How To Be A Political Commentator – Doug Heye

Eric Wilson
July 10, 2024
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How To Be A Political Commentator – Doug Heye
July 10, 2024

How To Be A Political Commentator – Doug Heye

"Try explaining that to your aunt when she reads you quoted about it in the New York Times."

Our guest today is Doug Heye, a strategic communications advisor and political commentator. Doug was the communications director for the Republican National Committee during the 2010 election cycle and on Capitol Hill was Deputy Chief of Staff to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In our conversation today we go behind the scenes on cable news, how Doug prepares for a hit, and what producers are looking for in a guest.

Episode Transcript

Eric Wilson (00:01.646)
I'm Eric Wilson, managing partner of Startup Caucus, the home of campaign tech innovation on the right. Welcome to the Business of Politics show. On this podcast, you're joining in on a conversation with entrepreneurs, operatives, and experts who make professional politics happen. Our guest today is Doug High, a strategic communications advisor and political commentator. Doug was the communications director for the Republican National Committee.

during the 2010 election cycle, fondly referred to as the Tea Party cycle. And on Capitol Hill was Deputy Chief of Staff to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. In our conversation today, we go behind the scenes on cable news, how Doug prepares for a hit, and what producers are looking for in a guest. Doug, what was it like to transition from someone supporting candidates ahead of TV hits to becoming the one in front of the camera?

Doug Heye (00:59.404)
Well, it really first started when I was at the RNC. Well, let me back up. The first time I ever did one was in 2002. And basically, I was working for a California congressman, Richard Pombo at the time, and we had a fundraiser for the campaign with Dick Cheney. That obviously brought media attention, and I had to do a standup, which I had never done before.

Eric Wilson (01:15.182)

Doug Heye (01:25.132)
essentially, except a little bit in some campaign roles in the past, but this was going to be seen by my bosses and the White House and so forth. And there wasn't a whole lot of time to prepare. And in 2002, yes, I had a cell phone, but, right?

Eric Wilson (01:44.014)
Right, you had to text using numbers.

Doug Heye (01:47.756)
Yes, and so the conversation on what would you like me to say was a sort of brief one. And as you know, you talk to the person for eight minutes and they run 12 seconds with it. Well, the 12 seconds went well. And then I never did any in 2006. I was working on Michael Steele's Senate campaign. I don't think I went on camera once on any local interview.

Eric Wilson (02:01.838)

Doug Heye (02:14.636)
And the one that I mentioned in California was a local California Bay Area television station. But after the campaign, I had coffee with Carl Cameron, who was the political lead reporter at Fox News at the time. And after coffee, he walked me into the newsroom and there sat Hadley Gamble and Jenna Gibson. And he said, this is Doug. Doug, give them your information. Put Doug on. Which I did not know he was going to do. And

Eric Wilson (02:41.742)

Doug Heye (02:44.748)
A few days later, they called me to do a segment. I was on against then former Senator Dennis DeConcini. And one of those, how was this gonna happen sort of moments, because he was a Senator and I clearly was not. And I sort of went through, okay, what do I want to say, based on what the topics are? And then how do I wanna say it? So what's the point I wanna get across? And how can I use language?

Eric Wilson (02:55.63)

Doug Heye (03:12.972)
to get that across. And it went well. And they invited me back a week or two later. And this was when John Edwards was announcing his presidential race. And I was home in North Carolina at the time. And perfect timing. And it really became perfect timing because the night before the 10 a Fox hit, I was on against Stephanie Cutter, I was watching the Andy Griffith show.

Eric Wilson (03:28.846)
Perfect timing.

Eric Wilson (03:40.782)
Ha ha.

Doug Heye (03:42.284)
which is sort of a religious rite of passage if you live in my part of North Carolina where I'm from. 530 every day it was on for 30 years. And they tease the news and it says John Edwards is announcing his own presidential campaign, but Kenny went his own state. And I wrote that line down and that one sentence was all I needed to prepare. And doing it from, I had to go to a hospital in Winston -Salem, Edwards.

basically Wake Forest University Baptist Hospital, because we didn't have Zoom and you needed HD cameras and so forth. But that one sentence meant that I could frame kind of the conversation in a way that no one else could just by the dumb luck of me being home on that specific day. Clear case of it's better to be lucky than good, because anybody who hears that sentence knows. But a lot of it is the same.

Eric Wilson (04:32.686)
Right. Yep. It pays off.

Doug Heye (04:40.108)
You know, with the relief of pressure, what I say is not going to cost me an election. I've never run for office. I'm never going to. And I'm not angling for a job in this administration or that administration. So I have the absolute benefit of, certainly now, especially being just completely honest. Without really an agenda, sure, I have my...

Ideologies and biases like anybody else but no agenda which allows me to be a truth -teller that makes writing my own talking points So to speak when I do not always pretty easy

Eric Wilson (05:18.861)

Yeah. So give us the nuts and bolts behind the scenes of how a TV hit comes together. The Booker for the show reaches out to you and then, and then what happens next.

Doug Heye (05:34.764)
Sure, it's two ways. One, a booker from a TV show will reach out. Or, depending on what the news is, I may reach out. If it's something specific where I have experience, I'll reach out. So the convention next week. I've done a whole lot on conventions and platforms and things like that. So I've reached out to a few bookers and producers and just said, hey, as you're looking at stuff, if I can help, let me know.

When a booker reaches out, it'll be one of two things, something very specific. Obviously with the news right now about, you know, President Biden, that's a whole lot of what I get asked about on all three of the main cable networks. But then there's also the generic, hey, can you do next Wednesday? And that's what we call a soft book. News certainly can change and often does between now and then.

But they want as somebody who's running a show to make sure that when they're, they want to show their boss that they're doing their job and note we're well prepared for all of next week, even though all of it may change or just some of it may change. Good example. I was on with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC today at noon to talk about the Biden news. And when I left, her producer emailed me and said, can you do

Eric Wilson (06:38.638)
They gotta fill some time. They need people to talk.

Doug Heye (07:03.244)
or how does next week look for you? And, you know, we don't really know what next week's going to look like. What is Joe Biden going to do? Has Donald Trump announced a vice presidential nominee and so forth? So that's more of a soft book. And, you know, if I do, maybe I do next Monday, maybe I don't.

Eric Wilson (07:10.99)

Eric Wilson (07:23.534)
Well, we're obviously very lucky to have you fitting us in during this busy time. And so with that soft book, there's a chance that you could get bumped. And I think that's something that surprises a lot of people, even people who work in cable news, like the reporters, that they're gonna get bumped from time to time, depending on breaking news.

Doug Heye (07:44.972)
Yeah, I think you have to have a pretty common sense attitude about it. It's news. And if something happens where, so the standard line I use is, and I'll say this to networks, I'm not your North Korea rocket guy, right? If Kim Jong -un decides to send up a rocket to test, not only they're not calling me, but it has happened. And I'll sort of remind them, you don't want me on this topic.

Eric Wilson (07:50.03)

Eric Wilson (08:00.11)

Doug Heye (08:14.668)
if there's an issue with Boeing and the FAA, I'm not who you want on air. Neither are any of my other political colleagues, by the way. Now, some people will say yes to everything, and I certainly get that, but I find it beneficial that I know what I'm talking about, hopefully at least, and that I'm not wasting the network's time so that when I go to them and say, I have real experience on this, then they know how

then they know that I'm serious. The flip side of that is, and I've certainly seen it, is people who are either getting bumped or getting held, meaning, you know, let's say it's the 6 p hour and somebody's being held from 6 to 6 .15 to 6 .30, most people will shrug their shoulders and chalk it up to news being news. I have seen some of the meltdowns and they're not pretty. They're not pretty at all.

Eric Wilson (09:11.63)
Yeah. So, okay, you've been booked. You're pretty confident you're not going to get bumped. It's something within your area of expertise. What's your process for preparing for a hit once you've learned what the topic is going to be? Say it's a Senate race here or some drama going on Capitol Hill.

Doug Heye (09:35.308)
Yeah, it depends on what the topic is, obviously, and how long it's been a topic, meaning how steeped am I in this, or are we all in this, right? So again, to use the Biden example, we've been having the same conversation either for a week and a half or for three months, depending on your perspective, or more, right? So on something like that, I don't need to prep very much.

Eric Wilson (09:45.518)

Eric Wilson (09:56.206)

Doug Heye (10:04.044)
But I do think about, as I said earlier, what do I want to say? I pretty much know that. Then, OK, how do I want to say that? And that can change. Obviously, we went from reacting to a debate to an interview after a debate, now to congressional reporters chasing members of Congress in the hallways because they're back today, right? So an example on that. This was today with Andrea Mitchell.

I made reference to the fact that Mitch McConnell's team, press team sends out press releases as you know, every day, Democrats in disarray. And Democrats hate when they do that, but it's a thing that the McConnell team does frequently and well. So I use that as an example, because members of Congress and senators are back on Capitol Hill today. I wouldn't have used that as an example, say on Friday, because then it's just not really relevant, right?

July 4th recess, members are home. And if I were talking about that, I would say members are home and they're hearing from their district. Now today, members are back after having heard from their district and a lot of Democrats right now don't want to answer reporters' questions. Sort of like when Republicans would say, I didn't see what...

Eric Wilson (11:23.566)
How many secret entrances to the Capitol do you know?

Doug Heye (11:26.54)
Yeah, well, there's that, but also remember the, no, I didn't see Donald Trump's tweet that Republicans said every day for four years. Same thing right now. And that's where you sort of get into the, you know, history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. It also repeats itself a lot. So a lot of what you say today is, and I don't mean this in a negative sense, but recycled from six months ago, a year ago, because it's awfully similar.

Eric Wilson (11:32.622)

Eric Wilson (11:53.806)
Right. Well, that's a good point. And so with that, there's a saying that I'll give credit to our friend Adam Bellemare who produces this, that in Washington, everyone's already said something, but we need everyone to say it. And so how do you avoid falling in with that conventional wisdom of Washington when you're developing your analysis? So obviously we've been talking about

Doug Heye (12:10.7)

Eric Wilson (12:21.902)
you know, the topic du jour, which is Biden's age. What, what, what do you add into that? Are you trying to do a contrarian take? What, what's the, what's the, the goal there?

Doug Heye (12:33.484)
Well, the first thing is to try and hear as much as you can from outside of Washington as possible. And, you know, that's a universal truth for Republicans, Democrats every day of the year. It is very easy to get caught into what the Washington conversation is. And one thing that, you know, was very illustrative of that to me, which I then used on TV, was the Trump convictions.

Eric Wilson (12:39.406)

Doug Heye (13:02.7)
When it was announced that there was a conviction, I was at the airport in Baltimore and I'm doom scrolling on my phone, but no one else is. The TVs at the bars and the restaurants are all still on ESPN or whatever sports channel. They didn't change to any news. And then the verdict was announced when I was in the air and I didn't have wifi. So when I landed, I find out the verdict and I walked through the Asheville, North Carolina airport.

And every TV is on the sports channel. I didn't hear anybody use the word conviction or Trump. And so that informs me of what DC constantly talks about is not what everybody else talks about or with the frequency. Whatever people think about President Biden and his age or his mental acuity, it might be part of their daily conversation, but it's not 30 minutes of every hour of their political conversation or normal conversation.

Eric Wilson (14:01.134)

Doug Heye (14:03.052)
So that's a big part of it.

Eric Wilson (14:06.766)
Yeah, and I just think about the example of the Stephanopoulos interview on Friday. I mean, most people are taking the day off because it's 4th of July. Some cynical people might say that's why they picked that day for the interview. But you look at the ratings and it's, I mean, there's other shows that you and I probably have never heard of that got more views than that interview.

Doug Heye (14:18.572)
Well, I mean...

Doug Heye (14:27.82)
Yeah, absolutely and look that you know, the CNN debate had 50 million viewers. That's a lot of people that's also lower Than you know what we've seen in a lot of previous debates and part of that is it's before Labor Day Part of that with the interview was yeah, obviously it's July 5th on a Friday That impacts things and so, you know what we don't know is did timing benefit or not did

Did Biden benefit from the timing or not yet? And I just don't think we know, but that's all part of that as well. And then also, obviously, we all have our people who are sort of touchstone references for us outside of DC that if this person tells me something that's slightly more interesting and I should pay more attention to that. And that to me is always good as well. And I'm not shy about reaching out to folks.

Eric Wilson (15:22.638)
Mm -hmm.

Doug Heye (15:26.732)
and saying, you know, what are people talking about?

Eric Wilson (15:30.222)
Right. You're listening to the Business of Politics show. I'm speaking with Doug High for a behind the scenes look at life as a political commentator on cable news and beyond. So, Doug, I want to shift now to a little bit of kind of the nuts and bolts of things. So what are booking producers for these shows looking for in a guest? Say we've got a listener who really wants to be on TV and share their hot takes.

How do they make that happen if they don't have campaign Carl Cameron just walking them through the newsroom?

Doug Heye (16:01.676)
Well, one, first they're looking for people who are ground rooted in experience. And that can be political, that can be non -political. So, former transportation secretaries or transportation department staffers, if there's a train derailment or the train spill that happened last year, things like that.

That's where you go to those experts. So one, they're looking for expertise. That can be either in a very broad sense, politics is a very broad subject, obviously. That can be in a very narrow sense. And I always marvel at how cable news, and anything happens in the world, within 20 minutes, they've got somebody who is the perfect person. Think about that.

Eric Wilson (16:57.102)
They wrote the book on it or something. Yeah.

Doug Heye (16:59.98)
They wrote the book on the submersible that wanted to find Titanic, right? And yeah, did they spend too long on it, three weeks or whatever? Sure, but they had the expert there immediately. So that's part of it. The other are, this is true in any industry, anywhere in the world, are relationships. And they're going to reach out to people that they know.

Eric Wilson (17:05.998)
Right. Yeah.

Doug Heye (17:29.548)
Don't call strangers all that often. Journalists being somewhat of an outlier on that because that's part of their job. But when it's somebody who's coming on their show, they want to call someone that they know and that hopefully can provide some analysis and insight. So it's no surprise that by and large for TV news bureaus that are anchored in Washington, that most of the people are in Washington.

And I think it benefits to get folks who aren't in Washington. That's always a good thing. And that doesn't just mean New York City. You know, when there was, and I forget what the issue was, last year or the year before California state government political machinations, CNN flew in Rob Stutzman. Now Rob's a political operative, Republican political operative from Sacramento.

Eric Wilson (18:12.398)

Doug Heye (18:29.292)
great guy, but I just remember thinking that's really smart booking because it's the kind of thing that if they called me, I might've done, but it's not exactly right. But that's not really my wheelhouse. And maybe I could have faked it, which I don't like doing. Rob was perfect. And where you can do that, I think that's a great thing. Clearly we see a lot of that during the caucuses and primaries.

Eric Wilson (18:39.246)
but he's who you would have called.

Doug Heye (18:59.212)
You're going to see a lot more people from Iowa and New Hampshire and so forth, South Carolina, during those primaries. But then they get forgotten, you know, pretty much the next day for another four years, quite often.

Eric Wilson (19:12.974)
So, and I was gonna ask you about that. When, well, how has that post pandemic remote interview capability changed this business? Cause you mentioned your hit back in North Carolina, you had to go to the hospital. Now, obviously today we could do a hit from, I mean, basically anywhere with the tech we have and sort of, I think people are more comfortable.

with seeing that. Is that bringing in more voices or is it just making it easier for people to do their TV hits from their summer home?

Doug Heye (19:52.748)
I think it's a bit of both. And when COVID hit, I was on contract with CNN. And when you're on a contract, everybody's contract is different, but do you have to accept every interview request you get? No. I have a 10 a call every Tuesday that I cannot miss unless it gets canceled, of course. And so I say no, I can't do Tuesday at 10.

You can do Wednesday at 10 maybe, or Thursday at four or whatever. And they're all different shows. And by the way, the shows sometimes are competing against each other as well. It's not just Fox versus CNN versus MS. And we could have a whole discussion on the financial networks and how they compete against each other. But it does allow them to quickly get somebody, especially when something happens. When there's, you know,

real news, not just let's talk about the same thing that we've been talking about. It also allows people to do it from their summer homes or their vacations or wherever. But Eric, to be honest with you, I don't use Skype or Zoom for interviews anymore unless it's something that's breaking. I live very close to CNN, Fox and MSNBC. It's less than a 15 minute walk to all of them. And for me, I think

A big part of the benefit of going on the shows is sitting next to the host, talking to whomever else is in the green room or in the makeup room. And it's better sound and it's better video. So unless I absolutely have to do it on a Zoom, at this point, I don't do that anymore.

Eric Wilson (21:37.934)
Yeah, that's interesting.

I'm interested to learn more about kind of your tips for, I get the sense that sometimes these arguments that are happening on cable news are kind of like a kabuki theater. Similar to like a congressional hearing where, you know, we know what's gonna be said, who's gonna say what. What are your tips for having a, if we can call it productive, argument with your fellow panelists?

How do you make sure that you win? What does winning look like? Bring us into that experience.

Doug Heye (22:18.028)
So where I started and where I am are not the same places. And I think essentially there are two or maybe two and a half tracks, so to speak. One is the opinion people. And they don't necessarily have to be experts. They can. But they're there because they have opinions. And I think quite often hot takes and loud takes quite usually.

Eric Wilson (22:42.382)
Hot takes.

Doug Heye (22:46.572)
Caustic takes the person that they don't like is evil. The person that they do like is amazing. That's always the case. And whatever happens magically is going to benefit their party. Right? It's amazing. Whatever happens is great news for them. And early on, you know, I did some of that and you know, I would go on against Democrats and I'd want to beat them.

Eric Wilson (23:00.448)

Doug Heye (23:16.524)
And I was pretty good at it. But basically when I went to the RNC, it was a very unique time with a unique chairman and we were under fire every day. And we had a situation where a staffer was, a staffer basically spent money at a risque nightclub in Los Angeles or Beverly Hills. I forget which.

Eric Wilson (23:41.166)
Eric Wilson (23:44.846)
I thought it was Las Vegas. Okay. This is a different one.

Doug Heye (23:46.252)
No, no, California. And it became a huge story. And with the DNC very smartly spinning it as we were spending money at a lesbian -themed bondage club, which was not exactly true, once that gets into the vernacular, try explaining that to your aunt when she reads you quoted about it in the New York Times.

Eric Wilson (24:05.134)
Ha ha ha!

Doug Heye (24:17.068)
I realized very quickly that, you know, how we responded to this wasn't just about weathering a crisis or getting past a crisis, but was about credibility and, opinion in the sort of senior staff of the RNC, was very divided on my going on TV. And I went on with Megan Kelly and I didn't hold back. And I said,

Yes, this is unacceptable. Yes, we've, you know, we've fired the staffer. There will be other people who will be fired. By the way, I wasn't authorized to say that. And some people were then wondering, well, who does he mean? To demonstrate within the building, but also to, my audience was very small in that case, even though it was on nationwide TV. My audience was to,

Eric Wilson (24:59.598)
Is it me? Yeah.

Eric Wilson (25:12.366)
168, yeah.

Doug Heye (25:14.06)
The 168, the however many Republican members of Congress there were, but essentially the leadership staff and the NRSC, the Senatorial Committee and the NRCC, the Congressional Committee. Those are my audiences and obviously the reporters who covered us and were watching. So if somebody in my hometown of Louisville, North Carolina saw it and liked it or didn't like it, not even in my thought process, I needed to demonstrate that as a committee,

we were going to have credibility and do the right thing and a good job. And that sort of changed my, that one hit and another one that I did with Contessa Brewer on CNBC where we had a not similar issue, but a sort of scandal that was dumb. Same thing. And we've seen so many times where all hell is breaking loose behind somebody and they say there's nothing to see here.

Well, there is something to see and people can see it. I think this is one of the problems for the White House. And so to their credit, they've at least admitted that it was a really bad night for Biden. I think it's more than that, but I can imagine if they tried to say, hey, he was dynamite. he really hit his points and all of that. Exactly. And so those two hits sort of reorientated

Eric Wilson (26:34.19)
full Baghdad Bob.

Doug Heye (26:42.092)
how I thought about it, even if I didn't know it at the time. And to not do that Baghdad Bob stuff that we see people at the party committees do all the time, and to keep credibility. And so, to this day, I don't think about beating anybody or being particularly partisan. Look, I'm a conservative Republican. That hasn't changed, even if I'm not a Donald Trump fan.

If Trump does something that I think is smart, I'll say it. If Biden does something that I think is smart, I'll say it. I think that gives me more credibility than to the anchor and to the people I'm on the panel with. And if I agree with something that Jen Paul Mary says, I'm going to say that. And that may be a narrow tactical sort of strategic thing, not a

should Biden run for reelection or not. I think that gives me credibility with an audience as well. And that's what I'm looking for. And if for those people who want to go out there and be the partisan warriors, and always have the knife between their teeth, so to speak, there is a world for them and they can be very profitable at that. That's just not what I have decided to do.

Eric Wilson (27:43.246)
Right. But it's sort of like as a practitioner, your perspective of things.

Eric Wilson (28:10.126)
Yeah. So Doug, political pundits have to make a lot of predictions and when you make them on TV, it's unfortunately or for better or for worse recorded forever. so looking back at the, the, the years that you've been doing this, what's the most off base you've been in a political forecast and more importantly, what have you done to update your, your mental model or, or how you think about things like that?

Doug Heye (28:36.812)
First and foremost, Donald Trump can't win. That's it, right? And I remember the Saturday morning after the Access Hollywood tape leaked, I was on the phone with a reporter from Bloomberg, she was at Bloomberg at the time, Margaret Taleb, and I was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I said on the record, campaign's over, Trump can't win.

Eric Wilson (28:51.054)
Mm -hmm.

Doug Heye (29:04.972)
a reasonable thing to say the morning after the Access Hollywood tape came out. Clearly that wasn't. No, including in the Trump campaign. Clearly that wasn't right. But I've also, you know, I've also tried to learn to hold off on making hard predictions. I don't mean hard isn't difficult, but like definitive predictions.

Eric Wilson (29:11.118)
And something that you were not alone in saying, we should point out. Yeah.


Doug Heye (29:33.196)
Again, I think most of the people who do that always predict that everything's gonna be good for their side. And this is by the way, I was so frustrated with my Republican colleagues in the midterm cycle that just passed. And this went on for a year. Stop saying red wave, right? We have an expectations game that is a process and you're saying there's gonna be a wave a year out.

Eric Wilson (29:47.15)

Doug Heye (29:59.468)
And I understand we're in Donald Trump world where everything's big and bold and beautiful, but stop saying that. And eventually they did stop saying it and they said it's actually gonna be a red tsunami. for the love of God.

Eric Wilson (30:12.302)
Yeah, we actually saw that in some of our polling people, you know, sort of came to like grassroots voters came to expect that as that was going to happen.

Doug Heye (30:19.372)
Absolutely. And so what happened, right? And I never predicted it. I basically took it in the Bull Durham mindset of, you know, we're going to take it one game at a time and good Lord willing, we're going to be there in the playoffs. And so Republicans have an election where they win back the house, but because they wouldn't win it by a good margin, Democrats threw the victory party.

Eric Wilson (30:29.614)
Ha ha.

Doug Heye (30:48.94)
That only happens when you have people making outlandish predictions that always benefit their side. And as a lifetime fan of professional wrestling, I think it's very easy to discount the folks who treat this like it's a professional wrestling commentator, commenter. I love Bobby the Brain Heenan, not talking about politics.

Eric Wilson (31:12.846)
So what for I think kayfabe and professional wrestling is like a really good lens for understanding our modern political discourse and the way voters consume it.

Doug Heye (31:21.356)

without question.

Eric Wilson (31:26.542)
Yeah, well conversation for another day. My thanks to Doug High for a great conversation. Make sure you're following him over on X for all of his hot takes, which are almost always correct. And look look out for him on on TV and radio. If this episode made you a little bit smarter or gave you something to think about, you know, all we ask is that you share it with a friend or colleague. It makes you look good in the process. More people hear about the show.

win -win all around. Remember to subscribe to the Business of Politics show wherever you listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode. You can also sign up for email updates on our website at businessofpoliticspodcast .com. With that, I'll say thanks for listening. We'll see you next time.

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