Remembering the D.C. Visionary Doug Bailey

Doug Bailey was one of the first people I met in Washington, and I couldn’t be a more fortunate person for it. My boss, turned mentor, turned friend and neighbor taught me all there is to know about politics, being a good person and – perhaps most of all – being a good person in politics.

On my first day of college in 2007, I found my way to the infamous Watergate complex where I had an interview for an internship with Unity08, the political organization Bailey co-founded that had the audacious goal of nominating a third, bipartisan ticket for president and vice-president through the first ever online nominating convention. The very deliberate yet genial Bailey told me, “What you’re going to find is that the juniors and seniors don’t follow the freshmen ... but why shouldn’t the freshmen be the leaders?” He gave me the job.

That was classic Doug, always challenging and reimagining the status quo. He did so as one of the first national political consultants of his time, helping to elect literally dozens of moderate Republican representatives, senators, and governors – and nearly winning Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign. When the consulting professional took a turn for the worse with negative advertising by the late 1980’s, he left to found “The Hotline” daily political briefing – the POLITICO Playbook of its day, sent by fax to every power player in the city. In 1995, he helped launch PoliticsUSA.com as one of the earliest attempts to create a first-stop shop for political news and information online. After 9/11, Bailey spearheaded “Freedom’s Answer” to mobilize a youth-driven voter registration and turnout drive that brought tens of thousands of people to the polls in 2002. 

He was never, ever, without a new idea. He was, what we affectionately called him in his last campaign, “the visionary.”

Doug Bailey proved three things about politics. First, it is possible to have a long and successful career in politics without compromising one’s values or integrity. He never lost sight of politics as true public service. “As a consultant, I wouldn’t work for someone I wouldn’t vote for – that was the simple test.” Second, there is room for innovation in politics, in both the policy and the process. “America’s secret sauce is that the Constitution provides the stability and the people provide the change.” Third, despite the dysfunction and the cynicism, politics can be an enjoyable profession if it’s not always taken too seriously. Among his annual traditions were writing (and sometimes singing) new lyrics to old Christmas carols – like “McConnell the No Man” to the tune of Frosty the Snowman. (He liked to pick on today’s Republican Party.)

Doug Bailey was patriotic to the core; not the kind of strident, we’re-better-than you patriotism, but the kind of humble patriotism that believed the great promise of America could be found in the good judgment and decency of its people.  “Forty years around political campaigns has taught me to trust the collective will of the people more than the self-important wisdom of the ‘experts’,” he once wrote. It was fitting then that at the inception of Americans Elect (Unity08’s successor), Doug and I traveled to two-dozen cities across the country to record the honest and unscripted views of “the people” about today’s politics, through man-on-the-street video interviews. 

While the taxing trip dang near killed him three years ago, he enjoyed conducting every interview with every kind of person imaginable, believing their words, not ours, should define the effort to repair our polarized and paralyzed political system. On the failure of Americans Elect to eventually field an independent presidential candidate, he lamented the risk-adverse nature of political leaders but pointed to the absence of a grassroots movement and remarked, “leadership from the top seldom happens without leadership from the bottom too – that’s the power ‘we the people’ have.”

Doug Bailey especially believed in the power of young people. “Nothing could be more promising for America than to have the young become the new political bosses.” Bailey frequently said that every generation “redefines freedom on its own terms for its own times.” The evening before a hastily arranged press conference of student body presidents who were getting ready to release a letter calling on both parties to resolve the debt ceiling debacle in 2011, Bailey came to a prep session at Georgetown University. He told us, “you are the ‘can’ the politicians in Washington keep kicking down the road; it’s time for the can to kick back at Washington.” The Can Kicks Back line stuck as the name of our campaign ever since. He was a brilliant communicator who once quipped he would edit the Lord’s Prayer if he had the chance.

Bailey and I spent the last four years working on a timelapse photography project of Washington, DC. From his apartment across the river in Arlington (“close enough to enjoy the view, far enough to escape the politics”), we mounted a camera that has been taking a photo about every 15 minutes since President Obama’s inauguration of the iconic national mall. We called an eventual coffeetable book of favorite photos “Washington and New Beginnings.” Doug penned the introduction, “It isn’t just each president or each generation or even each season that represents a new beginning. A new beginning comes with each sunrise – breathtaking, inspiring, humbling.”

Today’s sunrise marked Doug Bailey’s new beginning. He leaves behind an incredible legacy and a compelling vision for what politics can be in the 21st Century by “combining America’s oldest values and newest technologies.” Now it’s our job to catch up.

Nick Troiano is the co-founder and national field director for The Can Kicks Back campaign and a graduate student at Georgetown University.