An Interview with Adam Jentleson


Adam Jentleson is the Deputy Chief of Staff for Senator Harry Reid. He previously served as Senator Reid’s Communications Director from 2011 to 2015. Prior to that, he spent six years working at the intersection of policy and politics on two presidential campaigns for John Kerry in 2004 and John Edwards in 2008 and for nonprofit organizations such as the Center for American Progress. Before entering politics he taught at the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school in the Bronx, New York. He holds a BA in American History from Columbia University.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

DPR: We’ve begun all of our guest interviews with the same question, which is: how has the presidential election affected your day-to-day work?

AJ: Well, as of two weeks ago, it was only going to be tangential to our work. The plan for this year before [Justice Scalia] passed away was just to have the Senate and the House not enter into it. That was by design. The Republican leader Mitch McConnell just wanted to pass some medium-scale bills, do the appropriations process, and stay out of the news, in order to let people run their races…his main goal was to stay out of the presidential race. Then Scalia passed away, and all of a sudden, we’re right in the forefront of everything, including the Presidential race.

And these are the kinds of fights that Senator Reid was born to engage with. I think it’s really energized Democrats across the board, and I think people are deeply offended at the way Republicans are treating the President and his future nominee. It’s given us an issue that’s extremely important, an issue that will continue to be in the public eye and at the forefront of the campaign, I think for probably the entire duration. So if you had to name one way in which the Senate and our work on the Democratic side was factoring into this, it would be in pushing our case in the Supreme Court fight.

DPR: You mentioned that you had worked with the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) before entering politics, and between political jobs, you worked at the Center for American Progress. How have these experiences informed your work in politics?

AJ: It’s helped me go into politics with a very acute sense of how public policy matters. It impacts people on the ground and their day-to-day lives. I was very inspired by those kids on a daily basis, and they continue to inspire me. KIPP’s motto is “no excuses”, and not to generalize, but a lot of the kids that we worked with had to put up with and fight through a lot more by the age of 13 or 14… their issues are far more challenging than most things I’ve had to deal with in my life, so it puts things in perspective and it helps you believe that there really shouldn’t be any excuses. You should be able to get things done.

DPR: The rise of Donald Trump within the Republican primary has led many to talk about a “schism” potentially occurring. Based on your firsthand knowledge, what do you think is likely to happen?

AJ: I think there’s a break coming. I think that we have seen it on the Hill, because what we’ve seen since the 2010 midterms was Republican leaders stoking very powerful and very dangerous forces within American society. Forces of resentment, and forces of hatred. And the groundwork for that Tea Party summer of 2009 was all laid by McCain picking Sarah Palin in 2008. There was a lot of this anti-Muslim bigotry apparent at those rallies… it was all there for people to see if they wanted to see it.

And Republicans stoked those forces to reap electoral gains. And as Democrats watching this happen, we’ve always had this [skepticism]. Look, John Boehner was swept into the majority speaker’s position, and John Boehner is a country club, classic, elite Republican. But he rode this force to power that’s kind of the opposite of that. It is working class, resentment based, hatred of all things Obama. And so for years, starting with the debt ceiling crisis of 2011, we’ve been fascinated by this. These two things do not – cannot peacefully coexist… and [we’ve been wondering] what’s going to happen? How do leaders like Boehner stoke these forces on one hand and then try to get these guys to govern responsibly on the other?

And that was the big question – were they ever going to be able to take that blunt force, and use it to achieve more rational policy goals? And after the 2014 election, everybody felt like the Republican establishment had achieved this difficult balancing act and had somehow managed to get the collar around the Tea Party and had managed to use them to win political victories but then keep them at bay when necessary. And that’s turned out to not be true. I think there’s an unavoidable schism because, first of all, Trump’s here to stay; he’s not going anywhere, [and even] if the establishment is somehow able to wrest the nomination from him, either by Rubio having some kind of incredible comeback or by a brokered convention, he’s not going anywhere. He’s just going to run as an independent and take 20% of the vote from the party leader.

I read a story on the way over here that Rubio’s getting his top supporters tomorrow to explain how he’s going to take his fight all the way to the convention. I mean, that’s great for Rubio, but it’s also a fool’s errand, because if Trump continues to win, he actually has a completely legitimate claim to the nomination because he won it according to the rules set by the party. But also, all Rubio’s saying is that [he’s creating] an 8-month civil war from now until the election. That means that you’re going to have an ongoing war between the GOP establishment and the Trump wing of the party.

I’ve always thought that the Republican Party for a long time has been floating itself along on this, you know, sea of resentment and anger. And that was kind of the true… that’s the modern Republican Party the way it is. But a lot of Republicans, especially establishment republicans, would push back on that idea and say, “We’re not. We’re modern, we’re cosmopolitan, we’re not racist,” and if Trump becomes their standard-bearer, there’s going to be an incredible incentive for a faction of the party to say, “This isn’t who we are.” And it’s a question of survival not just for the party in the 2016 election but also if they continue beyond that to be a viable second party in America. And I think it’ll become a point of intellectual pride and distinction for a lot of Republicans to say, “I don’t support Trump.”

They’re going to say, “We have to look out for our party’s potential.” They might just say that 2016 is over. That stinks, but you have to cut your losses and focus on keeping the party intact for 2018, when the Senate map is very bad for Democrats, and they have a chance at creating a lot of losses. You know, they might just focus on the [Supreme Court] nomination part of the Hillary Clinton administration. So I think there’s a big schism coming, and the best they can hope for is to kind of mitigate their losses.

But there’s a lot who say in Democratic circles [not to] underestimate Trump. You know, there’s a middle ground of people who we shouldn’t be arrogant about and assume we’re going to win, but there is a pretty good chance. If you’re a Republican, you have got to be nervous right now and be assuming that the guy is going to lose in a general election campaign.

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