Former White House press secretary addresses DBA group

Jan Shepel

Madison — Against a backdrop of presidential change happening now in Washington, D.C. dairy farmers and allied industry people heard about what it’s like to experience the transition of power from a woman who was there eight years ago.

Keynoting the first day of the “Dairy Strong” conference in Madison, sponsored by the Dairy Business Association last week, was Dana Perino, former press secretary to George W. Bush, who is currently a political commentator on Fox’s “The Five” and a best-selling author.

She said that as she watched the transition (she spoke in Madison a few days before the inauguration of Donald Trump) it brought back memories for her of what it’s like to leave “the best job of my life” eight years ago as Bush left office and President Obama took over.

Perino, who was born in Wyoming and raised in Colorado, said that her grandfather in Wyoming had “pounded it into our heads that we were no better than anyone else” and that served her well as she spoke for the president in her role as press secretary.

She said that eight years ago George W. Bush was getting ready to go back to Texas – “he called it The Promised Land. Mrs. Bush called it the Afterlife. One of the things I loved about him was his humor.”

Recalling some of the moments with Bush, Perino said she was there when the shoes got thrown at him by an opponent in Baghdad. The president wasn’t hit, but Perino was toppled into some microphones and “had a black eye for the last six weeks of the Bush Administration.”

She also recalled that eight years ago on Jan. 20, when Bush left office, it was below zero in Washington; so cold that violin strings were snapping. Perino said she doesn’t like goodbyes and understood what that feels like for the outgoing administration.

One of the leadership qualities she learned from Bush was forgiveness, she said. When former advisor Scott McClellan wrote a bitter book about the Bush Administration, she was angry and the president urged her to try to forgive him.

“I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to grow up on the East Coast, go to an Ivy League school to end up advising the President,” she said.

Perino said Wisconsin should be in good shape with the Trump Administration, since Reince Priebus, former chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party organization is now President Trump’s chief of staff. “It’s a good thing to know the president,” she said, “but it’s a very good thing to know the president’s chief of staff.”

Following her stint in the White House, Perino took a little time off and then was asked by Fox to come and help fill a spot when Glenn Beck departed the network. “It was supposed to be a temporary show for six weeks and we’re still on the air.” For a while it was a difficult transition to go from being someone’s spokesman to speaking for herself, she said. But she has gradually come to embrace that role.

Perino said that for Donald Trump to win last fall’s election he had to “draw an inside straight and he did.” The margin of victory in many swing states was very small, but leaned toward Trump.

In Wisconsin, she noted, a mere 23,000 votes made the difference. In Pennsylvania it was 44,000 votes and in Michigan it was 10,000 votes. She noted that more people voted third party last November than in any other previous election. “Change mattered most to people and in this election much of the decisive votes came from the late deciders.”

Many people looked at Hillary Clinton as the “third term of Obama,” Perino said, but noted that now-President Trump has “unfavorable” polling numbers higher than any other person elected to the White House. She was reminded of the words of Abraham Lincoln who said upon taking over as president “your troubles are over and mine have just begun.”

There will always be things that will test a president, she said and it’s important who the president surrounds himself with – including 20 national security positions that should never be vacant.

She highlighted what she foresees in the first days and weeks of the Trump Administration: rapid repeal of Obamacare, tax reform, immigration and border security moves, including a downpayment on “the wall,” repeal of some of Obama’s executive orders, a Trump Supreme Court nominee and an infrastructure bill.

Some things about governing might be frustrating for Trump who is used to making deals and getting things done as a businessman, she said. “Sometimes it’s extremely hard – like trying to get the flour out of a cake.”

Tax reform is an area that’s really important and immigration and deportation issues are areas that she said she just doesn’t know what’s going to happen. “I think WOTUS is dead,” she added, referring to the Waters of the United States, a regulation that was opposed by most of agriculture as a whole.

Trump has promised to triple the country’s investment in infrastructure – roads, bridges and airports, she noted.

The Democrats are faced with the choice of either working with Trump, working against him or stalling, which would frustrate Trump and could provoke him. She noted that the Democrats did win the popular vote for president. The Republicans have lost six of the last seven presidential elections based on the popular vote, she added.

Trump describes himself as a counter-puncher, Perino said, but Democrats like those who announced they were going to sit out his inauguration “showed his party that there are ways to get under his skin.”

The Democrats right now, she said, “are a party with no leader” as several men vie to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Perino said that in the last election Democrats did better with Republican women than ever before.

Demographics could have a significant impact on future elections. Using Texas as an example, she said, two-thirds of the people dying are white, but only one-third of those being born are white. “The reality is that the Democrats are not in as bad a position as they think they are.

“If Bernie Sanders had been allowed to have the nomination, he probably would have beaten Trump and this speech would have been very different,” Perino said.

Farmers and other people from rural areas help elect Trump but Perino said that for the most part people don’t understand agriculture. “It’s so big, so diverse. When I was in the White House it was very interesting to read the history of the Agriculture Department. When anything was added to the government it got added to the USDA.”

Perino’s perspective of Trump is that “he can be persuaded” and she’s curious to see what his vision is of what “America would look like it if was made great again.”

“I believe he wants America to be more confident again,” she said, adding, “embrace the chaos because that’s what you’re going to get.”