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

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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.
Photo courtesy: Mark Curtis Media

Sunday Political Brunch: Have the Wheels Come Off the White House Wagon? - July 30, 2017

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CHARLESTON, WV – White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has resigned. I’m not surprised. It was only a matter of time. But is the White House now in free fall, or is this a reboot to Trump 2.0? Let’s “brunch” on that this week.

“Scary Scaramucci” – The signs were all in place as new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci scorched Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and others before their departures. Communications Director Sean Spicer, who worked with Priebus at the Republican National Committee, departed days earlier. This is a White House in turmoil, trying to hit the reset button. Based on Scaramucci’s profanity-laced tirades ahead of the departures, matters may get even worse. I don’t think he’ll score points for diplomacy.

“What’s Your Record?” – I’ve said it here often: Politics is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.” The repeal and replacement of Obamacare has failed; no substantive immigration bills have passed; tax reform remains on hold; and much of the rest of the Trump agenda remains in a holding pattern. A house cleaning may have been in order, but I suspect it won’t stop with Priebus and Spicer. More heads will roll. Will Attorney General Jeff Sessions be fired next? Or will Special Counsel Robert Mueller be sent packing?

“Have We Seen This Show Before?”—Yes, and no. I’ve seen administrations stumble out of the starting gate, but nothing like this. In the first year of President Bill Clinton’s administration, they had lost focus. They kept holding campaign-style events, even though he had already won. Eighteen months into the Clinton tenure, Chief of Staff (and long-time Clinton friend) Mack McClarty was gone. The combination of press secretaries George Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Myers lasted less than two years, as well. No, it’s not the same as the compressed mess of the Trump term, but it was troubling for many of the same reasons. The public wants to see accomplishments. Period!

“What’s Wrong?” – No matter who is Chief of Staff or Communications Director, the Trump White House has some built-in problems. Its biggest worry is the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans won their majority in 2010, and have held steady ever since. Speaker Paul Ryan and the House do not owe their majority to President Trump. On the other hand, the Senate does owe its majority to Trump. His coattails carried Republicans in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If not for that, Democrats would be in charge. But Arizona is not beholden to Trump, and maverick Senator John McCain (R-AZ) will always vote his own way. My point is that Republican party loyalty to President Trump is thin, at best.

“The Report Cards” – In my lifetime – and in my professional career – I have learned to rank Presidents in a different way. Rather than grade administrations as “good vs. bad” I have chosen over the years to rate White Houses as “effective vs. ineffective.” For me, that removes the subjective value judgment. The most ineffective White House in my lifetime was the Carter administration, followed closely by the Trump White House so far. The most effective was President Reagan’s administration, followed by that of President Lyndon Johnson. You might not agree with what Reagan and Johnson did, but they got a lot of stuff done.

“Can They Turn It Around?” – Make no mistake. The Trump White House is in crisis. It is right now in a state of paralysis and free fall. Can they right the ship? Sure, they can; but it’s going to require a drastic mid-course correction. The President needs to find a populist issue Democrats can rally around and work together with Republicans. Is it tax reform? Is it immigration? Stay tuned.

“The Replacement” – Reince Priebus, a 45-year-old civilian party loyalist, deep in the Republican ranks, is gone. Who’s his replacement? A 67-year-old General John Kelly, who is currently Secretary of Homeland Security. Kelly is a career Marine officer, bringing a sense of discipline that this White House has sadly lacked. General Kelly knows the ultimate sacrifice to this nation. His son Robert – also a Marine officer - was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. General Kelly brings a sense of discipline to a White House badly in need of anti-chaotic leadership.

“Why All of This Matters” – People evaluate parties by what they’ve done, or what they’ve failed to do. The report card comes in the mid-term elections, in between Presidential balloting. In 1976, Democrats made huge gains in Congress and won the White House on the heels of the Watergate scandal. But in 1994, 2010, and 2014, Republicans seized control of Congress due to dissatisfaction with the Democrat in the White House. Midterms are litmus tests on the party in power. This should be of huge concern to President Trump, who is having trouble enforcing party loyalty now, and is having trouble getting anything of real substance done.

What would you recommend to this White House? Just click he comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

© 2017, Mark Curtis Media, LLC

Photo courtesy: cbsnews.com

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