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Talk Like a Human

Politicians don’t often sound like their voters, but Donald Trump did. The lesson for the next wave of Trump challengers should be obvious.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The dust is still settling on the 2016 election, but we can already draw lessons from it. One that Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer hold the highest: Politicians need to be authentic. Too often, politicians speak in vague clichés designed to insulate themselves from controversy. Too often, that leads to out-of-touch, uninspiring candidates. On the latest Keepin’ It 1600, the two explain how the next wave of Democrats need to be comfortable in their own skin.

Listen to the full episode here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Jon Favreau: When we thought Hillary Clinton was going to win, I was getting ready to write a post-election piece — now I don’t write anything, I scroll through Twitter all day — [about how] the one thing we could learn from Donald Trump is that … politicians need to learn to speak like human beings. Throw away your fucking slogans and the line that your consultant gave you and your pollster gave you and talk like a normal human being. Like, if I see a bunch of Democrats do a pool spray about their strategy for Trump that has a bunch of signs behind them that say: “Forward Together for Prosperity for All,” I’m going to fucking throw something at the TV. We are not in a news environment anymore where you [can] think about, “What’s a cute line that I can put in the paper that will be quotable and interesting?” Now, that doesn’t matter. Trump doesn’t have any of those [kind of slogans]. Trump just speaks like you and I speak, right?

Dan Pfeiffer: Well …

J.F.: I’m sorry. Barack Obama speaks like you and I speak. There are two sides to the same coin here, right? Barack Obama spoke like a lot of Democrats speak in their real lives and Trump speaks like a lot of the Republican base speaks in real life. There’s a lot of politicians in Washington who don’t speak like anyone speaks. Even the little things I notice, like the line on Medicare now: “If Republicans want to privatize Medicare, bring it on, make my day!” Chuck Schumer said that. I’m like, “Enough of that shit.” Let’s throw away those lines and speak like normal human beings again, because that’s going to be one way that Democrats can reconnect with the American people, whether it’s the working class, whether it’s college-educated voters, black, white, Hispanic, you name it. Everyone wants someone who speaks authentically.

D.P.: There’s one exception to this — which is Joe Biden, because he’s an amazing individual — but the longer you’re in the Senate, the weirder you become.

J.F.: I started work for Obama in ’05, and I was his speechwriter, and … I remember both of us looking at the floor of the Senate in those opening months and we were watching some of those speeches, and he’s like, “Do I have to talk like that? What are those people doing?” He was never good at giving floor speeches [in] the Senate because there’s a certain style which is formal and cheesy and all this kind of stuff, and Obama’s like, “I don’t want to talk like that.”

D.P.: This goes to our point about how our next Democratic hero [will not be] an elected politician. Do you remember in Iowa in 2008, one of the big things people would say is that, “Well, I really like Obama, but it’s Hillary’s turn,” or “maybe he’s not seasoned enough.” The first lady, who we call the Closer, basically said to people: “In four years or eight years, we probably don’t [run this campaign]. Because four or eight years of being in the Senate, in the national spotlight, we’re not the same person. We’re four or eight years further removed from taking our kids to the zoo on the weekend, to paying off our student loans and figuring out how we’re going to pay our mortgage.” Which is why it was so important that Obama ran when he did because he wouldn’t have had the same authenticity. Politics beats the authenticity and the adventurousness out of you. To go back to two people who I think if we can find roles for them to play in the party, where they’re given a platform to speak from over the next two years, who I think are very talented and talk like normal human beings, are Tom Perez and Jason Kander.

J.F.: Yeah! I love friend of the pod Tom Perez and I’m a big Jason Kander fan. I totally agree with you. Now, it is interesting because one person aside from Joe Biden who sort of belies that is Bernie Sanders, who’s been in Congress for I don’t know how long, and he still had an authenticity to him; it somehow wasn’t beaten out of Bernie Sanders.

So it’s not completely [a matter of] being in Washington or not — [though] Bernie Sanders has a certain authenticity that I don’t think a bunch of people should try to copy either if you’re not like Bernie Sanders. You should be who you are.

Bernie Sanders, no one doubts that’s who he is. Donald Trump, no one doubts that’s who he is. He was very honest about how dishonest he was every day. He basically told you [that] he’s lying to you and that he’s in on the game.

I think, for some of our nominees, Hillary Clinton or John Kerry or Al Gore, or on the Republican side, Mitt Romney or the John McCain who ran in 2008 — [who was] very different from the John McCain who had run in the past — those nominees were clearly not comfortable in their own skin all the time.

D.P.: The most important quality in a politician is comfort in your own skin. The best politicians [are those] who, if they lose, they’re just going to go back to their lives. They’re going to be sad but totally fine with it.

J.F.: Right.

D.P.: If Barack Obama had lost in 2008 — he hates losing, so it would not have been pleasant, but he just would’ve gotten up the next day and had breakfast with Sasha and Malia and the first lady and just gone on with his life. For Trump, as much as we hate him, he would’ve just gone back to his real estate business. He would not have been going on walks in the woods.

J.F.: The best way to win is to not live in fear of losing. That is the message of the day.