Jul 19 • 43M

Any Given Tuesday, with Lis Smith

Pete Buttigieg's campaign communications director has a new book with advice for Democrats: 'Get out there!' Plus: Democrats' energy problem.

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Very Serious is a weekly conversation with top political commentators, columnists and policymakers, focused on how events in the news relate to major, long-standing controversies in politics, economics and culture. Host Josh Barro is joined by a rotating set of regular guests to work out the ideas behind the arguments on topics serious and not-so-serious. It’s a great conversation across ideological lines that will leave you entertained, enlightened, and maybe even persuaded.
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Dear readers,

If you work in political journalism, you will encounter two categories of political communications staffers: the ones who like reporters, and the ones who hate them.

There are good reasons why flacks might feel either way. Politicians and media outlets often share an interest in getting information out to the public, and flacks and reporters have to work together a lot, so they might as well try to make it pleasant. On the other hand, flacks and reporters often have very different objectives and ideas about what information should be out there, and how. Reporters can be biased, sensationalistic, inept, or lazy; flacks, by turn, can be rude, paranoid, dishonest, or lazy.

Obviously, as a journalist, I prefer working with the kinds of flacks who have broadly warm feelings toward the press and about press — who are chatty, make their bosses available, and welcome public attention — even if I understand, from an objective viewpoint, why the right strategy for a politician is sometimes to clam up and say as little as possible.

Lis Smith, most famous as communications director for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign,1 falls squarely in the open category. Her “more is more” instinct about engaging with the media isn’t necessarily right for every situation, but it was an essential component of the strategy to bring Mayor Pete out of nowhere and turn him into a major contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination — much to the irritation of various US senators he leapfrogged over in Iowa and other contests.

So it’s fitting that Lis has written an unusually revealing memoir, Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story, about her career in politics — highlights and lowlights of which include directing “rapid response” for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign and snaring Mitt Romney into a birth-control flip-flop in the process; having her offer to work in Bill de Blasio’s mayoral administration rescinded on the grounds that she was on the front page of the New York tabloids for dating Eliot Spitzer; advising Andrew Cuomo as he melted down; and the creation of the Pete phenomenon.

Lis and I talked about the Democratic Party’s recent messaging challenges with working-class voters, and I want to draw out one point we touched on, which I think gets missed in a lot of conversations about the Democratic Party alienating working-class voters by being “too woke.”

Yes, I think it’s important for Democrats to talk like normal people rather than liberal NGO drones — no “Latinx,” no “holding space,” etc. — and both Lis and I have harped on the party’s weird and unappealing abortion messaging, which threatens to squander the natural political advantage the party should have on the issue. But I think the number-one issue where the Democratic Party hurts itself politically by “centering” the values of liberal college-educated voters isn’t a social issue at all — it’s energy.

The ambivalence of liberals about whether they even want lower gasoline prices — and the steps the Biden administration has taken to discourage domestic oil production, for example by placing holds on oil and gas lease auctions — reflects the values of the highly educated, disproportionately affluent and educated demographic that dominates the Democratic Party’s staffers and donor base. Many of these people care a lot about carbon emissions and don’t care very much about whether gasoline is cheap, and that’s a real disconnect from lower- and middle-income voters across the ideological spectrum for whom cost of living is of paramount concern.

Unfortunately, this is a harder problem to solve than not saying “Latinx.”2 The policy concessions progressives would need to make on energy to stop weighing down the party are substantive and important.

I do think it is possible to thread a needle here — as Matt Yglesias notes today, an agenda of energy abundance could focus on investments in new zero-carbon technologies and the lifting of burdensome regulations. That could include making it easier to add geothermal electrical generation capacity or making it as easy to build interstate electrical transmission lines as it is to build pipelines. So it doesn’t have to be all about drilling. But this agenda wouldn't be everything the climate left wants, and it especially wouldn’t serve the quasi-religious purpose of much environmentalism.

A lot of progressives arrive at environmentalism not through cost-benefit analysis but through an essentially moral view that abundance — population growth, more energy, new homes — is itself harmful to the earth. There is an unbridgeable disconnect between that view — the philosophy that underlies the urge for “de-growth” — and the desire of most normal people to have a continually rising standard of living, with large cars and better appliances and air conditioning. And as shortages persist as a major theme in the world economy, this disconnect will become a larger and larger problem.

I think Democrats are used to the idea that difficult economic times will drive working-class voters into their arms by making them desirous of safety-net programs and of government interventions to stabilize the economy, as well as resentful of rich people who don’t pay enough taxes. This is true when unemployment is high. But an inflationary environment is likely to create more mass appeal for conservative ideas on the economy: that the government needs to get out of the way, allow for more capacity, and stop spending and regulating so much. “Drill, baby, drill” is a classic message of this genre.

Lis pointed out in our interview that Democrats do have a message on gas prices: They talk about price gouging, and more specifically about the ideas that gasoline prices have risen disproportionately to oil prices, that high oil and gas prices are helping Vladimir Putin geopolitically, and that energy companies should be less “greedy” and more patriotic, and cut prices.

“There's probably no better entity to pick fights with the oil companies; they poll about as well as big pharma,” she said. “And the Biden administration has been smart in doing some of that. The House Democrats have been smart in bringing up bills to reduce price gouging among the big oil companies, because that's something that they can run on in the midterms.”

Now, I am not impressed with this message. Oil prices are high because oil demand is outstripping supply, and gasoline prices have risen disproportionately to oil prices because refining capacity is constrained. In an environment of constrained supply, you either get higher prices (and, yes, higher profit margins) or you get shortages. You can’t just lecture companies into price cuts, and if you try to regulate them into cutting prices, you will either fail or, worse, you will succeed in pushing the retail price of gasoline below the market-clearing price, and thereby create shortages where stations are running out of gas (while also discouraging investments in expanding oil production and refining capacity).

All that said, gasoline prices happen to have have been falling for several weeks, which is good news, both economically and for Democrats’ political fortunes. Maybe Biden’s harangues of the oil companies will help him get some unwarranted credit for falling prices, just as he took an excessive share of the blame for rising prices. And higher interest rates may cause Republicans to fall into the political trap of seeking unpopular entitlement cuts to balance the budget. I do not think Democrats are in a hopeless position when trying to sell an economic agenda.

But I think Democrats generally overrate how much voters focus on what the government can do to help them economically and underrate how much they care about a well-functioning private sector with goods and services consistently available at reasonable prices. So Democrats will need find a broad way to talk about promoting abundance, a theme that comes naturally to Republicans.

On that note, I hope you enjoy the episode.


Click here for a transcript of this episode.

An excerpt from Any Given Tuesday published in Politico: My front-row seat to Andrew Cuomo’s collapse

Lis mentions this op-ed she wrote about abortion, published in the Washington Post in May: This is not the time to change how we talk about abortion

I’ve written about this as well:

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1

While my preference for Joe Biden in the 2020 primary is well known, I should note that my husband worked as a fundraising consultant to the Buttigieg campaign.

2

Not that many progressive organizations have managed to take even this little symbolic step to sound normal.