News & Politics

Paul Begala to Dems: Please Stop Calling Trump Crazy and Bigoted

In a new book, the political strategist says what he got wrong about 2016—and how Democrats should frame the pandemic now.

Few in American politics are more ubiquitous than Paul Begala, the longtime campaign strategist who has helped engineer victories for Democrats from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama. And few had more to gain from a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016: It was no coincidence that the Clinton campaign strategy closely resembled that of Begala, who designed TV and radio ads pummeling Trump for his offensive commentary about women, minorities, and the disabled.

Begala now says he regrets making that ad, and scores more like it. In a new book, You’re Fired!, out today from Simon & Schuster, Begala wants to build a political argument that he believes is most effective to defeat Trump in November. But first he needs to reckon with what he got wrong the last time. For this, Begala coins a term, the “Trump Trap”: the impulse among Democrats, ensnaring activists and top strategists alike, to highlight Trump’s mental instability, vacuity, and psychobabble. However natural that impulse is, Begala argues, it prevents voters from hearing the case for bread-and-butter Democratic ideas, from healthcare to the economy to the pandemic—and thus fashions Trump’s behavior into a media Charybdis from which no Democratic message ever returns.

But a newer generation of Democratic faithful might disagree, and tend to argue that Trump’s words—especially his racism—should play a larger role in the left’s strategy. In a conversation edited for length and clarity, Begala spoke to Washingtonian about his fears for Election Day, the right and wrong ways to frame the pandemic, and what a post-Biden coalition might look like for Democrats.

Let’s start with the polls, which seem spectacularly good for Biden. It’s August. How much do you trust the polls to hold?

Everything in life reverts to the mean over time. But I don’t know what that time is. The mean with Trump has been very solid at 43 [approval], but now he’s at 38. It may be that the mean is resetting. I tend to believe it is.

And it’s because Covid really throws into stark relief just how awful a President Trump is. I think it negates his two greatest strengths. First is that, for many of his followers, Trump has redefined politics as spectacle. The same way that he would launch a Twitter war with Rosie O’Donnell or Colin Kaepernick. The problem is that politics can’t be spectacle when you’ve got 144,000 people dying—when you have the equivalent of a major plane crash every sing day.

Number two, his other great strength is that when he’s in trouble, he finds a way to divert the cameras. Diversion is his superpower, and he uses division as the means of diversion. And that has failed him because you can’t turn away from 144,000 dead and 4 million infected.

So that’s a long way of saying, we may be seeing a complete reset, that he may not be able to recover from this, because the tools he’s used to maintain his 43 percent are not working. By the way, 43 is not good enough to win. So even 43, reverting to the mean, is a loss for him in the election.

What keeps you awake at night, then?

Oh, a lot. A lot. It begins with voter suppression. After Chief Justice Roberts gutted the Voting Rights Act, for which John Lewis bled, we’ve seen an assault on voting rights, particularly in communities of color. So I think you’re going to see a lot of voter suppression, purging, manipulating access to polling places. That’s number one.

Number two, foreign intervention has never stopped. The Russians invaded and they’ve never been turned back. If you really want to lose sleep, read the chapter about “deep fake” videos. The Russian capacity to manufacture fraudulent “evidence” against Joe Biden is a lot greater than it was four year ago. And I’m quite sure they’re going to do it. This will be a character test for those in the media, as well as a competency test of the Biden campaign.

Your book centers on the “Trump Trap.” What is that?

It’s being diverted away form the lives of voters and fixating only on the life of Donald J. Trump. This is every narcissist’s dream, to have people only talking about him. And [in 2016] I fell into that. I wasn’t alone, but I’m responsible for my own conduct.

The person who I think models the best behavior of avoiding the Trump Trap is Brian Schatz. I just think everyone should follow Senator Schatz on Twitter. What I’m trying to do is be like Brian Schatz.

Did you ever see the movie City Slickers? Jack Palance is the cowboy, and he’s going to tell Billy Crystal the secret of life. At the end of movie, he holds one index finger up and says, “The main thing is to always keep the main thing the main thing.” Jack Palance would be a great political strategist, because the main thing in a democracy ought to be the lives of the people of the country. And when I got diverted into simply gasping and clutching at my pearls at Trump’s sewer-level character, I didn’t connect it up to how that would affect the lives of the farm family in Wisconsin or laid-off factory workers in Michigan or an office worker in Pennsylvania.

What does avoiding the Trump Trap look like in the context of the pandemic? What are the arguments about voters’ lives Democrats might otherwise avoid if they got too fixated on Trump?

It begins with healthcare, even before the pandemic. Nancy Pelosi refocused our party on healthcare and won the biggest landslide Democrats have won in a midterm since Watergate. She flipped 41 red districts to blue. Astonishing success. And she did it by focusing on healthcare, not on Trump. None of those 41 campaigned on impeaching Trump. So even before the Covid pandemic, healthcare was the most important issue, and now it’s multiple times more important.

Second, things were not great before the crash at all. I think Dems need to prosecute that case. Trump spend $2 trillion–plus of our money on tax cuts for corporate America. Before the tax cuts, corporate profits were at record high. So of all the crises facing America, corporate profits, or modernizing the tax code, was not at the top of my list. I would have put healthcare, opioids, farm bankruptcies, education, the skills gap, racial justice, the fact that the climate is on fire—I would put about 50 things ahead of that. I think Democrats need to prosecute that case.

And the wrong way to litigate the pandemic is . . . what? Being caught up “injecting disinfectant” and “person, woman, man, camera, TV”?

Exactly. I saw a story [about] Starr County, Texas, still the poorest county in America. A great many people have no running water or electricity. And when the pandemic was coming, the local officials there, knowing they were impoverished, knowing their hospital had just a very few beds, they clamped down immediately: stay-at-home orders, mask orders. And they kept the pandemic from coming into their county! Zero cases.

The governor then overruled local officials, mandated that businesses open, mandated that you couldn’t force people to wear masks. [Now] the hospital is so overwhelmed there is literally a death panel of county officials, that literally tell you to go home and die: We can’t save your life , go home with your loved ones and die.

So that’s what we ought bet talking about. And it’s because the governor of Texas followed Trump’s lead, not [Anthony] Fauci’s. The county judge did his job. But egged on by Trump, Governor Abbott overruled him. People died. That, to me, is the ultimate expression of why elections matter and why we shouldn’t only talk about “Oh, Trump sweated his makeup off in the interview with Chris Wallace.”

Should Democrats scream bloody murder? Or would that backfire? If the shoe were on the other foot and Clinton were President, I sense Republicans would have no problem saying Hillary Clinton personally killed 150,000 Americans.

You don’t ever want to politicize this. But you do want to hold [Trump] responsible. Nobody blames Trump for the virus. They blame him for the response. The response has been catastrophic. China has, what, four times our population and fewer deaths; India has roughly four times our population and has vastly fewer deaths. And we are the wealthiest country in the world, with the greatest medical care and the best public-health infrastructure in the world.

Yet it’s the failure of leadership that caused this. That’s all you have to say. State the facts when you walk people through. He vouched for the Chinese Communist Party’s lies. He approved a shipment of 17 tons of our PPE from America to China. Then he started lying to the American people that number of cases would go to zero, that it would disappear by Easter. You just walk people through what he did failed to do. That’s the damning indictment. I don’t think you have to gild the lily at all.

Your former group, American Bridge, is sending videographers into states that Trump won, filming testimonials of voters. What’s the strategy behind that?

What they’ve done is smart. Basically, they’ve gone into “Obama-Trump” counties—in Western Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin—and they just talk to people. They literally [scan] letters to the editor: Someone writes a letter saying, “I was all for Trump, but my farm just went bankrupt because of his stupid trade policy.” Hey, can we interview you?

They have hundreds, maybe thousands, of testimonials banked. And they’re running ads now. I think it’s having a great effect. It turns out that giving people a voice is a lot better way to win them over than screaming at them and telling them they’re racist.

Let me ask you about that. Because you’re part of a strategic vanguard that frankly takes a very different view from a younger, more progressive generation of activists and strategists for whom calling racism “racism”—doing it regularly and loudly—seems elemental to their approach to politics. And saying that we should be more comfortable, in other words, about calling things racist. You saw this argument play out during impeachment, where progressives generally wanted far broader articles of impeachment against Trump, including his open racism.

But the fascinating question is whether the Democratic Party can make that new posture work electorally and sustain it into the future. And we won’t know that until Democrats start winning or losing elections. ASo Joe Biden, it seems, has actually obscured the answer, or delayed the answer, about the party’s future. Because he’s probably the last man in America who has a credible claim to the white working class and the Obama generation, simultaneously. After him, there’s no one.

Do you buy that? And what will the jostling for the post-Biden party look like?

That’s a great question, and the truth is we don’t know. In part, it’s because of Trump’s failure, and in part it’s because of the remarkable breadth of Joe’s appeal. You’re looking now at a Democratic tent that goes all the way from four-star generals to Black Lives Matter. That’s a swing, man. That’s a vast spectrum.

Taken together, it’s a high-class problem. It’s a challenge of leadership. I watched Barack  Obama hold a broad coalition together. Before him, Bill Clinton did. That’s why I think Democrats make better Presidents, because you have to unite a broad, diverse party. Republicans have to unite the white and the translucent—the old, the dying, and the dead. They have a simpler coalition. The problem is it’s self-limiting.

Right, but even self-limiting, there’s the question of whether it wins. You have analysts like David Shor, who thinks the evidence is quite strong that racial grievance was actually a motivating factor for many white voters who went for Trump.

On the question of race, I do accept that that, I do. As a strategist, it’s kind of a conversation killer. I have converted very few people by saying, “Shut up, racist.” I believe that people respond to leadership and to cues. And I saw this, when Barack Obama Hussein stood in Manassas, Virginia, where the first battle of the Civil War was fought, and drew 90,000 people before the 2016 election. They responded to his call for unity, his rejection of racism. And then some of them—some of them!—turned and responded to Trump’s call for racism.

Now how should Democrats respond? I think it’s by trying to heal the ties that bind. I’m not foolish. I grew up in a small town in Texas. I know racism, I’ve seen it. At the same time, I caution people who fall for the fallacy of composition: All racists are Trump supporters, but not all Trump supporters are racist. Mr. Lewis was my hero—John Lewis. And this happened more than once: Klansman would come up to him and [say], “I was one of the people who beat you.” And they would weep and beg for forgiveness. And he would [grant] forgiveness. If he can do that—and by the way, if that Klansman can repent, and he’s a whole lot worse than someone who throws out the N-word and votes for Donald Trump. So I believe that we all have the capacity to turn against each other, and also the capacity for redemption. If anything, John Lewis’s life taught me that.

So I think Democrats could still keep trying to build Mr. Lewis’s “Beloved Community.” It sounds almost Pollyannaish. It’s also a very effective political strategy. A lot of those Trump voters voted for Obama. But I don’t think you get them back by insulting them and calling them racist. You tell them, which I think is the truth, that you’ve been betrayed, you’ve been misled, you’ve been ripped off. And we’re here to fight for you.

Let’s get back to the presidential race. A unity task force between Biden and Bernie Sanders has been turning out big-ticket policy plans for the Biden campaign. Are you surprised how successful that collaboration has been?

Yes. And as someone from the more moderate wing, let me take my hat off to the left. They have been admirable, patriotic. There are real differences between the Bernie wing and the Biden wing, but they have been phenomenal in working together.

I saw this in Virginia with Ralph Northam, a moderate running for governor. He was challenged from the left by Tom Perriello, who ran all-out as the left candidate, very much in the Bernie mode. Northam won the primary pretty decisively. And Perriello busted his ass and he went [into] towns of 4,000 people [campaigning for Northam]. The guy worked every bit as hard as the candidate himself. Now Northam, the moderate, is the most progressive governor in Virginia history, bar none. He’s the governor who’s tearing down the statue of Robert E. Lee. He’s the governor who’s passed the single most progressive slate of legislation, from gun safety to LGTBQ rights to women’s rights.

So the left worked in tandem with the center. And they’re being rewarded, they’re getting the policies they would have wanted. And I’m watching this now on a national level, where a great many of the people who are most ardently for Sanders are campaigning just as hard for Joe, as if Bernie had been the nominee. And that is to be admired, and rewarded.

Some liberals are arguing that House and Senate Democrats should be pressured to give a public commitment—this election year—that they will investigate Trump after he leaves office. Is that a good idea?

I don’t think there needs to be any pressure. There will be a reckoning. I like the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But you have to clean up this mess. You have to purge our government of all the lobbyists and special interests that are corrupting it. You have to. That’s what the country is demanding.

I think that Biden’s vast experience is going to be enormously helpful here. Because, first off, I think all the talent in the world is going to be flocking to him. I think you have to do that [in order to] continue to fight the pandemic and the depression. I think he has the capacity to do that. He will have less need for on-the-job training than any President since the last Vice President.

But come 2021, any investigation of Trump won’t be politically costless for Democrats.

That’s right. But the truth will out. There will be shelves of books, all with the title I Tried to Warn Him. Every one of those knuckleheads and mediocrities is going to write a book saying, “It wasn’t me! I was trying to warn him! I was Anonymous!” It’s going to be both farcical and tragic.

But let them. I want people to be held to account—the criminality, the corruption, rivaled only by the incompetence. And again, I think this is something often I have missed in my commentary. I get distracted by Trump’s personal piggish behavior, and it distracts me from his incompetence, and to the consequences of it.

We ought to keep the main thing the main thing. And the corruption and the incompetence both, and the dishonesty, have had real-world consequences that cannot be ignored. It is simply true that people have died that didn’t need to die, that people have had their lives shattered, their job ruined, their business bankrupted, their homes soon will be taken away. And so there has to be a reckoning.

Benjamin Wofford
Staff Writer

Benjamin Wofford is a contributing editor at Washingtonian.