DG MARTIN COLUMN: Advice for Biden from a master

“Don’t sign on to work on that one.”

D.G. Martin

Jay Robinson, who was the UNC System‘s vice president for public affairs and chief lobbyist, was training me to be his successor.

“Be careful,” he said, “This one is a loser. And it doesn’t pay to get yourself associated with proposals that are going to lose.”

I had told him about a good project that I wanted to help get legislative approval and funding.

He did not say it directly, because he did not want to disagree unnecessarily, but what he meant was that we needed to have the reputation for backing winners, not losers.

The project I had in mind was meritorious, but it was never going to get approval in the legislature.

‘Don’t touch it,” he said.

“We want people in the legislature to see us as backers of winners and to see our proposals as likely winners. It would be terrible if they think we are promoting losers, ones that don’t have a chance.”

On the other hand, according to Robinson, when you push a proposal through and get the legislature to adopt a university proposal, you add to a reputation for being able to get things done.

After each legislative session when the university president reported to its board of governors, Robinson and the university’s finance officers prepared lengthy reports. They would frame every legislative action, especially the appropriations results as favorable for the university. They would work hard to prepare a series of positive and convincing summaries of legislative actions that would convince the board that the university and its officials, including Robinson, were winners.

Robinson and the finance officials knew the university needed much more than it got. And they knew the university needed much more funding and approvals for expanded programs and services.

But they knew that complaining at this point would be detrimental.

What they needed as they planned for the next legislative session was to be viewed as a winner.

I don’t have to wonder what kind of advice Jay Robinson would be giving President Biden.

Here is what he would say.

“You’ve gotten some important victories in tough circumstances that could have gained you the kind of winning reputation that gives strength to your later efforts. Congress passed a $1.9 trillion package that was extraordinary. Now some of the politicians who voted against the bill are claiming credit for it. But you don’t have to claim credit. Give credit to others. Just keep reminding people that it happened.

“On your watch, the government confronted a pandemic and many of us are alive because of those efforts. The American economy has turned around and grown, and you are working hard to keep inflation in check.  Don’t brag. Just commit to keep working as long as needed.”

If Biden asked Robinson what he should do about Sen. Joe Manchin, what would he say?

Robinson was always careful to hold on to his friends even when they disagreed with him.

So I think he would say this to Biden: “Manchin is your key to every possible legislative success. If not for Manchin, Republicans would control the Senate. Then your dreams for passing progressive legislation and getting approval for appointments would disappear. Get him on your team even if it makes some of your more liberal allies uncomfortable.”

Robinson was not much for aphorisms, but he might make an exception and say to Biden simply, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

D.G. Martin retired as UNC-System vice president for public affairs in 1997. He hosted “North Carolina Bookwatch” for more than 20 years.