To: 2018 U.S. House and Senate candidates
From: Jeffrey Denny, principal, Denny Political Strategies*
Re: How to win
Weeks ago, Alabama U.S. Senate primary candidate Roy Moore brandished a pistol at a campaign rally. He won the nomination. Last fall, Montana U.S. House candidate Greg Gianforte body slammed a reporter. He won the seat. Iowa’s U.S. Rep. Steve King, routinely denounced even by GOP colleagues for making shocking white nationalist statements, was reelected six times. As for Mr. Trump, no explanation needed.
See the pattern? The days of polite, mealy-mouthed candidates are over. The public sees through the poll-tested, focus-grouped messaging and smooth, speechwriter-tuned rhetoric. The more perfectly polished and packaged the politician, the less trustworthy. People today warm to candidates who are just as imperfect as they are. They want authenticity, warts and all.
Forget Dale Carnegie. Think Larry David.
We’re back to a simpler, realer time, from our Republic’s earlier days, when politicians spoke their minds from their hearts, even if their hearts were hard and minds criminal. They let the chips fall.
They boozed, swore, womanized, frequented brothels, took bribes, called each other “hornswoggler” and threatened fisticuffs. The Ten Commandments were observed in the breach. Politicians didn’t worry about the media — reporters were wretched drunken ratbags anyway — and nobody had to worry about iPhones taking damning videos that would go viral. If you bragged about grabbing women, it showed manliness not misogyny.
Men were men. Boys were little men. Women weren’t men, or vice versa, but if they were, they kept it to themselves. Nobody cared about sensitivities — feelings were for sissies, socialists and readers of poetry. A trigger warning was something you issued before pulling it.
In his famous 1993 essay, “Defining Deviancy Down,” Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned liberals that tolerating bad behavior — specifically, crime — normalizes it. The late senator might be shocked, but not surprised, by the deplorable level of public discussion and political discourse we not only tolerate today, but relish and reward.
But the days of electing and respecting old-school statesmen/gentlemen and women, esteemed national leaders like Moynihan with unimpeachable ethics, standing and gravity, ended about when the internet took off. No coincidence.
Decorum and decency don’t matter like they used to. People are sick of political correctness and sensitivity, being told what they can and cannot say, and the media playing gotcha. Respect, civility, unity — these are things that lawmakers call for in moments of conflict, crisis and reflection, but then quickly return to the slamming, smearing and dividing that voters demand.
Even the most pious don’t care. You may have seen polling that in 2011, only around 30 percent of white evangelicals said “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” After the Oct. 2016 disclosure of Trump’s “Grab them by the p____” comment, 72 percent said immorality in politicians is just fine. As Jerry Falwell, Jr., put it, “We’re not electing a pastor; we’re electing a president.”
So how does a candidate win in this baser political environment? A few tips:
- Say anything to win. Winning is the point, right? It’s ok to fight dirty, and go negative on opponents when they do it, and then call for unity. Say whatever riles people up. Trash things how they are. Promise something better. Don’t be specific. Details are boring anyway.
- Trash Washington. Don’t worry about the illogic of how you’ll do anything to be part of something horrible that you hate. Declare how you — and you alone — can fix Washington. When you get there, trash your colleagues who disagree with you. Do not deliberate, negotiate or collaborate. Then come home and trash Washington because nothing gets done there. Also, do everything to undermine government and then say government doesn’t work.
- Trash the media. You know the old Greener Rule, “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel”? Change “never” to “always.” The public hates the media. How do we know? From the latest CNN, Washington Post/ABC, New York Times/CBS News and other media-sponsored polls. Trashing the media also gets you free publicity from the media, so book time on CNN and the networks, and flog the mainstream media to cover your press events. Call the media “fake news” unless the coverage slams your opponent, in which case, highlight the clips in your press packet and campaign ads.
- Be yourself. Unless you’re the decent, polite, respectful, god-fearing person with traditional values and manners your parents exemplified, taught or smacked into you. Park that high horse for now. Instead:
- Find your inner jerk. We all have a dark side. Set it free. If it’s too buried by genteel upbringing or anger management sessions, then channel the grandpa at the Thanksgiving table that blurts disgusting racist, sexist, homophobic slurs that cause awkward silence, tears or fights. Good manners are for elitist snowflakes. Say the terrible things you only mutter to yourself. It also helps to:
- Indulge your Twitter impulse. If you’re seething about something, don’t think twice: Feel it, type it, post it. People are offended? They can’t handle the truth.
Bottom line, we’re not in high school, where we pick the most likable guy or gal for student body president. Politics isn’t a popularity contest. Only 20 percent of Americans approve of Majority Leader McConnell yet he wields enormous power in Washington. Trump’s base is small, but it’s all he needs.
Plus — importantly — heed the message from “One Nation Under Trump,” a new book by E.J. Dionne, Jr., Norman Ornstein, and Thomas Mann.
Citing years of gerrymandering and the electoral college, they said, “Claims that our republic is democratic are undermined by a system that vastly over-represents the interests of rural areas and small states. This leaves the large share of Americans in metropolitan areas with limited influence over national policy.”
We all know those metro areas are filled with liberal elites with delicate sensibilities who think Trump folks are deplorable. If the elite have less power, then why cater to their standards and sanctimony?
Asked why he robbed banks, Willy Sutton said “because that’s where the money is.” To win in 2018, go where the vote is. Don’t waste your time or hard-raised funds appealing to voters who expect statesmanship, decency and decorum. Focus on the deplorables. They’re proud of the label. And for god’s sake, be deplorable.
*Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer, not a political consultant