Engage Recap: Mark McKinnon

Engage Recap: Mark McKinnon

By Elizabeth McGuire

In the middle of a chaotic presidential campaign season, Leadership Austin alumni and community members had the chance to hear the perspective of someone very close to this year’s race.

At the Engage Breakfast on May 24, Mark McKinnon, seasoned political advisor, campaign strategist, non-profit founder and now documentary filmmaker, sat down with Judy Maggio to share his insight on the upcoming election and politics in general.

Makr and JudyOffering some historical perspective to this year’s race, McKinnon said that although he didn’t predict Donald Trump’s rise, the idea of Trump should not be that surprising considering the current perceptions about American politics.

He made comparisons to the early 1990s and today, noting the number of people who thought the country was headed in the wrong direction, the growing mistrust in government, and the diminished support for Congress. “Those were the dynamics that created an opening for Ross Perot in 1992,” he said.

“A lot of people don’t remember, but Ross Perot was actually beating Clinton and George H.W. Bush for two months or more during that election,” he said. “Certainly you could have made the case that…if Perot had been a different candidate or run a different campaign…that he could have won as an independent candidate in 1992.”

Fast forward to now, he said, and today’s environment is 10 times more conducive for a similar candidate like Perot to step in: more precisely, an outsider and successful businessman. “It should have been a clear flare that somebody like Trump would step in,” McKinnon said. “Lots of people are so fed up with politics…that they are willing to try something really risky.”

The surprising part, he said, is that it’s actually Donald Trump, and that he’s risen by taking over the Republican party vs. making an Independent bid.

Bernie Sanders, said McKinnon, is the flip side for the Democrats. “Although he has obviously been in the Congress, you can’t get more of an outsider than Bernie Sanders.” Sanders is indicative of “how much hunger there is for change.”

Engage_groopHillary Clinton’s campaign challenge, he believes, will be to show her human, vulnerable side. “The power of authenticity is really critical. I’ve seen another side of Clinton and she is very compelling and friendly; she has a good sense of humor and is warm. Nothing but upside for her to reveal that side of her.”

But another challenge, explains McKinnon, is that presidents are historically elected as a reaction to the president before them.

“It’s a counter-reaction to the incumbency. So if you’re running on the Democratic side: you don’t want to run away from Barack Obama’s presidency, but build on it.” In other words, if you are in Hillary Clinton’s camp you focus on her being a policy-driven person who understands Washington. “Somebody said her motto should be “I’ll fix that.”

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In 2010, McKinnon co-founded No Labels, a non-profit organization dedicated to bipartisanship, civil discourse and problem solving in politics. “We started this because we were seeing good people penalized for civil behavior…Republicans or Democrats trying to seek compromise across the aisle. There was no organization supporting principled negotiators willing to come to the table.”

Engage May To demonstrate the enormity of the divide in Congress today, McKinnon described a project created by the National Journal. For many years it has mapped the overlap of the Democratic and Republican ideology in the Senate and the Congress. According to McKinnon, 20 years ago there were 224 members of Congress who overlapped (meaning there were Progressive Republicans and Conservative Democrats). Today there are 4 members who overlap.

A self-described optimist, he still sees progress. “You have these Democrats and Republicans who have literally never met together since they’ve been in Congress, and you get them in a room and the chemistry starts working.”

The No Labels organization wanted its members to meeting monthly, but many decided to meet weekly on their own. “They started co-sponsoring bills and getting stuff done, and what they are finding is that they are going back to their constituents and getting enormous response for that kind of work.”

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When McKinnon is not guiding or explaining political strategies, he is observing them. His documentary series Showtime’s “The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth” is designed to pull back the curtain on the 2016 presidential race. He described the timing of the series as “dumb luck” since he originally pitched the idea in 2002, shelved it, then happened to pull it out for what is turning out to be one of the most compelling races in recent history.

“As some would say, McKinnon laughed, ‘What’s bad for America is good for TV.’”

The driving ambition of the show, he said, is to show candidates’ humanity. “Presidential campaigns are amazing, interesting ecosystems of characters and players—and not just the candidates, but their families and staff. I thought it would not only be interesting to reveal some of that, but I thought it would be good for voters and good for the system. Because there’s so much that goes on that’s better than what we think.”

His passion for this project, and for public service, is clear. “I can’t believe people run for office, but I appreciate what people are willing to put themselves through. I continue to believe it’s a noble pursuit.”

McKinnon’s Call to Action:

  1. Keep coming to this event. Spread the word about Leadership Austin. Great things are happening locally and they translate into bigger things.
  2. Go to NoLabels.org website and sign up. It’s a great organization and it’s in concert with the Leadership Austin vision.