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George Mason University

Lis Smith on rapid response to attacks in political campaigns

October 30, 2020   /   by Audrey Butler

For political communication guru Lis Smith, working in politics is working to build a better world.

“There’s something grand about being able to shape American public life – to shape the policies that we live under every day,” she says to Robinson Professor Steven Pearlstein during the First Tuesday political talk series.

As a rapid response specialist, Smith decides how a campaign will respond to attacks against their candidate, while always being ready to send arguments back against the opponent. In this fast-paced environment, Smith fondly describes her field as “not like any other profession in the world.”

Still, for Smith, the thrill is not all that calls her to the job.

“Campaigns aren’t just a game; they are a means to the end. The end result is I get to help put really good people in office – people with whom I share values, and people who will be really good leaders in critical moments like [today].”

With that in mind, Smith has built an impressive resume for herself through the candidates she has stood behind.

While known most recently for her ingenuity behind Pete Buttigieg’s democratic presidential campaign, Smith was also a key player in Senator John Edward’s (D) presidential run. From 2006 to 2010 she stayed busy, participating in numerous gubernatorial campaigns, and then in 2012 being named the rapid response director for the Barack Obama re-election campaign. Shortly afterwards, she returned to the Democratic Governors Association, working most notably with Martin O’Malley (D) in his 2016 primary run against Hillary Clinton (D).

So how, then, does one decide who will be a “good leader” or candidate – especially for positions as influential as the president?

“We look for the remedy to what ails the previous president,” Smith explains “After Trump won in 2016, there was this view in the democratic party that to beat Trump you had to be him. You had to emulate his crudeness, and all his grotesque mannerisms – raising your voice, insulting everyone who disagreed with you, hyperventilating over every issue – and that was sort of the path the democratic party was going down. [But] the reality of presidential campaigns is that we go between opposites.” In Smith’s eyes, the more-moderate characteristics exemplified by candidate Joe Biden rose, predictably, out of the need to “remedy” Trump’s now-iconic brashness.

“I don’t think [attacking] makes sense in this race,” Smith continues, responding to the role one of Biden’s rapid response specialists might take during the current presidential race. “Trump is defined [already]… People feel how they feel about him.” A nonconfrontational strategy may be one of the greatest contrasts from Clinton’s run against Trump in 2016, but, as Smith predicts, could be the key to a race that is not framed inside of Trump’s control.

The political climate going towards the November election has shifted since Trump’s first campaign, and Smith sees a nation losing interest in the relentless bashing of candidates, in favor of finding a plan to lead to recovery – “[a plan for recovery] is the message people need to hear.”

The First Tuesday series was sponosored by the Honors College as well as the Schar School of Policy and Government.

Related people: Steven Pearlstein