There are so many people involved in the highest levels of American politics at any one time that it is very, very difficult for the average person to keep them all straight. Most people actively participating in society and consuming the news know the broad strokes and headline names: the president, the Speaker of the House, a handful of senators and Cabinet members.
Underneath this, though, there is a category of person whose names are largely unrecognized and whose actions are largely unquestioned. They may crop up in a news cycle from time to time, but for the most part they are content to inhabit the insiders club of professional politics, insulated from the people whose lives they gamble with, accountable to no constituents beyond their peers.
They collect titles like “senior adviser” or “communications director”; many of them start off or end up as a press secretary at one point. Eventually, they leave and go work for a major corporation. Each of Barack Obama’s former press secretaries — Robert Gibbs, Jay Carney, and Josh Earnest — became the head of communications for McDonalds, Amazon, and United Airlines, respectively (Gibbs left McDonald’s last year). That in itself should tell you enough about these peoples’ personal politics, but what is important to me is that we remember their names and see them for what they are before they leave for a cushy executive-level job at one of the companies that may have funded their bosses’ political campaigns or lobbied the governments they worked for.
So, here is a name to remember: Lis Smith. She is one of these people and she is very, very good at it. She will probably have a job in the West Wing of the White House at some point in the next ten years.
If you’ve heard of Smith it is probably because of her work on the Pete Buttigieg campaign. The fact that you have heard of Buttigieg at all has a lot to do with Smith, who, again, is very good at her job. In the 2020 cycle she realized, correctly, that if she got a vaguely normal-looking guy who was clearly very smart and coherent and made him do every single available media appearance — all while being very careful to have him say seemingly smart and coherent things without ever actually taking an ideological position — you could go a long way in a crowded field and even be able to declare victory in Iowa. Then, when the candidate was out of money and large constituencies of white Democrats who will vote for him, he could drop out and endorse the frontrunner and probably nab a speaking slot at the convention, a cabinet position, and a definite chance at actually winning the thing in 4 or 8 or 12 years.
If Joe Biden plays his cards right, the death of the traditional presidential campaign will turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The 77-year-old Mr. Biden, whom the president derisively calls “Sleepy Joe,” can become the hottest bad boy and disrupter in the media game.
All right, that’s enough of that, we’ve made our point.
Before this, Smith’s highest-profile gig was as a strategist and spokesperson for New York’s Independent Democratic Caucus. The IDC, with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s blessing, was a group of Democratic state senators who, instead of helping their party, caucused with and largely voted with the Republicans in New York, with the deliberate goal of making sure the state didn’t get too progressive. Sound familiar?
The IDC came crashing down in 2018, when New York voters wiped them out in the Democratic primaries. Smith clearly landed on her feet. After Pete’s insurgent run, she can do whatever she wants now. If she wants a job in the Biden administration, she can have one. If she wants to stay behind Pete and ride out the next few years with him in the expectation that they really go for the whole thing in 2024 or 2028 she can do that. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her do both: pick up a gig in the Biden White House if he wins and then part ways amicably to go back to Pete when the next primary really kicks off. Maybe she’ll go corporate or PAC or something for a few years.
The next few years of Smith’s career aren’t really important; what’s significant to me is that she is here to stay and will almost certainly be a major player in the continuation of the Democratic machine for the foreseeable future. In 2016, Donald Trump railed against the nakedly ambitious, morally vacant politicians Smith represents by threatening to “drain the swamp,” a phrase he then made meaningless by filling his administration with more alligators and leeches than any president before. The swamp still exists, and will flourish under another four years of Trump or 8 years of Biden, or Pete, or whomever comes after that. If you see Smith behind the White House press secretary’s podium, you’ll know that the rest of the snakes are doing just fine.