Campaign advisers dish out many rules to their candidates.
How to dress. How to talk. How to identify hot-button issues. When to issue statements and what words to use. When to rush to the camera or microphone and when to disappear.
As I tell prospective candidates in my annual talk at the San Joaquin Political Academy, they are all good rules.
Until they don’t work anymore.
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President Donald Trump is the most recent example of a successful candidate who seemingly broke all the rules. Candidates with immense star power and the ability to connect with people can pretty much campaign as they please.
We saw that in Fresno when actor Alan Autry seemingly came out of nowhere and crushed Dan Whitehurst, the favored candidate of our city’s elites and himself a former political wunderkind, in the 2000 mayoral race.
It mattered not that former Mayor Whitehurst was far more qualified. Indeed, in the final weeks of the campaign, Whitehurst and those running his campaign recognized that he stood little chance against Autry. The man best known for being police Capt. Bubba Skinner on the television series “In the Heat of the Night” won over voters with his self-effacing humor, good manners and a promise of bringing big bold change to Fresno.
Memory of the rapid ascensions of Autry and celluloid action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger to the California governorship is why I wasn’t surprised by Trump’s victory.
But winning an election is easier than governing, as I am sure both Autry and Schwarzenegger would admit. American-style government, whether it be at the local, state or federal level, comes with checks and balances.
In addition, even for those politicians who rise to prominence by seemingly breaking all the conventional rules, there comes a time when the unique style that worked for them doesn’t work anymore.
Some of their promises go unfulfilled or prove to be the wrong prescription for the problem. Their charisma wears thin. Their act goes stale.
Time to govern
My hope for Trump is that he realizes this sooner rather than later and throttles back the theatrics, the bluster and the Twitter attacks and focuses on working with Congress to really improve people’s lives.
Trump’s chief adviser, Stephen Bannon, might well have convinced Trump that his Electoral College victory was a mandate to blow up the government.
I disagree. Trump connected with voters tired of the Clinton and Bush dynasties and a rigid political correctness that made people afraid to talk about anything meaningful. He connected, too, with voters reeling from the rapid changes and loss of traditional American jobs brought on by our technology-based, global economy.
Fear is what Bannon sells. In the best-case scenario, Trump the businessman wakes up one morning next week and realizes that he never made a cent peddling fear or retreating to the past.
His properties are aspirational. The best hotels. The best golf courses. Trump then pivots to unleashing America’s immense talent and pushing our country ahead.
Clean up the act
To make that pivot, he will have to ditch Bannon and the other fearmongers in his administration. And he will have to do something that is difficult for us all: analyze why we act the way we do.
Trump is always trying to prove his manhood and how tough he is. Perhaps daughter Ivanka will tell him: Cut it out. You are the president, for heaven’s sake.
If Trump pivots, he – and we – might be amazed at the results.
America is overregulated. It badly needs large investments in infrastructure. The tax system is a mess, and so is the immigration system. We need an overhaul of foreign policy that protects Americans from terrorism and builds strong allegiances with countries around the world. And we need to figure out how to keep families in large urban cities safe without trampling on their constitutional rights.
You can add many other needs to the list. I won’t go on.
The point is, Trump is our president. I want him to succeed. To do that, he must act like the shrewd CEO he claims to be and leave behind much of what propelled him to the White House.
Unless he is completely delusional, Trump has to know that he will be judged on his results and that Americans won’t accept “alternative” results – regardless of how many times he or his surrogates paint him as a victim of the left, the media or God knows who or what else.
The buck, after all, stops at the president’s desk. Thank you, Harry Truman, for that.
If Trump doesn’t pivot, he will go down as one of America’s greatest failed experiments.
Understand: American populists and billionaires come and go. What endures are the high ideals that have distinguished these United States from the start. Trump must start embracing them.