Branders vs Builders

February 23, 2020

by Steve Stofka

At the National Press Club this week, Army secretary Ryan McCarthy spoke about people resisting change “because they focus on what they are going to lose instead of what they are going to gain” (C-Span, 2020). True? Not true?

In 2016, almost half of voters voted for change. In 2008, former President Obama ran on a platform of change. In his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders is touting big policy changes. He is leading in early caucus primaries and early caucus results place him as this weekend’s winner in Nevada.

Americans have been able to embrace change because our political institutions resist change. Unlike Britain, we have a written Constitution that proscribes or sets boundaries for change. In the U.S., minority interests are given more power to play an obstructionist role and this is particularly true in the Senate. When Harry Reid was the Democratic Majority Leader, he accused Republicans of obstructionism (C-Span, 2011). When the Republican Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, became the Majority Leader in 2015, he made the same accusations against Democrats (C-Span, 2017). The parties trade scripts.

Tired of listening to the same script, a lot of voters chose an off-script candidate, Donald Trump, in 2016. For most of his term, the White House has been run on an informal basis, changing policy with the political weather in Washington. President Trump is a brander, not a builder.

Presidents who want to enact a large part of their agenda must be both branders and builders. It is an unusual combination of traits. In the 20th century, only FDR and Ronald Reagan were both. Perhaps Teddy Roosevelt. This is a subjective call. What are your candidates for the title of both brander and builder?

When a President is capable of both roles, the other party reacts strongly to what they build and their brand. This is certainly true of both FDR and Reagan. Republicans continue to tear away at the federal bureaucracy first erected by FDR. President Reagan was and is the champion of that movement among mainstream Republicans.

Responding to the worst recession since the Great Depression, Democrats elected a leader they hoped could emulate the substantial change in direction that FDR brought about. President Obama was neither a brander nor a builder. His “no drama” demeanor could not build coalitions in an age when people wanted a “fire in the belly” leader like Mr. Trump.

Bernie Sanders is such a “fire in the belly” candidate, but can he build the coalitions needed to pass direction changing legislation? He has not done so during his thirty years in the House and Senate, according to NYU historian Timothy Naftali (Stein, 2020). His campaign slogan is “Not me, us!” He is asking voters to play a vital role in melding political coalitions.

Mr. Bloomberg’s anemic first performance on the debate stage this week was hardly encouraging. Yet, Mr. Bloomberg appeals to practical Democratic and Independent voters, as well as establishment Republicans like Clint Eastwood who have tired of watching President Trump playing in his White House sandbox. This weekend Mr. Eastwood gave Mr. Bloomberg a thumbs up (Berley, 2020). Why would Republicans vote for a Democratic candidate? If the Senate remains in Republican hands, they will act as a check on a Democratic President and House. If other notable Republicans signal an approval of Mr. Bloomberg, that might persuade pragmatic Democratic voters to choose him as well. The road to the White House is a maze of planning, circumstance, and shifting voter and donor alliances.



Berley, M. (2020, February 22). Clint Eastwood Endorses Bloomberg, Citing ‘Ornery’ Politics. [Web page]. Retrieved from

C-Span. (2011, September 6). Opening Remarks from Senators Reid and McConnell. [Video, Web page]. Retrieved from (01:11).

C-Span. (2017, July 11). Senators McConnell and Thune on Health Care. [Video, Web page]. Retrieved from (13:24).

C-Span. (2020, February 14). Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy at the National Press Club. [Video, Web page]. Retrieved from (8:14)

Photo by Alfred Kenneally on Unsplash

Stein, J. (2020, February 12). As Bernie Sanders ascends, his potential White House approach to the economy comes into focus. Washington Post. [Web page]. Retrieved from

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