The Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service’s third class of fellows consists of five individuals from varied backgrounds with extensive experiences in politics, government and media, including former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D).
GU Politics, an institute of the McCourt School of Public Policy, also selected former Chief of Staff at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing Scott Mulhauser, The Washington Post’s Deputy National Political Editor Rebecca Sinderbrand (COL ’99), former Senior Policy and Political Adviser to the Jeb Bush presidential campaign Michael Steel and CNN Politics Editor Juana Summers.
In an interview with The Hoya on Wednesday, the fellows discussed their goals for the upcoming semester and their thoughts on the current U.S. political landscape.
Why did you decide to come be a fellow with GU Politics?
Sinderbrand: This is a return trip for me to the Hilltop. This is eerie. I literally would sit at this table and use an Exact-O knife to cut out headlines and paste them with cement, that’s how old I am. I’m very happy to be here. I know – or I think I know – exactly what I’ll get when I come back here, which is fantastic discussion with Georgetown students, the kind that I miss. I’m also going to have a built in focus group where I can hear what people think of coverage, get idea, get thoughts. It’s the kind of opportunity reporters dream of.
Summers: I’m really excited to be here because I think it’s really important as a working journalist to be able to have an opportunity to get beyond the headlines and beyond the sound bites that can often drive campaign coverage. I do a really specialized job. I’m an editor for CNN Politics that focuses on data and I don’t have an opportunity in my day job to have a lot of rich conversations with people who are consuming the news that Rebecca and I and other journalists produce. I think that, much as Rebecca said, this will be a really great opportunity to be able to have those conversations with students who are smart and engaged and curious about the world around them.
Steel: I’m excited because young people are less and less interested in traditional politics. But that doesn’t mean they are unaffected by it or that it’s any less important. So I think it’s critical to learn from students why they’re not engaged by how the system works now and how the system can improve so that people have a greater interest in being involved.
Mulhausser: I just moved back to Washington from Beijing seven days ago, so it’s great to be home. After two years in China and 20 years in politics, I’m both frustrated and excited by all of this. Nothing is more exciting than coming back here, figuring out my own road ahead by talking to the students here, learning where they think things are going.
O’Malley: I ran for president and there was nothing more enjoyable about that frustrating experience than every day being with the young people that were the core of my campaign and that I got to work with every day. That give me a tremendous amount of faith and hope in our country and in our future as a people. So I’m looking forward to spending time with these young, forward-looking, terrific students at a great university, Georgetown.
Could you give me a sense of what you hope to achieve this semester as an IPPS fellow and what you think you bring, given your very different backgrounds?
Sinderbrand: I am going to be talking about campaign 2016 through a reporter’s point, which is not as someone running a campaign but someone who is observing it very closely, who is talking to the people who are involved in the campaign, who is making decisions about what they think is the most newsworthy element of a story and how we handle those stories. I was telling someone earlier that I hope there are people at Georgetown who would like to be journalists for a living, but I know there are people who are going to be working with journalists in their career, on Capitol Hill or elsewhere. Everyone is interested, I think, in news, to some extent. They’re news consumers, they’re paying attention to what’s happening, they have opinions on coverage, they’re curious about how the process works. I want to pull back the curtain a little bit about how we do it at the Washington Post every day.
Summers: My discussion group is about race and politics in 2016. I think that will be particularly exciting this political cycle and on this campus. For a variety of reasons, I think now is the time to have that conversation and conversations about race, and what our lived experiences are as it relates to the political cycle … I think we’ve really seen that come to life in having eight years of the nation’s first black president in President Barack Obama and the rise of the white working class voter that has largely fueled Donald Trump and the demographic changes that will make Latino and Hispanic voters one of the largest voting blocks in this country. I think it’s a really important moment to have this conversation. I hope when students come to my discussion group they feel safe and comfortable to have those conversations with their peers that they share this campus with, where race is obviously a big focal point right now due to Georgetown’s history.
Steel: There are a lot of institutions in Washington that aren’t working right now, that are designed more to serve interests rather than the people as a whole. There are a lot of ideas for reforming those institutions that also serve various interests, but not the people. I think we need to start fresh with a blank piece of paper and ask the question, ‘If you were organizing Congress today, how would you do it? If you were setting up the system to fund our presidential and other elections, how would you do it?’ Hopefully by going back to first principles and figuring out kind of an ideal system, we can come up with proposals that actually help with the way it’s done currently.
Mulhausser: I think when we look at what’s coming up in 13 days, the presidential debate that could be the most-watched event of our lifetimes, there are things that do work. So what makes campaigning work and how can campaigning be better? What makes debates work and how can they be better? What makes the media work? The media is doing a tremendous job covering this race. They are exposing things everyday and yet they’re being pilloried. We’d like to hear more about what they’re doing right and, both with them and others, what can be done better.
O’Malley: We’re going to be asking the question every week whether our country is becoming more polarized or less, has the pendulum swung, are we going to be able to recapture some common ground? So we’re going to be looking at issues starting with marriage equality, an issue that moved faster and gained a consensus very, very quickly. We’re going to look also at issues like criminal justice, which we can’t talk about without talking about race in America. We’re going to look at climate change, immigration reform and ask whether or not the pillars of Catholic social teaching — the dignity of every person, the common good we share and the unity of spirit and matter — might provide some framework and language for consensus.
What are your thoughts on the current U.S political climate, given your different backgrounds?
Mulhausser: I came back from two years in China, so it’s pretty rosy from that perspective. Maybe I’m wearing rose colored glasses but when you’ve got an electoral system that’s not done behind closed doors, where there is an incredibly dynamic back and forth, it’s not pretty or necessarily what any of us were hoping for but sometimes comparatively, it depends where you’re standing.
Steel: I’m personally incredibly frustrated. I’ve been part of a group that has spent the past 10 years of so recovering from the political effects of the last Bush presidency, winning the House in 2010, helping in a small way to take the majority in the Senate in 2014. This was a year when we had a great opportunity to elect a conservative reform president who would build on those ideas that had been developed the past several years and put those into practice. It is intensely frustrating every day to see that we seem to have nominated pretty much the only presidential candidate who couldn’t accomplish that goal.
Sinderbrand: For a reporter, every single campaign you have to learn something new. The way you deal with people on campaigns, that doesn’t change. But the way we report the news, the pace, the technology, every single time it’s been different. So that’s always an interesting experience.
O’Malley: I’m deeply concerned with where we are right now in our country’s politics. I’m so deeply concerned that I ran for president myself. I believe that this election poses a very non-traditional choice, a very stark choice and also presents a bit of a constitutional dilemma given the very unconstitutional positions that Donald Trump has taken on many issues. This, I believe, could well be the most important election. You hear people say that, it almost becomes trite. But we’ve never quite had a constitutional crisis like this, with so much anger, so much polarization, such a deep and broad sense of alienation from our own political leaders as you have in the electorate right now. Add to that declining wages and you have a very volatile soup here within which this constitutional crisis will be played out with the choice we all make or don’t make in November.