The Trump Presidency From an ex-NRCC Executive Director

Liesl Hickey is a veteran GOP political strategist and a fall fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. Her most prominent role was as executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), where she helped the GOP achieve unprecedented success in the House by improving Republicans’ use of data and online fundraising. This election cycle, Hickey worked as an advisor for the Right to Rise Super PAC that supported Jeb Bush’s bid for the Republican nomination, as well as for the NRCC, the ClearPath Action Fund, and Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA). Previously, she served as chief of staff to then-Rep. Mark Kirk (IL). Hickey sat down with the Gate’s Adam Chan to discuss Donald Trump’s victory, and what it means for America’s future.  

The Gate: As a GOP political strategist, were you expecting Trump’s victory in the presidential election? What do you think explains Trump’s success?

Liesl Hickey: No. Like pretty much everyone else in America, I was not expecting it, and I was very stunned at the results. I think there will be a lot of theories about what happened, and as more data comes back, only time will tell. But I think there are a couple of things that stand out right now. One is an underperformance by the Clinton campaign to get out the Obama coalition. Two, a major gender gap with men, especially non-college educated, white men. And three, what ended up determining the presidency was Clinton’s problems within the Rust Belt, which showed her inability to motivate and persuade those middle-income Rust Belt voters to be with her.

Gate: Trump has made a lot of promises that have appealed to the Rust Belt—anti-immigration, anti-trade. Do you think he will stick to those promises? How will a Trump presidency differ from a Trump candidacy?

Hickey: Well, I think there are some key issues—the ones you just mentioned—that he actually did spend a lot of time talking about on the campaign trail. Otherwise, he didn’t spend a lot of time talking about issues in any serious depth. I think that those promises are two that he will most likely feel the need to live up to. However, he will run into—or could run into—some resistance in his own party on Capitol Hill. The Republican conference and the Republican Senate really are made up of free traders, and that’s been one of the Republican Party’s core principles for a very long time. It’ll be interesting to see how that issue plays out on Capitol Hill over the next several months.

With immigration, on Capitol Hill, he’ll probably have more luck doing some of the things that he had promised, but not all of the things. The religious ban will be very tough. Obviously, the wall will go through the appropriations process and will cost a lot of money, so we’re going to have to see where that falls. But in terms of beefing up security at the borders and also having a more diligent process with refugees, those are things that I think will have support among the Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Gate: You were the executive director of the National Republican Congress Committee for two years, so you are experienced in Republican congressional strategy. How do you think the NRCC will move forward? Will they try to push their own “Better Way” agenda that Speaker Paul Ryan has championed, or will they let Trump lead with the policymaking? And if they do push the “Better Way,” will Trump be a rubber stamp?

Hickey: Well, Republicans on Capitol Hill spent a lot of time and energy putting together the “Better Way” agenda. And it’s Speaker Ryan’s Republican policy project, but it really was a collaborative effort amongst the entire Republican conference. There were a lot of working groups, and a lot of people came together to roll out what they thought were their best policy prescriptions.

I think because the presidential campaign, for the most part, lacked a lot of policy proposals, there is hope that he will allow them to take this hard work and put that forward at least as an initial plan of where Republicans go on some key things. I mean, he did lay out a hundred-day agenda. There are some things that are in line with the “Better Way,” and there are some things that are not especially in line, so I think there will be a mix of the two. Because there was a little more pessimism that he was actually going to become president, I don’t know how much serious policy planning was done [regarding Trump’s] transition, unlike, for instance, Clinton, who had a very serious transition in action.

So I think that will also allow the Republicans on Capitol Hill and Ryan to have a little more influence. You also have to remember that Ryan and Senator Mitch McConnell are very close, and so they agree a lot on the “Better Way” agenda and the issues they want to move on Capitol Hill. So you might even have those two coming together to force Trump to take up their agenda.

Gate: How do you think the Democrats will respond?

Hickey: Well, I think they’re trying to figure out how to respond. You have a group who is ready to say “no” to everything, and some have suggested over the last few days that they should follow the Republicans’ playbook. They actually were pretty good obstructionists at the end of the day. Unfortunately, it didn’t always mean that we had a plan for the future and something that inspired America, but, you know, we [the Republicans] were pretty good at blocking stuff for awhile. I think there’s another group of Democrats who are actually hopeful, and I spoke to one today—Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA)—who hope that there can be some really big things that they could come together on, like an infrastructure bill or maybe something on tax reform, where they could have some success. It’ll be interesting with them retaining Nancy Pelosi as leader which path they go down.

Gate: What do you think Trump’s future cabinet will look like? And secondarily, what do you think Trump’s first hundred days will actually look like given the congressional dynamics and the cabinet?

Hickey: The cabinet looks to me right now, given the names that have been rolled out, like the Trump loyalists—the folks who were there through the campaign, stood by him in the worst moments, with Rudy Giuliani having a top post, maybe as attorney general; with Chris Christie thrown in somewhere, though I’m not sure exactly where; with Newt Gingrich being involved; maybe Jeff Sessions at Defense. And so, it seems like it will be really the Trump inner circle right now. I mean, who knows who he actually rolls out?

In terms of the first hundred days, I actually don’t think we should assume it won’t be good. I think it actually might be good, which is maybe being more optimistic that I should be. This is why I think it could be good. They are going to be pretty serious about rolling out an agenda and looking like they’re going to govern. They want to show that they can govern, and it’s not just a reality TV show. They want to be serious about governing. I know Republicans on Capitol Hill want to be serious about governing, and they want to get some stuff done, and they want to get some stuff done quickly. And there are some things where there will be a lot of synergy, like Obamacare, to move on. So I think they will try to come out of the gates aggressively in the first hundred days.

Gate: So if you had to predict, what type of legislation will be first on the agenda?

Hickey: Well, I think Obamacare is going to be front and center.

Gate: Do you think that Obamacare actually will be successfully repealed?

Hickey: Yes, I think it will be. I don’t know if it will be an immediate, wholesale repeal. It’s a very complicated thing to do. I think they will go after the mandate and get rid of that pretty quickly. Now that they have the Ryan replacement bill as a part of the “Better Way” agenda and with the premium increases that have happened, I think that they feel a little bullish to go ahead and move on that. I think we’ll see something on infrastructure. I think we could see something on immigration. I don’t know exactly what that will look like, so there will be some big things.

Also, there are actually some things that he rolled out in his first-one-hundred proposal that it will be interesting to see what the reaction will be. There’s some “clean-up-Washington” stuff, there are some lobbying bans, stuff like that, which will be fun to watch too.

Gate: 2016 was supposed to be the year for Democrats in Congress, yet they did not have their expected wave. But looking forward to the 2018 midterm elections, more Democratic seats will be vacant in Congress. Midterm elections are typically good for Republicans. So, especially if Trump proves successful—with the economy already doing better and ISIS on the run—do you think the Democrats will be victorious in the midterm elections, or will they further decline in Congress?

Hickey: Right, so I went back yesterday to see if anyone had ever said the words, “Republican wave election,” in predicting what this year would look like—could not find anyone. Never heard it uttered. So yes, I would agree that [it was supposed to be the Democrats’ year]. Well, historically, midterm elections aren’t good for the party in power. But in terms of the Senate, the Democrats don’t have a very favorable map. They have a very unfavorable map, and they have a lot of seats to defend, and that will be a real challenge for them. At the congressional level, with everyone up for election every two years, you could see something happen there if Trump doesn’t perform, and the country feels like we’ve gone off course. But, where we could have problems is in our governors’ races. We have a lot of governors in 2018. So, if we’re going to have problems, we’re probably going to see them there. I think in the Senate, unless there’s something cataclysmic, it will be very hard for Democrats.

Gate: What do you make of speculation about various new political alignments—that the Republicans are becoming a populist party, and Democrats are becoming the party of the elites?

Hickey: I think that is very premature at this point. I think the Republican Party and the Democratic Party will remain true to their core values that they have remained true to for a long time. I think that there will be some adjustments around the edges, which I think is always needed in both parties. But for the Republican Party now to be absolutely anti-trade across the board, not for reforming entitlements and things like that, I would be pretty surprised if that sort of wholesale change would happen.

Gate: In a recent Washington Post article entitled, “Trump Won Because College-Educated Americans Are Out of Touch,” Charles Camosy, an assistant professor at Fordham University, writes in regards to educated millennials’ response to Trump’s win:  “A reduction of all disagreement to racism, bigotry and ignorance—in addition to being wrong about its primary source—will simply make the disagreement far more personal, entrenched and vitriolic. And it won’t make liberal values more persuasive to the less educated, as Trump victory demonstrates.” How much truth do you think this statement and the title of the piece have?

Hickey: I think that’s right in a lot of ways. It will be very interesting to dig into this more, as I think about my conversations with lots of friends and family across the country who don’t live in urban or even some suburban communities, and who are not college-educated, and who don’t live on the coasts. In their descriptions of why they would support Donald Trump, I think there’s this idea that for some, it’s that he’s done with political correctness, and he’d say what he wanted. You know things that he said that really meant that these people are racists and bigots. And I don’t think that’s at all true. What I do think is that they were a little bit tired of people who don’t understand them and who don’t live the lives that they live, telling them how they need to think and act and behave all the time but didn’t actually fit their communities, their culture, their lifestyles. And, I really do think that the communication has to be a two-way street in terms of listening, and I think they felt like it was very much a one-way street. I think that they found someone who they felt was more tuned into how they were feeling and what their culture was, and so I think, as we look for tolerance, we have to look for it everywhere.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

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