’ve got some theories.
She won’t practice. If you sit around and talk about inflation with your staff without ever being forced to answer different versions of the same question, your answer can look a lot like this one. More than helping you drill down on the specific topic, fielding live questions in the prep session helps the principal learn to pivot from the question back to her comfort areas.
“Was it wrong to consider inflation transitory?”
Here’s a more practiced answer: “For Americans dealing with higher prices, six months can feel like an eternity, but let me tell you why we’re confident in where this economy is headed.” (Now pivot to your comfy answer about the ports and why passing Build Back Better is important.)
And if you do a bunch of practice getting the rebounds, it won’t matter whether the ball bounces left or right off the backboard because you’ve got the muscle memory to get it back to where it needs to be before your feet land back on the ground.
She doesn’t like homework. According to the Washington Post, Harris “refuses to wade into briefing materials prepared by staff members, then berates employees when she appears unprepared because she wouldn’t do the necessary prep work.” So maybe she flubbed the inflation question because she doesn’t know what inflation is.
Hmmm. I have some follow-up questions for the staff on this one. One of your first jobs is to figure out how your principal takes in information most effectively. If binders full of briefing material aren’t her thing, then why do you keep making them? As Carly Fiorina was fond of telling me, “activity is not the same as accomplishment.” The purpose of the binder is to inform your boss. So if it ain’t informing her—whether it’s because the material is too long, too dense, or she refuses to open it—then that’s your fault as a staffer because you keep spending your time on something that isn’t producing results.
Perhaps the answer is to bring along an engaging economist on the next flight solely to engage her in a more interactive conversation about theories over the root causes of inflation. Or maybe she is better at digesting a single page of bullet points than 10 pages of prose. (I know I am.)
Which is all to say, if this is the issue, I don’t think it’s a Harris issue. But I also don’t think it’s the issue. Her answer didn’t sound like someone who didn’t know what inflation was. We didn’t even get that far. It sounded like someone who had no idea what she wanted to say. And that brings us to the last possibility.
She embodies the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle is often used as a joke (“every employee tends to rise to their level of incompetence”), but it’s a very real thing. The idea was nicely summarized here:
An employee does well. He’s rewarded with a promotion. He does well in that job, and is promoted again. This continues until the point he is no longer performing at a level deserving of a promotion, which leaves him at a level where he is over-matched by the demands of the job - in other words, “incompetent.”
The last possibility is that Harris is a good politician who has finally been promoted above her skillset. Being vice president is hard. From a comms standpoint, it may well be harder than being president. The president needs to be up to speed on every topic under the sun but, in the end, he can say what he wants. The vice president has to have the same mastery as the president but also has to know what the president thinks about all of those topics too.
Regardless of the exact reason, Harris was clearly unable to find her footing in the middle of an interview. No staffer can help you at that moment. The 44-pound stone is going down the ice and sweeping can only do so much.
It can’t turn Harris into something she’s not.