Mark McKinnon was going to shoot a Texas-specific episode of Showtime’s political documentary series The Circus this week. He planned to shadow Willie Nelson at Beto O’Rourke’s rally in Austin on Saturday night before heading to Houston for what would have been O’Rourke’s second debate with Ted Cruz. Then he’d report from the border crisis and return to Austin for some leisure time at Friday’s kick-off of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Instead, McKinnon appeared on a handful of panels at the Texas Tribune Festival, taped this edition of The National Podcast of Texas, and flew back to D.C. to craft an episode about the intense battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Even for as seasoned a political operative, McKinnon says that when his team named the show towards the end of 2015, he didn’t realize how prophetic the title would be.
McKinnon, who attended University of Texas at Austin before strategizing on major campaigns for Ann Richards, Bob Bullock, George W. Bush, and John McCain, says much of his early ambition and political interest stemmed from Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place. In a review he wrote about a new biography of Brammer for an upcoming issue of Texas Monthly, he describes the book as “not just a Great Texas Novel, but a Great American Novel… I would, in fact, argue that it’s the Great American Political Novel.” In a conversation recorded in Texas Monthly‘s Austin studio on Friday afternoon, McKinnon talked about The Gay Place, the Kavanaugh debate, O’Rourke’s campaign, and what might become of the Mueller investigation.
On Trump: He knows how to weave a story line. We think about narrative architecture in terms of books and culture and movies: storylines and storytelling. It’s just as true for campaigns or successful businesses. Great campaigns tell a story and have a narrative arc. What do we mean by that? When we talk to candidates, it’s really usually something like the following filter: You identify a threat or an opportunity, identify the victims of that threat or denied opportunity, identify the villains posing the threat or denying the opportunity, then propose a solution and reveal the hero. That’s kind of a classic storyline. Think about that with Trump. Threat: immigrants, others coming into our country. Opportunity: make America great again. Victims: blue-collar Americans who’ve lost their quality of life with diminishing job opportunities and falling paychecks. The villains: Chinese, media elites in Washington, Mexican rapists coming over the border. Solution: build a wall, tear up the trade deals, drain the swamp. Reveal the hero: Donald Trump. What was Hillary Clinton’s story? I have no idea.
On the legacy of George W. Bush: Nothing has been better for George W. Bush’s legacy than Donald Trump. One of the things that attracted me and many others to support George W. Bush in Texas was that before he came along, Texas was a two-party state. You were a progressive liberal democrat or a conservative democrat—kind of a Ralph Yarborough democrat or a Lloyd Bentsen democrat. And then George W. Bush came to town and said, “I’m a compassionate conservative.” A bunch of us said, “Oh, that’s what I am, too.” And it was a really interesting, bipartisan time, when he worked with Bob Bullock and he was talking proactively, in an embracing way, about immigration and about education. Those were things that really appealed to me and a traditional kind of Republican ideas. What’s astonishing is that not only did Trump win the nomination, but he completely reshaped and refashioned what the Republican party is. It’s nothing like George W. Bush’s party. George W. wouldn’t get through the Republican primary today.
On Beto O’Rourke’s strategy: The fact that [the race is] competitive is remarkable. Of course, a democrat hasn’t won statewide in Texas for a quarter of a century. I was saying it would probably take the second coming of Jesus to win statewide as a democrat, but Beto O’Rourke is walking on water. He’s throwing out the rulebook and the playbook. He’s doing it in such a unique way. First of all, he’s just charismatic. But second of all, he is doing things differently. I mean, the notion of going to 254 counties—if you had asked me that as a strategist I’d have told you it’s ridiculous. But it’s working for him and it’s working precisely in the same way that Donald Trump did—”The reason that I’m doing this is that I don’t want to be like everybody else. That way hasn’t worked very well.” That’s kind of Beto’s message, in a different way, but it’s still entirely authentic. He comes off as a very human, compelling guy who’s just doing it his way. The fact that it’s close says a whole lot about him, and maybe something about Texas too.
On Brett Kavanaugh: I know and worked with him and I believe that if he’s confirmed, he’ll actually be a good Supreme Court justice, contrary to everything we saw [during the hearing on Thursday]. I think that was a very scripted performance—a throw-deep performance to kind of lock up the Republicans on that deal. But what I’ll say about that is a couple things to my democratic friends. One is [this is] just from what I know of him, and listen, how often are we wrong about these things? You know, the serial killer killed everybody and the person next door says, “He was such a nice boy.” But from what I know, he is not an ideologue and he is not a partisan hack. He is very thoughtful and he’ll be a consensus builder on the Court. I think ten years from now, if he’s confirmed, we’ll see that he’ll be a Souter- or Kennedy-like justice.
On whether Kavanaugh is partisan: I think that Brett Kavanaugh is exactly the kind of guy that would get nominated and completely turn around on the partisan stuff and just say, “I’m a Supreme Court justice. And now I’m putting that all behind me.” I don’t think what we saw [during the hearing] is the true character. I hope not. I think that if it happens, he would be a good Supreme Court justice and not a right-wing ideologue trying to get back at the democrats.
His prediction on the Mueller report: I think the collusion or obstruction of justice would be maybe the least of Donald Trump’s problems… He’s got all this theoretically very problematic business stuff from his days in real estate. Nobody in New York real estate doesn’t bend a few corners and maybe a lot of them. And so I think that it could be tax evasion, money laundering, all kinds of other crimes. One thing we know is that Robert Mueller is a very, very serious guy, and he’s going to look everywhere. And I think that’s why Trump has been so obsessed by it.