Mark McKinnon: Homegrown Kingmaker on Obama v. Romney (Part 1)
Former Austin-based political consultant Mark McKinnon is one of those people who qualifies as “the smartest guy in the room.” Best known as chief media advisor for both of George W. Bush's successful runs for president, McKinnon began political life working media campaigns for Texas Democrats.
Raised in Colorado, McKinnon tried to establish himself as a songwriter in Nashville under the tutelage of Kris Kristofferson before landing in Austin and working on his first political campaign: Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s 1984 run for the Texas Senate. That led him to winning campaign media work for such Democrats as Mark White, Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson and Bob Lanier. On meeting and becoming friends with George W. Bush, McKinnon switched party affiliations, to the consternation of local Democratic pols. More recent clients include John McCain (whose 2008 campaign he left because McKinnon stated he didn't want to oppose Barack Obama), Lance Armstrong and Bono.
McKinnon is currently a Resident Fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, writes weekly columns for The Daily Beast and the London Telegraph, and is the founder of No Labels, an organization that seeks to encourage national bipartisan legislative efforts to “stop fighting, start fixing.”
The Austin Post spoke with McKinnon on Friday (11/2) about the current election, his career and his efforts to encourage nonpartisan problem-solving.
Austin Post: It’s Friday before Election Day. What’s your take on who will win the presidential race?
Mark McKinnnon: I think all the conventional wisdom suggests that Obama is gonna win, barring some sort of wave. [A Romney surge] could happen. There are some contra-indicators. Romney is winning independent voters and you rarely win the presidency without winning independents. And among those swing voters Romney is winning on the top issues: economy, jobs, taxes. But it’s hard to see Romney winning without winning Ohio. No Republican presidential winner has ever done that. So if that’s the case, we may look back and realize that this election was determined by one very specific issue, which was the auto bailout. Think about the move that Obama made, which was not an easy political decision at the time. And then how Romney sought an advantage at the time by writing an op-ed [“Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”], an op-ed I am sure he greatly regrets. But I think on the basis of that one op-ed, Romney may lose this election.
I say all that, and then I read Karl Rove’s editorial yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that you should take a look at, because Karl is still one of the smartest people in politics, and he makes a fairly convincing case that there are things going on in the Republican side that just aren’t being picked up.
Austin Post: It could come down to one candidate winning the popular vote and the other winning the Electoral College.
Mark McKinnnon: We could. And almost any way you cut it it’s not a particularly inspiring outcome. And it concerns me as someone who is more interested in good government that political victories and progress at this point in my life. I worry that the outcome will really not be a mandate for either one of them. That’s why I am doing a lot of work on this No Labels effort, which is where I am spending a lot of my time these days.
Austin Post: Heading into Tuesday can you identify one thing that each campaign has done quite successfully and one thing that has been a huge mistake or has backfired?
Mark McKinnnon: I think the Obama team did a pretty good job of looking at the winning 2004 campaign blueprint and executing it fairly well. They defined Romney early, they did a good job of strategically making the race a choice and not a referendum, which was the key.
I think that obviously the big mistake was a lack of preparation for that first debate.
Austin Post: Being a native of Colorado, what’s your thought on Al Gore’s theory that Obama didn’t have enough time to acclimatize to the thinner air in the Mile High City?
Mark McKinnnon: (laughs) Even if it were true, I would say that it was a lack of preparation as well. He should have gotten to Denver a day earlier. Either way it was a lack of preparation. But I understand that position having worked for an incumbent. I know how much he hated his first debate. Incumbent presidents have had everyone telling them yes for four years, and now they have to fight with somebody on a national stage and they are not happy warriors about that.
Austin Post: And for Romney, the most effective thing he’s done? And his biggest gaffe, mistake or poor act of planning?
Mark McKinnnon: I think the best thing he did was actually prepare for the debates and understand how important the debates would be. I’ve watched him over the years and it’s something that he has really worked on. He has put in the time and the effort to become one of the best debaters in politics. He’s very very good at it. He’s very skilled.
The problem with Romney has been that he’s a huge mystery to people like me – trying to figure out exactly who he is and what his core vision is. And here’s my theory: I think that Mitt Romney is at his heart a very decent and charitable person. And I think instinctively would govern the nation in the way he governed Massachusetts, much in the mold of his father. I think having lost the 2008 primaries, I think he’s a very transactional guy from his business experience and he saw where the Republican party had moved, and made some transactional decisions about how to run in the Republican primaries. It’s hard to argue that it wasn’t successful because it was. The problem is, in my view, the Republican primaries have shifted way too far to the right, require somebody to jump through hoops that drag them way too far to the right, which I think happened with Mitt Romney. And I think what Mitt Romney did was say and do all the things that he thought those constituencies in the primaries wanted to hear and didn’t modulate until only recently to give voters an idea of who he really is. I think had he done that earlier he’d be in much better shape.
Then ultimately and more broadly, I just think this election, to me – I have a distinct view that I don’t think reflects the view of others – I’m disappointed that [the candidates] haven’t made tougher harder choices and made clear the sacrifices that need to be made.
Austin Post: Yeah, but look what happened to Jimmy Carter when he did that….
Mark McKinnnon: Yeah, but I think the times require it. When Mitt Romney, at a time when it’s clear that we have to make budget sacrifices came out and said that he doesn’t think we need to cut the defense budget, I just went, come on! I think that’s ridiculous.
Austin Post: In 2010 you predicted that there would be a third-party presidential candidate in this cycle. That obviously didn’t happen. Is it still possible in 2016 and why?
Mark McKinnnon: Yeah, I really do and am surprised and disappointed that there wasn’t this time. The reason I think there will be is because if you look at the political environment and look at the lack of trust in the Democratic and Republican parties, it’s historic. I went back and looked at the last time that there was a very successful third party effort, which was Ross Perot’s bid in 1992, and people forget that for four months in that race he was beating George Bush and Bill Clinton. And, but for some kind of meltdowns, he could have been President of the United States. So I went back and looked at sort of the environmental and political numbers in 1992 to see what kind of parallels there were. The reality is that it’s a lot worse now, a lot worse now, than it was in 1992. So if it was conducive in 1992 and it’s a lot worse now, you’d think that the environment is even stronger now for an alternative candidacy.
This Americans Elect effort happened, which I thought was a really interesting experiment because the fundamental thing that they did was deal with the toughest issue for any third-party candidacy, which is the ballot access problem. They just took care of that so that you didn’t have to go out and pay $30 million or be rich to do it. Unfortunately they didn’t have any strong candidates step up for a lot of reasons. In part because you have an incumbent president who is fairly popular with his own party. I think this is more likely to happen when you don’t have an incumbent president and an open race like we will in 2016.
Continue to Part 2 of our interview, where McKinnon discusses his unique career working with both parties, speculates on a radical campaign approach that might work wonders, and offers observations on today’s college generation’s relationship with politics.
Photos: Top left courtesy of Mark McKinnon; lower right courtesy of Harvard University Institute of Politics.