Perspectives

The Permanent Campaign

Brunswick’s Doug Sosnik, former Senior Advisor for Policy and Strategy in President Bill Clinton’s White House, tells CEOs to prepare for “a long slog.” By Casey Becker.

When Doug Sosnik joined Brunswick last month as a Senior Advisor, he was reprising a familiar title. While serving in Bill Clinton’s White House from 1994 to 2000, Mr. Sosnik held roles that included Senior Advisor for Policy and Strategy, White House Political Director, and Deputy Legislative Director.

In addition to advising more than 50 U.S. senators and governors, Sosnik has counseled Fortune 100 corporations, CNBC, the National Basketball Association, foundations and universities. His specialty: “figuring how you line up the colors of a Rubik’s Cube of policy, politics, communications and the law,” particularly in the midst of fast-moving, high-profile crises.

A decade before America elected Donald Trump President, Sosnik co-authored the New York Times bestselling book  Applebee’s America, which presciently describes the rising popularity of flawed leaders beloved not for their strategic brilliance but for their “ability to touch people at a gut level.”

He spoke recently with Brunswick’s Casey Becker.

GettyImages-1187477728.jpg

US President Bill Clinton speaks with White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (center) as Doug Sosnik (right), counsel to the president, walks along as they leave the White House in Washington, DC in 1998.

Is this moment, as we often hear, “unprecedented”?  
I think we’re going through the biggest period of change in our country since the late 1800s. There are a series of events that all happened on top of each other to create what Freeman Dyson of Princeton calls “a hinge moment in history,” when we’re moving from one era to another era.

In 1965, imagine a senior and a freshman attending the same college. The ’65 senior was probably still wearing a coat and tie, drinking a martini, listening to Sinatra. The ’65 freshman was wearing jeans and T-shirts, smoking pot and listening to the Beatles. Even though they were at the same place at the roughly same point, they were 20 or 30 years apart in terms of where they were in their lives.

The changes in our country are even more profound for millennials today. You consider the societal shifts of the last 15 to 20 years alongside all the institutions that are perceived to have failed during that time: the government, politics, churches, Boy Scouts, banks, police departments, Supreme Courts, big corporations, sports figures, sports leagues, CEOs and—in the wake of Covid—health experts. Layered on top of that are the drastic technological changes of the last fifteen years. If you look at a movie filmed in 2005 it looks like it’s from a different era. Remember, the first iPhone went to market the year Obama announced he was running for President. These changes hit a tipping point in the last decade, changing every business and sector. So even though millennials might be separated by only 20 or 30 years in age from the older generations, they’re actually much further apart.

A little over a month out from the election, what data points are you following? 
I’m continuing to watch Trump’s job approval number, and I’m also looking at what Trump’s number is in horse-race states. He got elected with 46 percent of the vote in 2016, which is less than what Romney got in 2012 (47 percent). His approval rating has largely stayed in the mid-forties, at best, throughout his presidency. In 2020, you’re going to need 50 percent of the vote to win. He’s going to have a very hard time, but it’s not impossible. 

There’s a bigger piece for CEOs to keep in mind: during this period in which we are such a divided country, US elections don’t resolve much. Not only do elections not resolve our disputes or divisions, the outcomes typically intensify them. All they resolve is that it’s time for the next campaign.

Six out of the last seven elections, the country voted for change and if Democrats win this year, that’ll be seven out of eight elections where the country voted for change. In our divided country, we are simply not at a point where we are able to reach consensus across ours differences. Due to this lack of consensus, we will continue to vote against whoever is in power rather than what they’re for. This is the kind of volatile political environment that will continue in the future where companies need to play the long game. The permanent campaign.

You cannot operate thinking that because everything’s been broken, it’s not going to matter. It will matter. In this day and age, if you get it right but you take too long to get it right, then you’re probably dead.

What do you mean by “permanent campaign”?
In this type of political environment, if you’re a company that is significantly consumer-facing or highly impacted by the federal government, you need to adopt a permanent campaign mindset because we’re going to be in this environment for quite a while. You need to build the infrastructure internally, and the political capacity in leveraging all your assets and resources on the ground, to engage local elected officials who can have an impact on your policy concerns in Washington. Because right now the country can’t agree where we’re headed, only that we don’t like whoever’s in power.

By the middle of the 2040’s we’ll be a majority-minority country, which is to say we’ll have no racial group that’ll be 50 percent of our population. And our division right now is between half the country that thinks we’re going too fast and making changes from the country that they remember. And the other half thinks that we’re not moving fast enough to change with the world.

That will resolve itself, eventually, because of demographic trends. But I don’t think we are anywhere near that tipping point of resolution. Companies have to take a much longer view of this volatile period of time we’re in.

If you’re CEO, you’ve got be on war footing. You’ve got to have a permanent campaign mentality to deal with the unknown and unexpected that’s coming. Your customers, regulators, employees are going to be reacting to events in real time; you have to be in a position to as well.

So it’s a bigger mindset: You cannot operate thinking that because everything’s been broken, it’s not going to matter. It will matter. In this day and age, if you get it right but you take too long to get it right, then you’re probably dead.

We seem to have reached a point where there are no trusted authorities. Are there opportunities for business leaders to step up?
For a corporation, it’s not so much this is an opportunity to assume that authority, it’s that there should be a sense of urgency that you’re on your own. In other words, you have no institutions, no safety nets.

You have to take the bull by the horns and move forward, understanding that the support structures around you have been disintegrating—as they were well before Trump, by the way. In 2013 I wrote a piece that looked at the redefining of the divisions in American politics, a rift defined not strictly along partisan lines but shaped by a number of forces, including income inequality. That piece was called “Which Side Of The Barricade Are You On?” I don’t think CEOs and companies are what people in America are looking for right now to be moral leaders. But I do think that CEOs can lead their company to the right side of the barricade.

On the one side voters see the oligarchs, the banks, the big institutions, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, the globalists. And on the other side, they see the people, with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and Rand Paul and Sherrod Brown. How many stats have we all seen about how the top and the bottom has widened enormously since the early 1970s—that time when there was a saying in America, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America”?

And of course COVID-19 is set to accelerate the gap between the people at the top and people at the bottom. Companies have to be sensitive, I think, not only to the disparity, but to the risk of being perceived as on the wrong side of the barricade.

How can companies be on the right side? 
I think it starts by recognizing that they either change or get left behind. When I was in the White House, as a rule of thumb, a company—particularly if it was publicly-traded—would do everything possible to stay out of politics. 

Now, most consumer-facing companies have been forced to get ahead of where their government is on all kinds of social issues. If they stay on the sidelines, they’re going to be punished or left behind. It’s unimaginable to me that NASCAR and Walmart, as two examples, are way ahead of the president of the United States on their view about the Confederate Flag.

But I do think that the more a company or a brand espouses their own sort of righteousness on social issues, the more they can and should be held to a higher standard. The more you get out there and position yourself as being better than the rest, the more people are going to hold you to that standard. And the more, if you don’t meet that standard, the more you’re going to pay. Because everybody hates a hypocrite.

What does the Republican Party look like if Donald Trump loses the election?
I don’t think Trump’s going anywhere. If he loses the election, 30 percent of the people who support him will be with him. He will be out there every day. He now currently defines what it means to be a Republican. That won’t change if he wins or loses. Only at your own risk in a Republican primary are you a non-Trumper going forward.

So I think there will be an organizing principle for the Republican party next year if Democrats take the White House and the Senate: be in opposition to the Democrats and what they’re doing. The Republicans aren’t going to be in a position—as they weren’t in 2009—to know what they want to do.

But they will be unified in their opposition, I think, very early on next year if it’s a Democratic Washington. But make no mistake about it, if the Democrats win this year, it won’t be a vote for the Democrats as much as a vote against Trump.

--

Casey Becker is an Associate in Brunswick's New York office.

Photo by Joyce Naltchayan/AFP via Getty Images