Republicans’ true failure since the last election

BY PETER FENN, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR The HIll — 01/09/22 09:30 AM EST  1,755


184. The HIll Opinion Column

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As a 15-year-old kid, I raked leaves, mowed grass and was part of the grounds crew at the Capitol, paid $1.25 an hour. We navigated all those underground tunnels and hideaways where last January they took the vice president, the speaker and members of Congress to keep them safe.

As a 17-year-old, with a newly-broken leg and a walking cast, I was a page in the U.S. Senate. It was 1965, and we witnessed the passage and signing by President Lyndon Johnson of the Voting Rights Act … and we watched as opposition began to build against the war in Vietnam.

Years later, I served on the Church Committee, the select Senate Committee investigating our intelligence agencies. I worked in the Senate for five more years as a top aide to Sen. Frank Church of Idaho. 

And for the decades since, I have spent countless hours in the House and Senate office buildings, and in the Capitol, as a political consultant to many members.

Never, in all those nearly 60 years, have I not been in awe of the Capitol, its beauty and grandeur, and what it stands for, the rights and responsibilities of a free people.

Always, as I gazed up at the rotunda as the light shone through, saw the paintings, Statuary Hall, the floor of the Senate and House, I felt lucky to be there. I never took that building — or its meaning — for granted.

Like so many others, I took the Jan. 6, 2021, attack personally.

As I watched on television those familiar staircases, passageways, people who were so violently attacked hour after hour, I was beyond emotional. I couldn’t believe it was happening; it was surreal — people from Trump rallies gone berserk, like something out of Game of Thrones.

This was more than a political event — more than a demonstration gone violent. It was, in a real sense, the culmination of a sitting president and his friends and advisors having rejected our system of government, representative democracy, fairness and any sense of propriety.

The fact that over the past year the vast majority of rank-and-file Republicans have continued to embrace a president with no moral compass, willing to say anything or do anything to stay in power, is truly despicable. Even those who were initially shocked and who denounced Trump, like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), have now embraced him or gone silent. This is also despicable. What message does it send?

That violence is the wave of the future as increasing numbers of Americans seem to believe? That power by any means is, and will be, the future of the Republican Party?

How much honor and dignity and civility will these Republican leaders give up to stay in power — or to gain it? At what point do they say “enough is enough, count me out” as Lindsey Graham did on the Senate floor a year ago … before he flipped and went to Mar-a-Lago to play golf with Trump?

Sadly, most of the Republicans who have spent much of their lives in that Capitol have forsaken the impact of Jan. 6 and all it meant for them and our system of government and instead have embraced a treacherous political calculation: They have decided that they would rather — for the sake of re-election — cozy up to Donald Trump and the cabal peddling the Big Lie than do the right thing. History will judge them.

Truth Is The First Casualty In Taking Down Our Democracy

First published in Morning Consult’s Opinion Page

Truth is the First Casualty in Taking Down Our Democracy

Misinformation and disinformation have taken over our political system, according to a new poll of five western states by Morning Consult, conducted for the bipartisan Frank Church Institute at Boise State University. (The full survey is available here.)

Over 80% of those polled in the five states of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada are worried about “misinformation” (54% very worried, 29% somewhat worried). A similar number of 83% are worried about the “misrepresentation of facts”.

It seems we are way beyond former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s admonition, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but you aren’t entitled to your own facts.”

Too often we Americans don’t seem to trust in the truth or even the pursuit of the truth. We accept “alternative facts” that conform to our beliefs rather than acknowledging that, very simply, facts are facts. 

The concern about misrepresentation of facts dovetails with the respondents’ concern about the health of democracy – 85% of respondents (50% very concerned and 35% somewhat concerned) indicate their lack of confidence in democracy in America.

For decades we have seen the growing distrust and cynicism about government and politics spread to other institutions such as business, religion and education.  Now that distrust has seeped into almost all our sources of information, including the news.

The era of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley is long over in time and substance.   As Yogi Berra might say, if they were alive today they would turn over in their graves!

From the evening news to local news to the internet, and especially social media, large majorities believe misrepresentation of facts is spread far and wide. A full 73% believe that misrepresentation is “spread a lot” on social media with 18% more saying “some.”  The internet is next highest with 58% saying a lot and 31% saying some. For the regular news media 48% say a lot and 36% say some.  Virtually nobody believes we are not living in an age of misrepresentation of facts.

It is interesting that both Democrats and Republicans seem to pretty much agree on the spreading of misinformation on social media and the internet, but there is a real difference in their views of the regular news media.  Republicans believe by 60% that a lot of misinformation is spread while only 26% of Democrats agree. Clearly the attacks by Trump and others on “mainstream (or ‘lamestream’) media” has taken its toll.

So, who is to blame for this misinformation?  Not surprisingly, in these mostly Republican western states, 22% hold liberal media responsible, while 14% believe conservative media, and 47% say both.  We can’t be shocked to see that 44% of Republicans blame the liberal media and 36% of Democrats blame the conservative media. This is just an example of the political polarization exhibited in the survey – especially regarding the election of 2020, perception of Biden and Trump, and the events of January 6th.  While 79% of Democrats believe that Trump was responsible for the violence at the Capitol, only 13% of Republicans believe Trump was responsible.

Despite the polarization in the country, and tendency to divide up into waring camps, one encouraging finding is that by almost 4-1, 66% to 17%, respondents in these five western states believe that elected officials should find compromise and common ground rather than stand their ground and push their own party’s agenda.

As our country struggles with how to enhance democracy and see to it that it survives and thrives in the 21st century we consider consider focusing on tackling the problem of misinformation, disinformation and the spread of falsehoods and false narratives. If we can begin to agree more on what is clearly true and what is clearly false, we may begin to come together on how best to solve the problems that confront us.

There is growing consensus in Congress and across the country that social media and ubiquitous sites like Facebook have resulted in spreading misinformation and falsehoods.  Regardless of whether you are a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent, or a conservative or a liberal, there is common cause in doing our best to embrace what is true and reject what is false. 

The threat to our democracy is put on steroids when our leaders and our media deliberately misrepresent what is true.  The public does get this.  Democrats and Republicans (84% and 83% respectively) agree that ‘fake news’ is used purposely to mislead people and three-fourths of them believe that politicians use it to dismiss facts that are actually true.

This is a growing cancer and it is up to both political parties, the media and the people, to confront it.  If we shrink from this responsibility our democracy will go from the emergency room to intensive care in a nanosecond.  Pressure must be put on politicians and media outlets who put out lies and falsehoods—whatever their party or ideology.  We can’t dismiss this as “politics as usual”, it is far from it.  Whether it is the false accusations against Trump in the Steele Dossier, or the lie that Obama was not eligible to be President because he was not born in the U.S., or the dangerous falsehood that the 2020 election was rigged and Biden was not legitimately elected – or many more – they lead to conspiracy theories, encourage violence, and the breakdown of confidence and established order in our country.

We need leaders, especially on the Republican side, who have the courage to confront those who dominate the news and whom they know deliberately mislead and disseminate falsehoods that undermine democracy.  History will judge us by what we do now to turn back this trend and rekindle what our founders envisioned.

Democracy is Under Attack and More Violence May be the Future

Democracy is on life support, and voters know it.

It isn’t just about the inflated, angry rhetoric or the videos depicting grotesque violence directed from one Member of Congress to another. It isn’t just about the violent attack on the Capitol and the organized attempt at insurrection on Jan. 6. Or even the rise in violent incidents over the past few years, as horrendous as all this has been.

It is about the deep-seated alienation of Americans and the willingness of our citizens to accept taking up arms as the solution. A recent poll from the Frank Church Institute at Boise State University raises the alarms, especially in the Mountain West. Attitudes are changing.ADVERTISEMENT

The poll by Morning Consult covers citizens in five states: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. It has an overall sample size of 1,899 (about 400 per state) and was designed to look at rural areas in particular. The pollsters discovered that 74 percent of these citizens often or sometimes felt alienated from the federal government and 54 percent from their local government. Even three in five believe that “the federal government works to benefit other groups of people but not people like me.”

Some of this is not new, but what is new is that a vocal and increasing minority believe that violence may be the answer to their concern for, and distrust of, our democracy.

Republicans and Democrats show their fear in similarly large numbers: a total of 85 percent are “very concerned or somewhat concerned about the health of democracy.”

CNN national poll recently indicated that 56 percent of Americans believe “democracy is under attack,” 75 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats; 93 percent believe that democracy is either under attack or being tested.

When you couple this with the polarization and very different perspectives on the 2020 election, we are on a very dangerous road. ADVERTISEMENT

While voters in the Mountain West believe 51 percent to 38 percent that Biden was legitimately elected, the breakout of Republicans and Democrats tells a different story. A full 87 percent of Democrats say he was elected while only 26 percent of Republicans do. Nearly 50 percent of Republicans say that Biden was definitely not elected legitimately, and 71 percent believe the election was “rigged.”

It is little surprise — given the rhetoric and continuous drumbeat from Donald Trump and many Republican supporters — that these numbers are that high. Despite the rulings by all the courts, the recounts, the vast majority of press reports calling the election fair and legitimate, the lie persists. But the point is that many still believe it, just as they believed that Barack Obama was not born in the United States or that Comet Ping Pong Pizza in Washington, D.C., was the scene of child trafficking run by Hillary Clintona conspiracy theory which resulted in a man with an assault rifle arriving to shoot people at the restaurant.

Even though 55 percent of citizens in the Mountain States say that violence at the Capitol was “definitely not justified” and 58 percent believe that “political violence is not justified in a democracy, the better solution is the ballot box,” a remaining 20 percent (including 25 percent of Republicans) believe that “political violence is justified in a democracy when you believe things have gotten so bad that the government is not acting in the best interests of the people.” And a full 22 percent were “not sure” whether violence is justified or not.

Here is the bottom line: Things have not gotten better since the election or the inauguration, they have gotten worse.

When we have one in four or one in five Americans who support violent behavior and taking up arms, that is a nation on the brink, a country in real danger.ADVERTISEMENT

Add to that the behavior of some of our elected officials, the former president and those closest to him, as well as the fact that few national leaders on the Republican side make any attempt to tamp down the tendency toward violence, and the trend is heading in the wrong direction. In the Mountain States, 61 percent of the people surveyed believe that it is very or somewhat likely that we will see violence similar to what we saw at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The bright light from this poll is that most people surveyed want America to turn back from the abyss. By a margin of nearly four-to-one — 66 percent to 17 percent — they want “an elected official to find compromise and common ground between political parties” not one “who stands their ground and pushes their political party’s own agenda.” They want leaders to get the job done, to solve the problems that confront our nation, to work to make Americans’ lives better. They want progress, not bickering, and they want leaders who can — and will — work across the aisle. They want common ground, not stand your ground.

Now is the time for those of all political parties and persuasions to reject the politics of extremism and violence and set our nation back on a course toward civility and a democracy that works.

Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. He serves on the board of the Frank Church Institute. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.

How to Prevent Democrats from Digging Their Own Grave in 2022

The Hill Newspaper—-8/22/2021

Earlier this month a coalition of progressive groups announced they were going to spend upwards of $100 million on television and digital ads to boost President Biden and the Democrats. When in doubt, flood the airwaves. What a waste!

I have a serious confession: For decades I have specialized in doing television and radio ads for Democratic candidates and groups. From the 1980s to the early 2000s our firm’s primary method of delivering a message and communicating with voters was paid ads. In a course on campaign advertising that I taught at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management for 20+ years, and in counseling candidates, I used to hold fast to the notion that 70-80 percent of most candidates’ budgets should be devoted to paid ads.


Is paid media important? Of course, but these ads don’t do what they used to in the era of three major networks, very limited cable and no such thing as the internet. Not to mention when Amazon and Netflix and a myriad of other ways to watch programming without advertising came on board.

Yet we are stuck in the practices of yesteryear — and instead of using our funds to enhance political organization, personal door-to-door campaigning, sophisticated targeting and communication, we throw what we have against the wall and see what sticks.

Democrats have tended more than Republicans to focus on the shiny objects of TV ads, instead of organizing and motivating our base to reach out and convince potential voters on the ground.

To be blunt: Democrats are not putting nearly enough of the billions raised into early, hard-core organization and way too much into glitzy TV ads.

How much of that $100 million goes to organizing? How much PAC money or candidate money goes to hiring staff and paying people to contact voters? How much goes to identifying voters’ interests and learning about what interests them?ADVERTISEMENT

Look what is happening to rural voters. Trump won rural voters with 59 percent of the vote in 2016; he won with 65 percent in 2020, despite losing the overall popular vote by over 7 million votes. Have you driven through rural America lately? Have you seen the signs and the barns painted “TRUMP,” the caravans during opening day of fishing season in Minnesota with flags flying and horns honking, even the t-shirts being worn at Target and Walmart?

Where are the Democrats? Where are the yard signs and supporters outside metro areas? Where are the local neighborhood headquarters in people’s living rooms? Have we given up on independent minded, less politicized citizens who may not always vote in every election? That is a big mistake.

An important recent Pew poll shows that of those who did not vote in the high-turnout election of 2020, Biden was favored over Trump by 15 points. Many of these were voters under 50 years of age and are not obviously committed voters by any means. These are critical voters for Democrats to target.

Many pundits and prognosticators have written the Democrats’ political obituary for the 2022 off-year elections. They are usually a disaster for the party in power, losing on average 26 House seats and 4 Senate seats. Their other reasons are many: the razor thin margin of less than a half dozen Democratic seats in the House and an even count of 50 in the Senate; redistricting that will cost Democrats seats, as Republicans game the system in southern and western states; a polarized nation where President Biden hovers around 50 per cent popularity.

Now, those are serious head winds. But one way to counter them is to increase our focus as Democrats on voter identification, turnout, and serious persuasion. We have the right messages for many of these voters — child care and early childhood education, expanded community college, child tax credits for struggling families, direct care worker help for seniors, expanded Medicare coverage for dental care and prescription drugs. This is a “pro-work,” “pro-families” and “pro-community” agenda. And, by the way, solve COVID, pass the infrastructure and budget legislation before Congress that truly helps people — and show ourselves to be the party “that gets the job done.”

If we organize around these messages and go after voters with sophisticated targeting, starting early, and “go back to the future” with person-to-person and door-to-door engagement, we might find ourselves maintaining the majority. This means real political money for rural areas, tracking our base, keeping a focus on less-likely voters and convincing them of what is at stake in 2022 and, yes, not wasting so much on expensive and less impactful TV ads.

Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie….Whatever Happened to the Republican Party

A new era for America’s children?

By Peter Fenn, opinion contributor The Hill 3/20/2021

President Biden has signed into law a $1.9 trillion dollar relief plan that many had thought impossible just months ago.

Despite Republican Congressional opposition, Biden successfully ushered in the popular acceptance of a new role for government, overturning a more than 40-year trend in government bashing. The American Rescue Plan, widely supported across the country, certainly contrasts with President Reagan’s Inaugural line, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem.”

From FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s through the 1960s, there was widespread acceptance that the federal government needed to step up to the plate when the public’s health, safety and economic well-being were in peril. Now, it may be possible to create a national consensus for key priorities.

There has been a lot of talk about infrastructure for a dozen years — but no action. Same is true for Social Security and Medicare reform, overhaul of our education system, immigration reform, climate change and a host of other problems that won’t disappear with benign neglect.

Political polarization, obstructionism, failure to compromise have all been the order of the day.

There is one area, however, that may provide common ground for those of different parties and political persuasions: protecting our children. There has been widespread agreement in the need for child tax credits, and ever since the George W. Bush administration up until the Biden relief bill, we have seen Democrats and Republicans get on board. Conservatives such as Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and lately Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have worked on legislation.

There are a whole host of issues surrounding the welfare of children that are becoming top of mind, especially during the pandemic. In addition to temporarily cutting child poverty in half with the latest $1.9 trillion relief package, efforts to ensure affordable child care, expand Head Start and early childhood education, provide health care and expand nutrition programs should be addressed as soon as possible.

One idea to highlight the focus on children, suggested by my colleague Andrew Yarrow, is the reinstitution of the White House Conference on Children. First initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 to promote a “high standard of child protection by the national government,” these conferences were held every ten years, often with delegations from around the world.

The last conference was held in 1971, when Richard Nixon was President, to examine health care, day care, early childhood education and attacking racism. Interesting how relevant those topics are still.

There are 74 million children in the United States today. Of those, nearly 11 million are poor, about 1 in 7.

Over the five decades since 1971, we have moved many millions of seniors out of poverty; now it is time we did the same for children and struggling families.

The American Rescue Plan is a start, but many of the parts of that bill, including tax credits, are only temporary to bridge the gap caused by the pandemic.

It is time to consider re-establishing a White House Conference on Children, with the full backing and endorsement of Republicans and Democrats alike. It could have co-chairs from both parties and an equal membership of party leaders, along with experts on the issues confronting our children. We may not be able to achieve immediate agreement on some of the other tough problems we face, but this should be something we can all agree on: the health and welfare of our kids.

Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.

Am I Racist? — The Hill


Am I racist?

Am I racist?
© Getty Images

Like many liberal white Americans — indeed, many Americans period — I’m reconsidering things. Am I racist, do I not get it as a privileged white guy?

After all, at the age of 15, I was on the mall in August of 1963 for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. I traded my “JFK in ’64” campaign button for an NAACP hat.

When we first moved to Washington in 1961, we ignored a neighbor’s advice not to go to the public pool at Glen Echo Park that had just been integrated; coming from up north, we didn’t understand what the problem was. I fought back against a junior high classmate who maintained that science showed that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites.

My father was director of personnel in the Kennedy White House and actively recruited African Americans for top-level administration jobs.  He and others, including Robert Kennedy, were offered memberships in exclusive clubs that did not admit blacks and, instead, formed the Federal City Club, which did.

When I was a student in the late 1960s and had Hubert Humphrey as a professor at Macalester College, I participated with him and many others in demonstrations for fair housing in the Twin Cities of St Paul and Minneapolis.

My eventual boss in the Senate, Frank Church (D-Idaho), had helped integrate the local Kenwood Golf Club in the 1960s by filing a lawsuit; he had helped secure passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill in the Senate earlier in his career. He didn’t do these things because there was a large African American constituency in Idaho to represent, but because it was the right thing to do.

As a political consultant, I worked for, and learned from, the Chair of the D.C. City Council, civil rights icon John Wilson. One of my early clients was Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), now the Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and the first African American to serve Virginia in Congress since Reconstruction.

All my life I have supported civil rights. All my life I have recognized the desperate need for equality of opportunity in education, in jobs, in housing, in access to economic success. I am a liberal Democrat, after all.

But after the recent events in Minnesota and around the country, and what I have seen over many decades, I know that is not enough. I have not done enough, felt enough, confronted enough the advantages that I enjoyed from having been born white and in more privileged, better-connected circumstances than most Americans.

Yes, so-called good, decent, educated white people like me know the history of slavery, of the Civil War, the rise of the KKK, separate but equal, the Tulsa riots, the Brown decision, racist covenants, voter suppression, and discrimination that has kept blacks out of the economy, as well as police brutality. We know that DWB, driving while black, is really LWB, living while black. We know. Our brains know. Our hearts know, too.

But does this absolve us of our racism? The noted young author of the best-selling book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” Ibram X. Kendi, maintains that just saying you are “not racist” doesn’t cut it. He holds that this is an in between, safe space that does not confront the issue positions you take, your activism (or lack of it) and your overall attitudes.

“The heartbeat of racism is denial,” he writes. “The heartbeat of antiracist is confession… Only racists shy away from the R-word.”

Here is what we also don’t get. We don’t get outside our bubble. We don’t deal with our fear when we are the only white person on the subway, on the street late at night, being watched by someone who is not “one of us.”

We also don’t get, as James Baldwin put it, that “white is a metaphor for power.” We are very happy to keep the power, to raise our children in privilege and to live in our neighborhoods with black friends and work alongside “minority” co-workers. We are comfortable. Comfortable with our whiteness and our situation. Because, ultimately, we feel we have the power. We may feel that pang of fear when we are outside our bubble, but we are the ones who are still in control.

If you are black or Hispanic or Asian, you feel that loss of power every day. In a pandemic, as you lose your job and income and can’t pay the rent, and when you watch once again a victim like George Floyd murdered, you can’t breathe either. You are sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Over my lifetime I have not done enough to change that long arc of history that is supposed to bend toward justice. This is not liberal guilt talking; this is a reality that defines white America of all political stripes.

Raul Peck, the filmmaker who created the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” about James Baldwin, said “We don’t have two different histories; they’re the same. Each of us, each nation, each individual, each race and each gender has a role in this history and we need to confront it.”

Baldwin himself wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It is long past time for all of us to confront the racism that engulfs us, that defines some of us and misguides some others, but deeply affects us all, to greater or lesser degrees. It is long past time to change who we are and to act on it.

Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.

Donald Trump: The TV Boomer President. The Hill Newspaper. 5/2/20

Donald Trump: The Boomer TV president

Shortly after he was reelected president in 2012, Barack Obama had a small group of Democratic operatives in to the Roosevelt Room to thank us. We had provided some counsel and had appeared regularly on cable TV news to boost his campaign. After he expressed his appreciation, he admitted that he didn’t watch that much of the “talking head” shows and might not be seeing us on TV in the future. I replied: “Not unless we are on ESPN,” which drew a laugh from the president, who was known to check in on sports reports at the end of a long day.

What a change to Donald Trump. With him, it is all about TV.

By all accounts since the start of his presidency Trump has spent most of his mornings watching TV news and later into the evening. This, according to the New York Times, is especially true during the pandemic. Trump awakes early and watches cable news (usually a heavy dose of FOX) until coming down to work around noon. Previous reports from The Hill and other sources indicate Trump consumes up to eight hours of TV a day, and his leaked schedules show that 60 percent of his time is devoted to “executive time” — read: no meetings or briefings or scheduled calls.

Even Trump’s former Press Secretary Sarah Sanders responded that Trump “has a different leadership style than his predecessors.” That is putting it mildly. Of course, many of his tweets are blasted out during his “executive time,” responding to what he has seen on television. As many have said, that seems to be his governing style.

Most presidents read briefing memos, read intelligence reports, read history, heck, even read books. But Donald Trump likes his TV time. There is little indication that he reads much at all and certainly doesn’t seem to take a daily briefing book of the next day’s activities home to the executive mansion at night after work as most modern presidents have done.

I have had a theory for some time that baby boomers, as the first generation to grow up with television in the ‘50s and ‘60s, have a peculiar approach to politics. We consumed a rather large amount of traditional half-hour and some hour-long shows. No cable. No internet. No social media. Just ABC, CBS and NBC.

What we saw when we watched Lassie, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, Bonanza etc., was a very simple formula: The main characters were introduced in the first 5-10 minutes, the problem/dilemma was laid out, and the main characters set out to solve the problem and tidy everything up before the hour or half hour was done. Actually, with advertising, it took 24 minutes, or 48 minutes for an hour-long program, to make everything right.

The effect of this early period of television on most of us growing up in post-World War II America was to convince us that problems were easy to solve, that our lives were pretty simple, and that life really was Ozzie and Harriet.

Politicians began to fit in to that television modus operandi and make promises that emphasized how they could easily and simply solve our problems. Pass some laws, and the problem of civil rights would be solved; take on the Communists in Vietnam, and the dominoes would not fall in Southeast Asia; declare a War on Poverty, and it would end.

Donald Trump seems to buy into the simplicity of what he sees on television, just as he probably did growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He is now an addict to the cable news shows and their short sound bites — and he refuses to consider nuance and complexity and fact-based analysis. Why else would he suggest magic cures like hydroxychloroquine, injecting or ingesting disinfectant or that Covid-19 would just miraculously go away? Why would he say after one meeting that he had fallen in love with Kim Jung Un? Why would he agree with Vladimir Putin that Russia didn’t interfere in our elections when his entire intelligence community said otherwise?

For Donald Trump it has always been about television — from his days as a New York celebrity to his 14 seasons on The Apprentice to the daily briefings on the coronavirus and the attack game he plays with the press. It is all about the cameras and the rallies and the insatiable appetite he has for being a TV personality. He learned it as a boomer consumer of television growing up, and sadly, it is all he knows.

Many of us who hardly watched an episode of The Apprentice over all those years didn’t comprehend the impact of television on Trump’s rise. Our mistake. Now many realize that what was a big part of his political persona is coming back to haunt him.

At the end of the day, the emperor has no clothes. P. T. Barnum has nothing to sell.

It is not all about TV. It is about substance. It is about governing. It is about empathy for others. It is about more than manufactured enemies and casting blame and baseless attacks. At the end of the day, it is about choosing a leader who truly leads rather than just playing one on TV.

Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.

Note to Candidates(especially Donald Trump): Cancel your Rallies!

Note to candidates (especially Donald Trump): Cancel your rallies!

PETER FENN 4/1/2020

Hello? Earth calling Donald TrumpBernie Sanders and Joe Biden. It is time to cancel your political rallies for the foreseeable future. Especially you, Mr. Trump.

After playing golf this past Saturday and Sunday and going to political rallies and fundraisers, have you considered that might not exactly sit well with a worried nation? You are the President of the United States — You should act like it.

And about wearing that red Keep America Great hat on your visit to the Center for Disease Control, rethink that. This is not a PR crisis, it’s a health crisis. It’s simply not a campaign event.

As for the general optics of large public rallies with thousands of people crammed into stadiums and standing cheek to jowl behind the candidates —  regardless of party, it’s not good. I know political candidates love that visual of the cheering throng all lined up with their signs and colorful tee shirts, inches from each other, but really… Think about it. Meetings large and small — gatherings like South by Southwest and large trade shows — all have been canceled. People are scared to travel or go to church or to the mall. It seems tone deaf for candidates to continue to invite people into situations that could prove physically dangerous, even fatal.

Both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) canceled their election night rallies on Tuesday, after Ohio’s Republican Governor Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency and urged people not to hold large events. Biden announced that a rally scheduled for Thursday in Tampa would also be canceled and that he would give a speech on the coronavirus crisis.

But not Donald Trump. Instead, he announced — just hours after Biden and Sanders canceled their rallies — a “Catholics for Trump” rally in Milwaukee, Wis., on March 19.

What is it that Trump doesn’t understand? He apparently is planning to attend the Republican Jewish Congress in Las Vegas on Friday to speak at a political rally. Instead of working on the coronavirus crisis?

CNN reports that Rush Limbaugh has accused Democrats of wanting Trump to stop holding rallies “not because of public safety, not because of public health” but to hurt the president. And this guy was given the Medal of Freedom.

Democrats should take the lead in canceling big rallies and structuring different events that show their concern for the issues confronting the country. Putting together more controlled discussions with smaller groups, people who are not sick, who are not jammed together, would be smart.

This is now a matter of leadership and common sense.

Big boisterous rallies with cheering crowds aren’t conveying a helpful message. Candidates should carefully consider whether viewers and voters think such rallies at this point are smart or whether — as is more likely — that they reveal candidates and their advisors to be woefully out of touch.

Trump can’t seem to get out of the box that “everything is about him,” and he loves his rallies. But this one isn’t about him. It’s about the country, its safety and its future.

So, let’s get with the program and cease and desist.

Stop organizing huge public events that may prove dangerous to the lives of those who attend. Let’s show that this is about the people of this country, not about some political visual.

Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.

Are The Democrats Jumping Off The Cliff? — The Hill Newspaper 8/8/2019

Are the Democrats jumping off the cliff?

The Democratic debates have been the political version of “The Bachelorette” — and just as painful to watch.

Put aside the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) format CNN in particular adopted of sensational voiceovers, over-the-top music, videos and treating it all like a caged match, the gotcha-questioning is designed not to truly explore issues but to drive a wedge between the candidates in the most trivial of ways.

Even more disturbing is how the candidates have taken the bait and gone so far as to criticize and condemn President Barack Obama, a man with a popularity rating greater than 90 per cent among Democrats in virtually all polls. Why in God’s name would these candidates, no matter how liberal, decide it was wise to rip into the former president?

It also surprises me that the DNC would structure these debates to ensure that internecine warfare comes to the forefront, starting in July and lasting all the way until the Iowa caucuses.  Sure, the networks want gladiator TV and the ratings that go along with it so they can sell advertising. After all, Trump made millions for them in the last election with his rantings and ravings and ratings. But for the DNC to structure so many debates, with so many candidates, guaranteeing so much infighting, was a mistake.

Democrats have taken their focus off the devastating possibility that Donald Trump could win the next election. They have failed to make the concrete arguments about his policies, his performance and his outright destruction of American values and ideals. Instead, they have set their sights on each other. Establishing differences, yes, but creating made-for-TV ads for the opposition, not a good idea!

Plus, setting up the possibility of an easy message comparison is not smart. I’ve been doing political consulting for over 30 years, and I can tell you that if the 2020 campaign is viewed as Freedom vs Socialism, we Democrats are in deep trouble. Furthermore, giveaways vs personal responsibility is not a winning argument either.

We are in danger of falling into the following traps, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory:

  1. Health Care, prescription drugs, the Affordable Care Act and the public option are winners for Democrats — but abolishing private insurance plans is NOT.
  2. The Trump-McConnell Tax Bill giving 83 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent is a loser for Republicans; a fair tax system that changes that and makes the very wealthy pay more is a winner for Democrats — but raising taxes on the middle class to pay for a myriad of programs is NOT.
  3. College loan reform is a winner for Democrats — but forgiving $1.5 trillion in debt, particularly for the wealthy, is NOT.
  4. Support for funding for college and trade school, like the Obama plan, is a winner for Democrats — but free college for all is NOT.
  5. Better pay for teachers and more support for public schools is a winner for Democrats — but a federal raise of $13,500 for every teacher, costing $315 billion (the Kamala Harris plan) is NOT.
  6. Comprehensive immigration reform, stopping the separation of families at the border, and expanding asylum programs is a winner for Democrats — but decriminalizing immigration and promising free health care is NOT.

It is so important for Democrats to focus on pragmatic, rational solutions that resonate with the American people, not box ourselves in to proposals that we know will be rejected in November of 2020. We cannot play into Donald Trump’s hands.

Democrats must be the party of the $15 an hour minimum wage, the party that protects Social Security and Medicare, the party that ensures civil rights for all Americans and that invests in 21st century infrastructure.

Think about it: Trump and the Republicans’ radical, unreasonable and venomous policies on a woman’s right to choose, stronger gun laws, global warming, income inequality, and race and hate and division and fear — that is not where the American people are — Democrats offer a clear alternative. These provide a progressive path to victory.

And how about foreign affairs: coddling tyrants and dictators while dissing our allies, a truly harmful trade policy, chaos abroad and chaos in our defense and foreign policy establishment at home — Trump has no clue what he is doing.

So, why should Democrats nominate a candidate who offers proposals that are anathema to the majority of American voters? Why propose an agenda that has no chance of passing and will not lead to Democrats expanding their majority in the House and, hopefully, taking back the Senate, and sending Mitch McConnell packing?

From now on, these debates had better highlight the differences and the stakes with Trump, not become a circular firing squad that nominates the candidate least likely to win a general election. Democrats have a real chance to turn America around. Let’s not blow it.

Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.