There are a surprising number of Texas references in You’re Fired: The Perfect Guide to Beating Donald Trump, veteran political strategist Paul Begala’s book focused on what it’ll take for Joe Biden to win in November. For starters, 33 pages in, by way of explaining the concept of negative partisanship, Begala’s example hinges on “what matters most in life: Texas Longhorn football.” It’s not enough, he says, that his sons love the Longhorns. They must also despise the University of Oklahoma. And indeed, Begala definitely bleeds orange; he earned both his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Texas, named his dog after former quarterback Major Applewhite, and earlier this week, bought two Longhorn steers to raise on his ranch in Virginia. They’re named after Earl Campbell and Vince Young.
“They’re actually orange-and-white,” says Begala, a chief strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign who served as counselor to the president in the Clinton White House, where he coordinated policy, politics, and communications. “They’re the most beautiful animals I’ve seen. And they don’t know how lucky they got. They were headed to Wendy’s and now they’re at my place being hand-fed. They’re so gentle and docile.”
Later in the book, Begala—a Missouri City, Texas native—dusts off a less gentle, but classic, Texanism to describe Texas’ Republican leaders: “half a bubble off plumb.” He believes Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton are out of step with a state he says might very well turn blue in November.
“They’re driving with their eyes on the rearview mirror,” he told me on this week’s National Podcast of Texas. “They think it’s still the tea party era. They’re stuck in 2010, in a Texas where the Republicans dominate the state and the tea partiers dominated the Republicans. And therefore they think they’ll just cater to 25 percent of Texans. And it’s a losing strategy over time. I think they’re going to wake up and be astonished that the state they thought they were governing disappeared right out from under them.”
You’re Fired: The Perfect Guide to Beating Donald Trump is built around the central theme that the way to beat Trump is to focus less on him and more on the people who are hurt by his policies. But in a coronavirus-focused chapter that includes a section on H-E-B’s early COVID-19 preparation efforts, Begala suggests the virus has wound up testing his central theme; he advises Democrats to highlight at every turn how the administration mishandled the crisis.
“Trump’s superpower is diversion, and he uses division for diversion,” Begala says. “COVID ended that superpower. With 168,000 dead Americans, COVID became the kryptonite. We can’t turn the cameras away. And I think that’s part of what he is trying to do. And the reason he’s saying these quiet parts out loud, is he’ll do anything, even declare war on democracy, to get the cameras, to turn away from the things he has done and failed to do on COVID. So I think Democrats need to keep their eyes on the prize. I think it’s important for Democrats to pull the lens back and say, ‘We had 5 million people infected. We have 168,000 dead, and you’re doing nothing except declaring war on the postal service, which will make more people sick because they won’t be able to vote by mail.’ Always return the focus to people’s lives, not just Trump’s outrage.”
On the National Podcast of Texas, recorded Thursday morning by phone, Begala details the Joe Biden he’s gotten to know over 34 years of friendship and lays out what we can expect across the next 80 days or so—and how to tell who’s really winning.
Three takeaways from our conversation:
Begala believes Texas will turn blue in November. Full stop.
“Most Texans celebrate diversity. I grew up in Fort Bend County. Today, it’s thriving because of immigrants. Less than 50 percent of that county is white now and It’s become the most diverse county in America and the wealthiest county in Texas. Immigrants are a source of wealth, of strength, and of brains. And Texans get that now. It’s changing because of patterns of increasing diversity and the Republicans alienating those diverse Texans. Trump has pushed diverse Texans from all over—South Asia, Africa, Latin America—into the arms of Democrats. And Democrats have welcomed them. But also, the attitude, particularly of college-educated white people, has changed dramatically in the last couple of years. So if Beto O’Rourke can get within two and a half points in a non-presidential year, I think MJ Hegar can win. I think Joe Biden can make up that last two and a half points with the surge of turnout in a presidential year.”
Begala says that, instead of polls, the best predictors of who’s ahead will come from monitoring the economy and interest in early voting.
I’d look at jobs, income, and now, God help us, this terrible disease. Presidents who had a strong economy have done well. We’ve only fired four presidents in the last hundred years, and they were Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Every one of them had a bad economy. Trump has the worst economy. The virus is not his fault, but the response has been, and he is now holding up life-saving funds just so that he can cripple the postal service so that people can’t vote. I’m also looking at voter registration and early voting. Voter registration has been surging. And in those states where you register by party, which we don’t in Texas, it’s been much more Democratic in the requests for absentee ballots, which has always been a Republican strength. Republicans have always done best in voting by mail, so Trump has hurt his own cause because he’s telling his voters don’t vote by mail, but when the Democrats hear that they don’t obey him. They think, ‘Oh, this guy doesn’t want me to vote by mail. I’m going to make sure I do.’ Soon we’ll have people sending those ballots in. We’ll have early voting in places like Texas. So those will be good predictors. But also you can watch Trump. The more panicked he gets, the more he realizes that he’s losing. He’s a very good politician and he gets it. I think he knows he’s losing. And it’s like these glaciers, they melt slowly. And then huge ice sheet falls off. And Trump is dropping huge sheets of ice because he knows his presidency is melting away.
In the book, Begala says he believes too often Democrats appeal to the head, not to the heart. He says the Joe Biden he’s known for 34 years represents a chance for Democrats to appeal to both.
“If Trump weren’t president, I believe that [Biden] would let someone else step up. But I believe that he’s called to this moment because of his empathy. And when he announced, he talked about Charlottesville and he said, ‘This is a battle for the soul of America.’ I certainly responded to that. And most Democrats did. Joe won 45 states. That’s a lot better than Barack Obama did in the primaries. And I think Democrats responded to that because they saw his empathy. I think he needs to talk about those things. No good person wants to see children in cages, and very, very, very few Republicans do. I’m telling you, I have a lot of Republican friends and family and none of them like seeing children ripped away from their mamas and locked in a cage. None think those were ‘very fine people’ screaming anti-Semitic and racist stuff in Charlottesville. So Joe can reach out to folks. He is simultaneously exciting his base and reassuring Trump voters that they can come over. And it’s a hard thing to do in politics, but he has been masterful at it. And I think the key to it is his empathy.”
(Excerpts have been condensed and edited for clarity.)