It is a tremendous privilege to be able to contribute my words and thoughts to Texas Signal and share them with our audience of dedicated and patriotic Texans. The staff and contributors to this publication do our best to be as insightful and entertaining as possible, while never straying from the facts. We all feel passionate that Texans and Americans deserve a better government, and that providing fact-based reporting and analysis is the best way for us to be of service to our fellow Texans.
Unfortunately, I don’t have many profound insights or much sophisticated analysis to offer from the first Presidential debate of the 2020 general election, held last night in Cleveland. If you watched it, you already know that the president of the richest and supposedly most powerful nation in the world spent 90 minutes acting like a petulant child, refusing to condemn white supremacists or pledge to calm his supporters in the days after the election.
It was one of the most shameful moments in the history of our political campaigns, a stain on public discourse and the traditions that we have all held as sacred since this nation’s founding. Indeed, one of my closest friends who just happens to be a scholar and expert on presidential debates put it to me simply this morning: “That was the death of presidential excellence.”
Those words echo in my mind, and not because either of us ever thought there was anything excellent about this particular president. That’s the point. The American Presidency has since it was conceived always been meant to be greater than any one person or party.
It’s what made our democratic republic different. Presidential inaugurations were the personification of the most beautiful expression of our democracy. Our presidents invited heads of state from around the world to attend them so they could witness what it was like for a nation to peacefully transfer power from one leader to another.
Like many of you, I lost sleep last night thinking about what we’ve let happen to this beautiful but flawed country. How did we let ourselves go from an example of excellence for the rest of the world to having this peach creep occupy our highest office.
Donald Trump refused to condemn white supremacists because he is one. He refuses to release his tax returns because they say exactly what you think they do: He finds every loophole and cheat that he can not to pay any taxes. He said so last night at the debate.
We let this man command the greatest fighting forces that have ever existed, brave men and women who conduct humanitarian missions in parts of the world that only believe in the idea of a better society because a kid from Mesquite in a uniform handed them a box of food and water. When those poor souls die on foreign soil, Donald Trump only thinks of them as losers and suckers.
We need to reframe this election. The choice is not between Trump and Biden, but between Trump and democracy itself. We need to reach out to our Republican friends and ask the simple question: how are you feeling about all of this? We need to appeal to the better nature of our neighbors and make it possible to think outside of the red/blue paradigm. Our choice in this election is not left or right, but up or down. Will we commit to moving up again? To take the unspeakable pain and sadness of the COVID era and do what Americans have always done, and rise above it to build a better country? Or will continue to let this coral pervert debase the things that we hold sacred?
I believe that we will win because I believe in you. I believe that we will win because I believe in America, and a lot of other people still do, too.
One of those people is Reed Galen, the co-founder of the Lincoln Project. By pure happenstance, I met Reed when his funders hired me and a team of Democratic operatives to work on a proposition Reed was managing in Austin in 2016. I was skeptical of him because, well, he was a Bush Republican. He was skeptical of me because, well, who was I exactly?
As the campaign drew to a close, Reed asked me if I could grab a beer. We met up at a bar on Rainey Street and, frankly, I was expecting him to give me some kind of uncomfortable assignment in a campaign that had already seen my team take a sizable amount of public criticism.
To my surprise, Reed just wanted to catch up, get to know me a little better and ask what I made of the 2016 elections. I began to tread carefully, curious what Reed’s motivations were. He was probably friendly with Ted Cruz or some shit was the assumption that I made.
When I posed the question to Reed, I was struck deeply by his response. First of all, no, he was not a fan or friend of the Senator from Calgary. And he was certainly not a fan of or comfortable with the ascension of Donald Trump. Reed didn’t frame this distaste in any kind of political argument. He wasn’t concerned about what Donald Trump would do to down-ballot Republicans, he was concerned about what Donald Trump would do to our republic.
He talked about his kids, and the concern he felt for their future was palpable.
I’m sure if you gave us both a notepad and asked us to make a list of things we knew the other believed that we disagreed with we wouldn’t have much trouble producing a few pages. But as we shook hands and parted company that night it struck me that, for perhaps the first time in my adult or professional life, I sat down with a Republican and didn’t see myself as one of us and him as one of them, or as a vote I could flip.
I walked down Rainey Street realizing he was one of us, and the us that he belonged to fell firmly into the category best described as Concerned Americans. Recognizing, and connecting with our shared values, made me feel like it really can be possible to set aside most of the petty political squabbling we do in this country and have an honest discussion about what it means to believe in America and make this country better for every person fortunate to call it home.
It made me think of a man named Ken Brock, a gentle giant who served as chief of staff to Mark Schauer, the first candidate I ever worked for. They were lifelong friends who found themselves having to defend Mark’s vote for the Affordable Care Act in the frenetic first years of the Obama administration. They both cared deeply about the people Mark represented and believed that every person deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.
When I think about Ken, I think about a story I didn’t know until shortly after he passed away. I read it in the press, from a reporter who was widely known to be a pretty conservative guy. As the story goes, a woman came into the district office the day after an anti-ACA rally, having left a salty protest sign behind and wanting to shame the staff for throwing it away.
Ken happened to be standing at reception when the woman walked in, and he was the one that greeted her. She explained that she was there protesting his boss the previous day and had left her sign behind. Any chance you still had it?
Ken asked the woman what the sign said, and when she told him he reached under the desk and pulled the sign out. The staff had collected all the protest signs and instead of tossing them in a trash can where they belonged hung on to them in case anyone came back and wanted to reclaim their vehicle for self-expression.
When the woman expressed her surprise that the staff would hang on to such a sign, Ken looked at her and said “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Yes, we can. Donald Trump may not be capable of it, but we as Americans have to be. This is not a moment in our history that calls for talking over each other. This is a moment in American history that is desperately appealing to the better angels of our nature to listen to each other. To see each other for who we are, and the awesome responsibility that we all have, to our country and to each other, to keep this American experiment alive for four more years.
If you know a voter that’s still on the fence, please, call them. Don’t pass judgment. Don’t express anger. Ask them what they think of all this, and help make them part of the solution. Let’s be the generation that decided we are still all in this together.
Let’s be the best Americans we can.
Joe brings over a decade of experience as a political operative and creative strategist to Texas Signal, where he serves as our Senior Advisor and does everything from writing a regular column, Musings, to mentoring our staff and freelancers. Joe was campaign manager for Lina Hidalgo's historic 2018 victory for Harris County Judge and is a passionate sneakerhead.