Q&A: Mark McKinnon

Co-founder of No Labels Mark McKinnon came to campus on Nov. 28 to discuss his career as a political adviser, television producer and newspaper columnist. McKinnon discussed the unusual nature of the 2016 election, among other topics, with The Mercury. Photo by Ankith Averineni | Mercury Staff.

Mark McKinnon is a political adviser, television producer and newspaper columnist who has worked in American politics for the last 30 years. He has served on several political campaigns and created and produced “The Circus,” a Showtime TV show. In 2010, McKinnon co-founded No Labels, a political organization devoted to bipartisan problem solving in the political process.

The Mercury had a chance with him to discuss the importance of working with the other side as he has popularized with his work in No Labels. McKinnon spoke about the rise of Donald Trump and how the political climate itself has changed in the country. 

When you founded No Labels in 2010, how did you know or predict the importance of bipartisanship cooperation in an increasingly polarized political environment?

Well, yes, we did know. The reason we formed the organization was because the co-founders of No Labels had worked in politics at a time when people did work together. I worked for George W. Bush when he was a Republican governor with Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and it was amazing how much bipartisan work they got accomplished. So the co-founders and I had lived in an environment where people worked together to solve problems and it worked because the parties worked together.

Experts have predicted the same legislative gridlock that Barack Obama experienced throughout his terms will happen in the Trump administration. How can No Labels work to make a genuine difference in this polarizing, “I’m not going to work with the other side” approach to politics?

Well, the first thing to say is we are getting results. We’ve brought Democrats and Republicans together who worked on producing ideas and legislation and to show that we can solve problems. No Labels is a facilitator. All members of Congress want to be able to go back to their constituency and say, “I got something done.” People are increasingly demanding that their representatives solve problems.

That’s what No Labels facilitates – the problem solving. And we do that a lot of ways. We bring people together, we try and create a voice that’s absent from the dialogue. We try and produce policy proposals like the 60 ideas and four goals that we’ve just produced. And importantly just facilitate bringing the parties together. Now we’ve got a six-year track record of doing that. At the end of the day I think the most important thing is, as I said, that people want to go back to their constituents and say they are producing results. And No Labels is a facilitator for problem solving.

In 1997, you said George Bush was “ahead of the Republican Party on many issues.” You said he was talking about typically Democrat issues. Was Donald Trump ahead of the Republican Party in similar ways by appealing to issues not addressed by the establishment?

Yeah, that’s where I think there’s a lot of potential for Donald Trump. Because he first of all comes from a world that demands problem solving and negotiation, that’s the world he lives in. He understands the art of the deal. He wrote a book about it. So I think he in many ways is post-ideological, post-partisan. He’s not a partisan ideologue or hasn’t been one all his life. I think the way the system had been working hasn’t been working.

And I think he’s taking a new approach with new constituencies. Donald Trump may be ahead of the Republican Party. He’s president now so he’s not only the head of the party but he’s ahead of the party as in he’s creating a new direction like George Bush did in the late ‘90s. He’s talking about compassionate conservatism. Trump is rewriting the vision of the Republican Party that includes infrastructure spending and renegotiating trade deals. That’s all completely new for the Republican Party, and he’s taking the party in a new direction.

You highlighted the fact that Trump’s narrative-based approach to campaigning in your column in The Daily Beast starkly contrasts Hillary Clinton’s. The Tyndall Report said in 2016, the three big networks dedicated only 32 minutes to policy coverage on their evening newscasts, a tremendous drop from previous years. How much has the focus changed from policy coverage to a personality narrative in recent years, and what has been the effect on our political consciousness?

That’s been declining. That didn’t happen overnight, but I would say that is a response to largely what the American appetite for information and knowledge is. And what that means is, something I learned in presidential politics is that people don’t really vote on issues for president. It’s a vote on attributes, and the attributes that they focus on are strength, trust, character, shared values. So what they are doing, when they look at a candidate they evaluate, “Are they strong enough to be president, are they strong enough to stand up to a foreign power, will they stand up to me for the issues I care about?” and those shared values, “Are they honest, are they trustworthy?” And if the answer to all of those is, yes, then what they do is make the conclusion that they are going to be right on the policy issues they care about as well. So the discussion becomes more about the attributes, because that’s what people are really looking for in a president.

Speaking of those attributes, when you were working on “The Circus,” the documentary series which highlights the behind-the-scenes of the 2016 presidential campaigns, what surprised you the most about the culture of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump’s campaigns?

Well, what was surprising about the Trump campaign was that it was so unlike any other structure of a campaign we’d ever seen. It was like Clinton was a battleship and they were a pirate ship. And, it was challenging because it was erratic. Half the time you wouldn’t know who to talk to, you don’t know who’s making decisions. I mean there’s really only one person making decisions in that campaign. But it was very authentic, very transparent, and the Clinton campaign wasn’t. The Clinton campaign was very professional, very methodical, you knew who to talk to, you knew where to get answers, but it was not very transparent, it was not very authentic.

As I said in my article, we talked to Trump a bunch, we interviewed him in his plane, in his home, in his office, know, we couldn’t get near Hillary Clinton. And we almost lived with Bernie Sanders, we were with him all the time. And it’s just that was part of what I say is important for campaigns, you got to, you can’t just put out a bunch of information, you have to connect it in a coherent way, but also voters want authenticity, they want to get a sense of what kind of human being you are. And they kept her on a very tight leash inside a bubble. And that’s another side of her we never got to see. We were giving her the opportunity to do it!

What were the best moments from the election season you covered, we had a couple on the TV show itself, but what about ones that did not make it onto “The Circus?”

Well that’s why I think we’re going to make a two-hour movie and hopefully include some of the material we didn’t use. Let me give you an example of one that didn’t make it — it was a press conference with Ted Cruz. And it’s called a gaggle. It means that a candidate just comes out and makes himself available for questions, not like a press conference where they have an agenda. But it gets very competitive and the press is jumping up and down to get their questions in. I am 60 something years old and not as hungry as these young reporters are. It was chaotic and difficult so I was trying to figure out a way to break through and get a question answered from Cruz. I decided I’d appeal to his intellect. And I threw out a question and I said “Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Man who would be King,’” and he immediately seeks me out of the crowd and asks, “McKinnon, what’re you talking about?” So I tell him this ‘Man who would be King’ story, which is about these British guys that go to this African country, and because the community has never seen a white person, they think that they’re gods. And it’s not until one of them gets cut that they realize that they’re mortals, and they kind of turn on them. I was making that reference at the time, what was happening with Trump, kind of to ask if there was a Man Who would be King analogy there. And he was like “McKinnon, raising the level of intellectual discussion here, very good, very good, sir.” But what was funny was everyone got in on the joke and started making literary references in their questions. And when he left, one of my favorite vision from the campaign, Hallie Jackson, who’s a great reporter, one of the young reporters for NBC, was embedded in the campaign. After all this, she’s chasing Cruz down the hall, saying “Senator, senator, one more question, ‘The Princess Bride, The Princess Bride!’” Because if you know, from some of the stories out there, “The Princess Bride” happens to be one of his favorite movies.

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