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Sunday Political Brunch When Presidents Talk Tough -- August 13, 2017


CHARLESTON, WEST VIRGINIA – President Trump stirred a lot of emotion this week, when he warned North Korea - which continues to make missile threats - that “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” North Korea even threatened to launch a nuclear missile at Guam, a nearby U.S. territory. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Fire and Fury” -- So how did Trump's warning play? Trump fans loved it. They believe it’s time for a U.S. President to talk tough and to be willing to back it up with military might. Critics thought the warning was reckless “cowboy bluster,” which might provoke North Korea to make military strikes. I was surprised at how shocked many people were, as if no U.S. President has ever talked tough like this before. History tells us otherwise.

“Words Are Diplomacy” – Many of the President’s critics would like to see diplomacy given more of a chance. But the North Korea problem is not new. It has been a thorn in the sides of Trump and his three predecessors in the White House. Now, its Kim Jong Un; but before him, it was his equally provocative father, Kim Jong Il. Neither seemed inclined to seriously consider diplomatic efforts, but many believe a stern intervention by North Korea’s ally, China, might be the ticket to a diplomatic solution. In the meantime, the two Kims have launched numerous missiles, which - although mostly duds - sooner or later might hit pay dirt.

“Tear Down This Wall!” – Many people remember it fondly, but it was not so popular at the time. When President Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in June, 1987, to plead for an end to Communist East Germany, he defiantly said to the then-Soviet dictator, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” My friend Peter Robinson - a Reagan speechwriter now at Stanford University - wrote the address. He and senior White House aides debated whether the controversial line should be in or out. It stayed at Robinson’s insistence, and the rest is history. Critics thought Reagan was trying to escalate the arms race with Russia and it could lead to war. It didn’t. In fact, the Berlin Wall came down just over two years later.

“Don’t Tread on Us!” – President Clinton surprised a lot of people just five months into his term, when he ordered a bombing raid on Iraq. U.S. intelligence had uncovered an Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush. This is what President Clinton said: “From the first days of our Revolution, America's security has depended on the clarity of this message: Don't tread on us. A firm and commensurate response was essential to protect our sovereignty, to send a message to those who engage in state-sponsored terrorism…” His critics thought Clinton was beating his own chest, but Saddam Hussein backed off, if only for a few years.
“To Kill bin Laden” – During a debate with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in 2008, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) said, “If we have Osama Bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take him out, then I think that we must act, and we will take him out. We will kill Bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaida. That has to be our biggest national security priority.” He said a similar thing in primary debates with Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Obama was widely booed by official Washington for telegraphing an incursion into the sovereign state of Pakistan. Senators Clinton and McCain seized on this as wrong. In May, 2012, Obama did exactly what he had promised. He ordered a raid into Pakistan, without telling its leaders, and called the strike that killed Bin Laden.
“Bring ‘em On!” – In July, 2003, contemplating war with Iraq, President George W. Bush said, "There are some who feel like -- that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is 'Bring 'em on. We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation'." Bush was harshly criticized for his provocative language. Years later, he acknowledged that even First Lady Laura Bush had not been happy. He said, “I can remember getting back to the White House; and Laura said, 'What did you do that for?' I said, 'Well, it was just an expression that came out. I didn't rehearse it.' I don't know if you'd call it a regret, but it certainly is a lesson that a President must be mindful of, that the words that you sometimes say - I speak plainly sometimes - but you've got to be mindful of the consequences of the words.”

“Why All of This Matters” – It’s interesting that George W. Bush, perhaps the most-criticized President of recent time (before Donald J. Trump), has the greatest insight into this dilemma. As President, your words are carefully weighed. Speak too weakly, and you are called a wimp. Talk too tough, and you are called a bully. The great equalizer is when Presidents back up their rhetoric with real action. All the Presidents I cited here backed up their tough words with concrete action. Will President Trump join their ranks? Stay tuned!

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© 2017, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.

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Sunday Political Brunch: All Politics is Local, or Is It? August 6, 2017


HUNTINGTON, WEST VIRGINIA – It is the intersection where two political worlds collide: the landscape of national versus local politics. Nowhere was that more evident in the United States this past week than when President Trump came to West Virginia Thursday to share a stage with Governor Jim Justice, now Republican, of West Virginia. There’s a lot on the table here, so let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Go Where They Love You” – The most recent Gallup Poll had President Trump’s national approval rating at just 38 percent. But among individual states he is most popular in West Virginia, with a 60 percent approval rating. That might explain why he visited here twice in the span of just ten days. As I’ve said in this column often, when you are hurting politically from a defeat, go somewhere you are still very popular and change the topic of conversation. On the heels of his loss on the Obamacare repeal, Trump came to Huntington and talked about the growing national and state economies and was greeted with wild cheers.

“Coal Is Back, for Now” – So why is the President so popular in West Virginia? A lot of it has to do with his support of the coal industry. On the campaign trail, his mantra was: “We’re putting the miners back to work! We’re putting the miners back to work!” The President issued a few Executive Orders rolling back Obama-era regulations that hurt the coal industry. Today, coal production in West Virginia is up 31 percent over last year; and, nationally, coal exports are up 60 percent.

“Two Peas in a Pod” – My local readers know the story well, but my national readers must be scratching their heads, saying: “Who is this Jim Justice guy, and why is this former Democrat aligned with President Trump?” Tell me if this sounds familiar: Jim Justice is a billionaire businessman who had never held political office, but was elected in 2016. He is well liked for his maverick and independent streaks and is seemingly beholden to no one. He’s certainly not a clone of Trump, but their similarities and backgrounds are worth noting. There are sharp differences, too. Trump appears very egocentric, while Justice is a folksy, country-boy-next- door type, whom people just call “Jim” or “Jimmy.” At 6 foot 8, and 300-plus pounds (just a guess), and with a shock of white hair, he’s hard to miss in a crowd.

“The Tri-State Triangle” – Huntington, West Virginia, sits on the banks of the Ohio River, and is bordered to the west and north by Kentucky and Ohio. This is known as the Tri-State area, and the Charleston-Huntington media market includes a significant number of counties in all three states. A lot of it is rural coal country, so the voter base in these portions of the three states is heavily pro-Trump. It also has one of the highest per capita populations of veterans in the nation.
Strategically, it was a smart place for Trump to hold a campaign rally (which technically this event was, since it was sponsored by his reelection committee).

“All Politics is Local” – It was fascinating to watch how the national press corps and the local media covered this story. I was able to help the CBS and CNN crews from Washington confirm Justice's party switch a few hours before the rally began. (We are affiliates of both networks.) Obviously, our Governor switching parties while on stage with the U.S. President was huge local news. It was our banner headline, and really nothing Trump would say could top it. When I looked at the national news websites later that night, Trump’s comments on Russia were the main focus, and the Justice party switch was just a small, sidebar story near the bottom of the page.

“Issues Intersect” – The big issues in this region cross state borders. Coal production is still a big industry in all three states, but will never be what it once was. Because of that, the regional economy is struggling to transition, and unemployment swells above the national average. The opioid and drug overdose epidemic is at its absolute worst here. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation, and Huntington is ground zero. Geographically, it is an important point on drug trafficking routes.

“Let You Upstage Me!” – As mentioned, Donald Trump is a very egocentric man. He has basked in the spotlight for decades and loves to be center stage. It was fascinating to see him interrupt his own speech and invite Governor Justice on stage to announce he was formally switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Justice says he had been mulling the switch for weeks after a bruising internal budget battle with Democrats in the Legislature. He says Trump did not ask him to switch parties. But to watch a man of Trump’s titanic ego let someone else upstage him was a sight to behold. He really likes Justice and wants his input on a host of issues.

“Getting Stuff Done” – One of the biggest challenges nationally for President Trump is showing that he’s getting things done. The healthcare defeat and some of the court losses over his immigration policies have been big setbacks, not to mention the constant focus on the Russian election-meddling investigation. His one shining accomplishment was appointing Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. But now the national economy is picking up steam. Unemployment dropped to 4.3 percent (a 16-year low), and the Dow Jones Industrial average is above 22,000 (an all-time high). West Virginia’s growth in GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is three percent, the second highest of all states. Who knows whether these trends will last, but a resurging economy certainly rocketed Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton into second terms.

“Why All of This Matters” – If he runs for reelection in 2020, President Trump can pretty much count on winning Kentucky and West Virginia and their Electoral College votes. But Ohio will always be a toss-up battleground state, and the President must do everything he can to secure his base in the Buckeye State. A rousing and combative speech like the one he delivered Thursday night plays well to his constituency in Ohio and elsewhere. If the economy is truly rebounding, that needs to be his theme nationally.

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© 2017, Mark Curtis media, LLC.
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