NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

LIVE from the Crosscut Festival: All the President’s Men

Good after­noon from Seat­tle Uni­ver­si­ty, Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate read­ers! I hope you are enjoy­ing NPI’s live cov­er­age of the Cross­cut Festival.

The first pan­el I attend­ed this after­noon was “All the Pres­i­den­t’s Men”, dis­cussing what it is like to be in the inner cir­cle of the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.

Pan­elists include David Frum, for­mer speech­writer for Pres­i­dent George W. Bush; David Litt, for­mer spe­cial assis­tant and senior pres­i­den­tial speech­writer for Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma, and Scott McClel­lan, for­mer White House Press Sec­re­tary for Pres­i­dent George W. Bush. The ses­sion was mod­er­at­ed by Greg Hanscom, the Exec­u­tive Edi­tor at Cross­cut and KCTS 9, Seat­tle’s PBS affiliate.

Hanscom start­ed by ask­ing the pan­elists if they could imag­ine work­ing for the White House now. McClel­lan answered with a resound­ing “no,” elic­it­ing laughs. He said it is hard to imag­ine work­ing there now and how chaot­ic it is.

McClel­lan joked that the Pres­i­dent he worked for did­n’t have Twit­ter, but if he worked at the White House now, he would have to be con­stant­ly check­ing the Pres­i­den­t’s Twit­ter account to be able to do his job.

Litt still lives in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. and said that the lack of a full staff of peo­ple work­ing in the admin­is­tra­tion is sur­pris­ing. He also said he has a neigh­bor that works at the White House who, a few days before the gov­ern­ment was about to shut down, got home from work at 6:30PM, and he just could­n’t believe that every­one was­n’t work­ing con­tin­u­ous­ly to try to pre­vent the shut­down. He not­ed there is now “a cul­ture of mal­ice and a cul­ture of not caring.”

Frum thought Lit­t’s last phrase was accu­rate and well put. He said he does­n’t feel like the peo­ple in the Trump admin­is­tra­tion are work­ing for the Amer­i­can peo­ple in the way that peo­ple in pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tions did.

Hanscom asked the pan­elist if, look­ing at the White House now, they ever ask them­selves the ques­tion, “why did I try so hard?”

Litt replied that it is actu­al­ly the oppo­site for him. “It does­n’t make me upset that I worked hard and took job the seri­ous­ly,” he said. He added that ulti­mate­ly the job is not about you as an indi­vid­ual, but about the impact you could have in the White House and in issues effect­ing peo­ple across the country.

McClel­lan point­ed out that most peo­ple get into pol­i­tics for the right rea­son. But he also said, “pol­i­tics is the art of com­pro­mise, and that’s been lost.” He says that he and the peo­ple he worked with in the George W. Bush admin­is­tra­tion went to the White House to make a dif­fer­ence and get things done for the Amer­i­can peo­ple. He thinks it’s sad that the White House “can’t get things togeth­er now.”

Hanscom next brought up how the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment was broad­sided by Trump’s pop­u­lar­i­ty and ulti­mate elec­tion.  He asked the pan­elist what they think Trump under­stood about the Amer­i­can peo­ple that oth­er polit­i­cal insid­ers didn’t.

Frum said that it was not so much that Trump under­stood Amer­i­can peo­ple but that he under­stood the Repub­li­can Par­ty, and once he got the nom­i­na­tion, then it’s a 50/50 chance to become Pres­i­dent. He says that a gap in the opin­ions of dif­fer­ent fac­tions in the Repub­li­can Par­ty, with it roots in the fall­out of the eco­nom­ic cri­sis of 2008–2009, left a space for Trump to fit in.

He not­ed that Trump took first place among Repub­li­can can­di­dates in polling with­in three weeks of declar­ing his can­di­da­cy in 2015, and held the lead spot almost the entire time up through win­ning the GOP nom­i­na­tion. He says Trump saw the anger in part of the pub­lic, so he talked about de-indus­tri­al­iza­tion, and talked about race and eth­nic­i­ty “in vicious ways,” but that struck a chord with people.

Litt agreed with Frum’s analy­sis about Trump rec­og­niz­ing some­thing about the Repub­li­can Par­ty. He said he’s sur­prised that Trump became Pres­i­dent but he is not sur­prised that there was a vac­u­um in the Repub­li­can Par­ty that he was able to exploit. “Democ­rats were all say­ing that this was not nor­mal and that the GOP was going off the rails.”

“Where do we go from here?” Hanscom asked.

“Trump exposed the moral vac­u­um with­in the Repub­li­can Par­ty, pol­i­tics and cam­paign­ing have tak­en over gov­er­nance. George W. Bush and Oba­ma both ran on a pol­i­tics of unit­ing, and both ran into a buz­z­saw.” He not­ed that Oba­ma took a lot of his ideas direct­ly from the GOP (the Afford­able Care Act was based on Mitt Rom­ney pol­i­cy) in attempts to com­pro­mise, but “the GOP still ran screaming.”

“Can the GOP reclaim their moral cen­ter, or do we leave it behind and try some­thing new?”

Frum not­ed that sim­i­lar things are hap­pen­ing in oth­er coun­tries, so it is not just the Unit­ed States. He said there is a gen­er­a­tional loss of con­fi­dence in democ­ra­cy, because democ­ra­cy “stopped deliv­er­ing the goods.” He says that is was essen­tial­ly an acci­dent of who hap­pened to be in pow­er at the time this is happening.

“Democ­rats, don’t con­grat­u­late your­self,” he said. “We got the dis­ease, but the con­ta­gion is in the air.”

Frum also said that the par­ty sys­tem has real­ly changed since about 2000. He says pol­i­tics and par­ties used to be based on one’s rela­tion­ship to the means of pro­duc­tion (own­ers vs. work­ers), but now it is a pol­i­tics based on group iden­ti­ty. Just like the loss of con­fi­dence in democ­ra­cy, this too is a glob­al problem.

After Litt said that Trump’s elec­tion was not just like being on a roller coast­er, but like being in a car acci­dent, as things went in a direc­tion that was not where intend­ed, Frum offered a fur­ther analysis.

“You know how you’ll be on the high­way and not as atten­tive as you should be, and the lights of an oncom­ing car jolt you to your atten­tion?” he said. “And the adren­a­line from that near miss gets you safe­ly home.” He hopes that the Trump pres­i­den­cy will be a near miss that gets us, as a coun­try, safe­ly home.

When Hanscom asked McClel­lan, who worked for George W. Bush not just in the White House but back when Bush was Gov­er­nor of Texas, if still iden­ti­fied as a Repub­li­can, McClel­lan gave a clear no.

He said he worked for Bush because he “saw hope there.” He vot­ed for Oba­ma for the same rea­son, he said. He did not vote for Trump. He says he believes in bipar­ti­san­ship, and stress­es that pol­i­tics is not a zero sum game. He notes that Trump plays in to peo­ple’s worst fears, uses divi­sive tac­tics, and has zero sum beliefs. He believes the only thing hold­ing up Trump now is the economy.

After McClel­lan said he still believes we can get back to bipar­ti­san­ship, that the prover­bial pen­du­lum swings, Hanscom asked all the pan­elists what bright spots or sil­ver lin­ings they see.

Frum said he sees a bright spot in the rise of civic engage­ment, includ­ing events like the Cross­cut Fes­ti­val. He said this sad chap­ter “may make us bet­ter able to solve things by knock­ing the smug­ness out of us.”

He said jok­ing­ly that since he grew up Cana­di­an, he does­n’t have that belief that Amer­i­cans do that every­thing will always turn out okay, just because this is America.

McClel­lan said that he sees the sil­ver lin­ing in the stu­dents at Seat­tle Uni­ver­si­ty, where he has been Vice Pres­i­dent for Com­mu­ni­ca­tions since 2012, in his young sons, and in the increase in civic engage­ment across the county.

Litt offered an answer along sim­i­lar lines. He said he is pleas­ant­ly sur­prised that as he talks to young peo­ple at book sign­ings across the coun­ty that peo­ple are not cyn­i­cal or detached like he was expect­ing. Rather, he is hear­ing peo­ple talk about vol­un­teer­ing, run­ning for office, and get­ting involved.

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