Philippa Thomas Online

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“I don’t think we will ever see a popular president again”

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What’s a man to do if he’s the kind of Republican strategist who loved Straight Talk McCain, was fired up by campaign finance reform, and finds today’s politics simply poisonous?

In the case of Mark McKinnon, come and talk at a Harvard Kennedy School breakfast on the theme, “the hotter the water, the stronger the tea”, about the “electoral stew” as he puts it that America finds itself in today.

McKinnon has been an active strategist from the days he worked for Charlie Wilson all the way through to George W Bush. He decided not to get involved in the campaign against Obama last year. Here’s his take on it all, as transcribed by me, in between my own tea drinking (English breakfast, thank you very much to the Shorenstein organisers).

“It all began with Scott Brown. And if Barney Frank is in trouble, something really significant is going on. We had an historic campaign with Obama. Voters saw him as a vessel for their hope, believed that he believed what they believed. Things were bound to come back on him. Add to that the fiscal crisis. You could argue that historically he has faced challenges unlike any other president.

I don’t think we will ever see a popular president again. I think that’s just the nature of the world we live in.

“There’s an incredibly hyper partisan environment, the media profits from division. Parties get punished for trying to work with the other side. They don’t even have meetings in Washington DC any more.

The system has become so poisonous that good people are leaving politics. And who can blame them?

“There was once a notion of the citizen politician, people who had lived their lives, and could bring something else to the table.

“Today there’s a hunger for authenticity. People automatically think they are being lied to.

The mainstream media is dying. That’s a fascinating evolution. It’s crumbling and it’s crumbling fast. One of the consequences, you see people like Sarah Palin using new media to take complete control of their communication and it’s one way… Then you see others saying, if she doesn’t need to speak to anybody, then I don’t either.

There’s “a phenomenal increase in the use of outside money.” Shocking decision by the Supreme Court giving outsiders more influence. Look at the classic bellwether state of Colorado.

“I’m a strong advocate of radical campaign finance reform. I think we need a constitutional convention through Article 5 of the Constitution. We are going to have to go around Congress to do this. Go through state constitutional conventions.

Looking at Obama, 63% of under 24 voters believe Obama has done nothing to reform Washington, or made it worse. Thats just astonishing to me.

The bigger story is going to be what happens after the election. I think a huge train wreck is coming. I think its hard to imagine things will be worse in Washington, but I think they will be. And I think it will lead to a third party candidate for the presidency in 2012.”

Questions then bounced back and forth….

What if Republicans do take the house? “They should look to innovative thinkers like Paul Ryan. They should realise it’s in their best interests to forge an alliance, but I think it’s going to go in the reverse direction. For example, the commission will report in late Nov or December on how to fix the fiscal crisis. The Republicans are going to say hell no, we’re not going to raise a dime. The Democrats are going to say, hell no, we’re not going to cut a penny.

Republican nominee for 2012? Love to see Mitch Daniels maybe John Thune, Bobby Jindal… The establishment candidate is Mitt Romney, he’s the safe bet…. But the energized voters are Sarah Palin voters. You can see her winning Iowa and south Carolina and being well on her way. Another guy to watch is Chris Christie.

Is it good for Sarah Palin if Republicans take the house this time? “She’s already got more than her fair share for what has happened.. If the Republicans get the house she will get more than her fair share again.. It’s the media once again going to that shiny object.”

“If Jeb Bush’s last name were anything other than Bush, he would be nominated already. The base loves him. Its possible that he could be tapped for vice president, but not the top slot.

I asked him about how a third party candidate might emerge and who it might be? Did he think General David Petraeus might really run?

Its probable rather than possible, and theres a lot going on behind the scenes, to make this happen. Some are cynical but I think it can happen. Possibilities include Petraeus or Bloomberg… Imagine them both on the ticket!

Would an independent candidate rise on the back of the tea party?
“I think there’s a silent majority in America that is completely unrepresented and feels they don’t have a voice in Washington.” If there was an alternative to the Tea Party that was more moderate, I think “they would leave in a second”.

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 28 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, diplomacy, tech, media, arts and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, and sharing anything from travel photos to my year in books on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

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