Lis Smith Has a Radical Idea for Democrats: Be Normal

Lis Smith blazes into the neon-lit bar on a Friday night, wearing Daisy Duke cutoffs and high-top Vans, ordering the cheapest beer on draft, and queuing up Whitesnake’s hair-metal classic “Here I Go Again” on the jukebox. “I’m meeting you in here in booty shorts,” Smith acknowledges. “This is how I dress when I go around the West Village in the summer.”

We’re not far from Smith’s New York City apartment, and the Democratic operative is already living up to her shoot-from-the-hip reputation. According to Smith’s recent memoir, Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story, Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s morning joe once advised her to tone down her “sex kitten act” if she wanted to be taken seriously as the brains behind the Pete Buttigieg campaign for president in 2020, a meteoric political run that Smith helped architect. Others might have viewed Brzezinski’s advice as sexist, but not Smith.

“In a perfect world,” she says, “women would wear whatever they wanted, look however they wanted, and no one would form their impressions of them based on that. But it’s not how the world works. And it’s especially not how the world works in a male-dominated industry.”

In a sense, this pragmatic insight—Smith took Brzezinski’s advice, switching to jeans and cowboy boots—encapsulates her brand of political wisdom. As a next-gen gunslinger who’s worked with everybody from Senator Claire McCaskill to President Barack Obama, she wants to school Democrats on how to win races in polarized America. She’s come under fire for criticizing what she calls “the online leftist echo chamber” that she says turns off voters who reside somewhere west of Manhattan and right of AOC. When Smith recently told vanity fair‘s Inside the Hive podcast that the left’s “schoolmarm vibe” alienated voters, it sparked blowback that Smith was using “gendered” language in her critique. “They proved my point!” she says, downing her beer.

Smith implores her Democratic clients, before any interview, to “just be normal,” offering herself as the backroom translator between coastal elites and Middle America. “It’s radical that being reasonable is radical and being normal is abnormal.”

Smith’s biography doesn’t exactly suggest a homegrown feel for the lumpenproletariat. She grew up in Bronxville, an affluent New York suburb, and studied government and anthropology at Dartmouth College. While she played violin in the college chamber orchestra, she also performed the solo in the Whitesnake song for a rock band. She fell hard for John Edwards during his first presidential run and got her education in the American middle while canvassing for Tom Daschle in his 2004 Senate campaign.

“When you’re going door-to-door in South Dakota, you really understand that there are many different ways to be a Democrat,” she says. “You learn what the best arguments are and how to relate to people. And the way to report to people was not to yell at them, not to look down on them, not to say, ‘Wow, I cannot believe you don’t believe in my right to choose.’ ”

Democrats, she says, continually draw the wrong conclusions from the successes of their own candidates. When Buttigieg leapfrogged from small-town mayor to presidential contender to win the Iowa caucus in 2020, it shocked the DC pooh-bahs precisely because voters in Iowa weren’t reading Twitter—but were listening to Buttigieg’s critique of Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All. “It just totally blew up everyone’s online brains,” she says.

Though Buttigieg ultimately lost—Smith thinks Biden was in fact the best nominee (another centrist success story)—his unlikely achievement demonstrated there was a new vanguard of young Democratic talent hiding in plain sight. “Pete should be a blueprint,” Smith says. “Democrats should look more outside of Washington for leadership. And I think that Republicans do a much better job of that.”

As Smith’s next song comes on the jukebox—Wilco—she pulls a small bottle of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey from her pocket and takes a healthy swig, offering a pull. It tastes like Big Red chewing gum. “You’ve never had Fireball before?” she asks.

In Smith, veteran strategist James Carville sees a fellow traveler: “I think Lis is one of these people that is willing to get her hands dirty,” he says. “I respect that. She ain’t going to admit this, but a lot of this is performance art. Look at me. Now, I am the most aggressive, pure person in the world. But you also have to be one of the most effective people in the world too.”

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