David Axelrod on Cruz, Perry, Clinton and why 2016 may be less about hoping than coping

Good morning Austin:

David Axelrod, the political consultant who was the chief architect of President Obama’s extraordinary rise from the Illinois state Senate to the presidency, will speak at the LBJ Library tonight at 6 about his memoir, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, with members of the Friends of the LBJ Library. All the seats are booked, but they will be posting a full recording of the program after the event. I’m in D.C. this week so believerwon’t be there tonight, but I talked to Axelrod for about twenty minutes yesterday by phone as he drove from one appointment to another in Chicago, where it was, fittingly, election day, and in its own way, a hometown test for Obama.

Rahm Emanuel, Axelrod’s comrade-in-arms in the Obama’s presidential campaigns and administration, was up for re-election as mayor, but didn’t get the majority vote he needed to avoid a runoff, despite President Obama’s best efforts on his behalf on his home turf.

As Alex Isenstadt and Kyle Cheney reported in Politico:

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fell short of an outright win in his reelection battle Tuesday — despite President Barack Obama putting his hometown political clout on the line to push his former top aide over the finish line — and will face the second-place finisher in an April runoff.

Emanuel pulled in 45 percent of the vote — well short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia finished second at 34 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting.

There is nothing to suggest that Obama is at fault for Emanuel’s showing. The mayor has had a rocky first term highlighted by clashes with teachers, a wave of violent crime and backlash over his plan to increase taxes. The famously hot-tempered Emanuel, long known in Chicago and Washington as “Rahmbo,” also met criticism for his sometimes hard-headed style.

But the result is also a disappointment for Obama, who put himself at the forefront during the final days of the campaign. He cut radio ads for Emanuel, his first White House chief of staff. And on Thursday, just five days before the election, the president flew into Chicago to give the mayor a boost. They appeared together at a stop in the Pullman neighborhood, where the president declared that he could not “be prouder of [Emanuel] and the extraordinary service.”

Obama and Emanuel then made a trek to one of the mayor’s campaign headquarters, where the president told volunteers that Emanuel was “somebody who cares deeply about this city.” Video of the president’s testimonial ended up in the mayor’s final television ad before Tuesday’s vote.

Those appeals, however, were not enough to give Emanuel, who was facing a group of underfunded and less well-known opponents, a majority of the vote.

As Axelrod wrote in his book of Emanuel, when he was first contemplating running for Congress:

For Rahm, failure of any kind was a terrifying prospect … Losing? That was not an option, and Rahm’s allergy to it already was legendary.

President Barack Obama talks with Senior Advisor David Axelrod at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, La.,, following a meeting on the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, June 4, 2010.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama talks with Senior Advisor David Axelrod at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans, La.,, following a meeting on the response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, June 4, 2010.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

What follows is my quick Q and A with Axelrod yesterday. His answers are just as he gave them. My questions are improved for succinctness and to make me sound more intelligent.

FR  – The Obama-Clinton Texas primary was your only experience working on a campaign in Texas?

DA – No, that’s not true. I worked for Bob Lanier when he ran for mayor of Houston. I worked for John Sharp when he ran against Rick Perry in 1998. I worked for Lee Brown when he ran for mayor.

FR – Democrats and Battleground Texas didn’t have much success turning Texas blue this past year. Do you think that remains a wise investment of Democratic resources?

DA – I think it’s a long-term project. I think it’s a project well worth pursuing. There are still a huge number of unregistered Hispanic voters that can be a huge force in the politics of that  state but that’s a long-term project. I don’t think that’s going to happen tomorrow.

FR – You don’t mention Rick Perry in your book even though he was, briefly, a threat to knock of Mitt Romney and become the Republican nominee in 2012.

DA – We took him seriously, like everyone else, for a brief period of time. It was pretty clear once he got out there that he wasn’t terribly prepared for all of the rigors and challenges of a campaign at the time that he took that on. That evidenced itself fairy quickly. But as you remember there was a little boomlet there. He was certainly on our radar screen, but it was always our assumption that Romney would navigate his way through.

I knew Perry a little bit because I did media for Sharp in 1998. We came very close to beating him for lieutenant governor. I think we lost by a point or a point-and-a-half,  while Bush was carrying the state with 69 percent of the vote.

George W. Bush(I) REP 2,550,821 68.24%
Garry Mauro DEM 1,165,592 31.18%
Lester R. ‘Les’ Turlington, Jr. LIB 20,711 0.55%
Susan Lee Solar W-I 954 0.03%
Race Total 3,738,078
Lieutenant Governor
Rick Perry REP 1,858,837 50.05%
John Sharp DEM 1,790,106 48.20%
Anthony Garcia LIB 65,150 1.75%
Race Total 3,714,093

So I had some sense of Perry.  So obviously he wasn’t the guy in 2012 that he was in ’98. He had become sort of political colossus in Texas, which he wasn’t back then, but we always thought that Romney would be the guy.

FR –  Former Gov. Perry likes to point out that previous Republican nominees have had to run more than once before they succeeded. Ronald Reagan didn’t prevail until his third run for president. But is there a precedent for a candidate who did as poorly as Perry did in his first outing to ultimately capture the party nomination?

DA – You’re always hesitant to say never,  but it’d say he’s pretty freighted here and it would be  a remarkable story if he were to come back. Ronald Reagan was the leader of an ideological movement, and had world-class communications skills  He ran kind of half-hearted race in 1968, but in 1976, Ronald Reagan very nearly won the nomination. I would not be so presumptuous as to suggest that as a historical parallel.

FR – After Gov. Perry’s indictment you tweeted you thought the case against him seemed kind of “sketchy.” Perry and his allies delighted in touting your tweet, but Texas Democrats, like Glenn Smith, called you to task.

DA – I spoke instinctively. My feeling generally is that we should not criminalize politics and I still feel that way, but I’m not steeped in the facts of that case and can’t speak to the facts of that case, so, if you have just enough knowledge to fill 140 characters, you should think before you hit send.

David Axelrod with David Gregory on Meet the Press
David Axelrod with David Gregory on Meet the Press


FR – In a New Yorker profile of Ted Cruz last year, Jeffrey Toobin wrote: “The speed of Cruz’s rise makes Barack Obama’s ascent seem almost stately.” What to you make of the swift rise of Cruz?

DA – I think he is a very, very bright, very skilled demagogue and he knows exactly who his audience is and he trying to build a following by catering to, pandering to that audience and I am sure he will find some sort of following within the Republican base. But that’s a lot different than building a national constituency that could win the nomination and win the presidency

FR – How do you rate the Republican presidential field?

DA – You never know until you see them in action. I mean Bill Clinton had followers and he had some enthusiasm but he started out as an asterisk and ended up as the nominee. And so you know you have to see how people handle the process.

I’m not dismissive of the Republican field. I think Bush is obviously an interesting candidate. I don’t know if taking the positions he’s taken he can survive the primary process, and I think that will be a big question. There has been a lot of ballyhoo about (Scott) Walker. This last couple of weeks has given me pause because he’s punted on everything. He’s like the Ray Guy of Republican politics, he’s basically punting on every play. But, that said, he’s obviously a guy who has chance to unite the right and center right  and therefore is a guy who you should watch. Marco Rubio is obviously doing interesting stuff on policy. Rand Paul  is doing interesting stuff in terms of building an unusual constituency, kind of a right-left constituency that is different. Others as well. I’m not minimizing the field

But I think the challenge of the Republican Party is the same as for the last several cycles, which is, can you cater  to the most strident voices in your party and still win a national election and I think the answer’s no. And that’s why what Bush is doing is interesting, why what Paul is doing is interesting.

FR – The Obama-Clinton battle was such a gripping drama that it caught the attention of a lot of people who don’t normally follow politics. Is there a danger for Democrats that this time around all the drama and interest will be on the Republican side?

DA – Well I think the Republicans don’t think so. They’ve worked very hard to limit the length of their process. I think that their biggest fear is that Americans will be peering into the sausage factory so they have shortened their process and tried to limit the number of debates. One thing about our race, as competitive it was, it wasn’t destructive and there weren’t huge differences between the candidates and there wasn’t the impulse to drag the whole party off into a direction. That’s what Republicans have faced. They have nominated two center-right candidate who basically  had to make Faustian bargains with the right in order to be the nominee, thus rendering themselves unelectable. And the primary process itself in 2012 was a mess in terms of  the debates where people are chanting and cheering about capital punishment, you know just a bizarre set of events. I think the question is whether they can avoid all that. So I would not be worried about them getting all the attention. It might be best for Democrats for them to get a lot of it.

David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs visit reporters on the campaign plane (Believer)
David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs visit reporters on the campaign plane (Believer)

FR – You acknowledge in your book that President Obama’s effort to change the climate in Washington – so central to his candidacy – did not succeed. Is that now lost as a theme that a candidate for president can plausibly strike?

DA – I think it’s still something we should aspire to. We are all Americans, we share that and our common humanity. One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I think the process is bigger and more worthy than it sometimes appears now, and I have great respect for those who enter the arena, regardless of their views, if they feel passionately enough about the country that they want to get in there and try to shape the future.

What happened in 2008 was that, on this platform of healing these breaches to solve problems, we swept in huge Democratic majorities, and then we faced this big crisis, the epic economic crisis, and then the Republican Party, some of the strategists in the Republican Party, made this shrewd if not admirable decision to make us solve those problems alone. They knew the decision we would have to make in order to solve the crisis would be difficult and politically unpopular, and they knew the problems would take a long time to abate, so they had a strategy to win in 2010 to force us to act alone, to force a president who promised bipartisanship to operate on a partisan basis, and it was a diabolically clever political strategy.

Barack Obama in his campaign office in Chicago, IL during his 2004 Illinois U.S. Senate Campaign on March 15, 2004.     David Katz
Barack Obama in his campaign office in Chicago, IL during his 2004 Illinois U.S. Senate Campaign on March 15, 2004. David Katz


But I think the country’s weary of it and in the long term we tend to be self-correcting and our democracy tends to be self-correcting, and I hope that we get past it but we’re clearly not past it yet.

But I think as it relates to 2016, I think it’s more likely that voters will be looking for somebody who they think can manage the system in 2016, rather than somebody who can wholesale change the system. They may be a little bit weary of the notion of anyone’s ability to change it, so I think a candidate who says, `I know how to manage that system,’ may do better in 2016. I actually thinks that’s something that favors a candidate like Hillary. That was her argument back in 2008, but it wasn’t the right argument for that cycle.


Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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