Lis Smith Has a Radical Idea for Democrats: Be Normal

Lis Smith is on fire walk into the neon-lit bar on a Friday night, wear Daisy Duke cutoffs and high-top vans, order the cheapest draft beer, and tune in to Whitesnake’s hair metal classic “Here I Go Again” on the jukebox. “I’ll see you in here in booty shorts,” Smith admits. “This is how I dress when I walk through the West Village in the summer.”

We’re not far from Smith’s New York apartment, and the Democratic activist is already living up to her reputation for shooting from the hip. According to Smith’s recent memoirs Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story, MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski morning joe once advised her to tone down her “sex kitten act” if she wants to be taken seriously as the mastermind behind Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign, a meteoric political run Smith helped create. Others may have viewed Brzezinski’s advice as sexist, but not Smith.

“In a perfect world,” she says, “women would wear what they want, look how they want, and no one would frame them based on that. But that’s not how the world works. And the world certainly doesn’t function in a male-dominated industry.”

In a way, this pragmatic insight—Smith took Brzezinski’s advice and switched to jeans and cowboy boots—embodies her brand of political wisdom. As a next-generation gunslinger who has worked with everyone from Senator Claire McCaskill to President Barack Obama, she wants to teach Democrats how to win races in polarized America. She has come under fire for criticizing what she calls “the online left-wing echo chamber,” which she says alienates voters who live anywhere west of Manhattan and to the right of AOC. As Smith recently recounted vanity fair‘s In the hive Podcast that the left’s “schoolteacher vibe” was alienating voters, it sparked backlash that Smith used “gendered” language in her criticism. “You’ve confirmed my point of view!” she says, downing her beer.

Before each interview, Smith implores her Democratic clients to “just be normal,” offering to volunteer as a backroom translator between the coastal elite and Central America. “It’s radical that sanity is radical and normality is abnormal.”

Smith’s biography does not exactly suggest a homely feeling for the lumpen proletariat. She grew up in Bronxville, an affluent New York suburb, and majored in government and anthropology at Dartmouth College. While playing violin in the college chamber orchestra, she also played the solo on the Whitesnake song for a rock band. She fell deeply in love with John Edwards during his first presidential run and received her education in the American middle while campaigning for Tom Daschle in his 2004 Senate campaign.

“When you go 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 deal with people. And the way of dealing with people wasn’t to yell at them, not to look down on them, not to say, “Wow, I can’t believe you don’t believe in my right to choose.”

Democrats would always draw the wrong conclusions from the successes of their own candidates. When Buttigieg rose from small-town mayor to presidential nominee to win the Iowa caucus in 2020, it shocked the DC pooh-bahs precisely because voters in Iowa didn’t read Twitter — but did was Hear Buttigieg’s criticism of Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All. “It just totally blew up everyone’s online brains,” she says.

Though Buttigieg ultimately lost — Smith believes Biden was indeed the best candidate (another centrist success story) — his unlikely performance showed a new vanguard of young Democratic talent hiding in plain sight. “Pete was supposed to be a blueprint,” says Smith. “Democrats should look more outside of Washington for leadership. And I think Republicans are doing that much better.”

As Smith’s next song rolls off the jukebox—Wilco—she pulls a small bottle of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey from her pocket and takes a long sip, offering a hit. Tastes like Big Red chewing gum. “You’ve never had Fireball?” she asks.

Veteran strategist James Carville sees Smith as a companion: “I think Lis is one of those people who’s willing to get their hands dirty,” he says. “I respect that. She won’t admit it, but a lot of it is performance art. Look at me. Now I’m the most aggressive, purest person in the world. But you also have to be one of the most Effective people around the world too.” Lis Smith Has a Radical Idea for Democrats: Be Normal

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