After Forty Years, Axelrod Still Sees the Good Side of Politics

David Axelrod’s new book is titled “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.” If he had had his way, the title would have been “Believer: How My Idealism Survived Forty Years in Politics,” he told a packed Appellate Courtroom in Eckstein Hall during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Tuesday.

That option was too wordy in the eyes of the publisher, said Axelrod, the chief strategist for President Barack Obama’s successful runs for president in 2008 and 2012.

But in his visit to Marquette Law School, Axelrod emphasized his belief that good things can be accomplished through politics, an emphasis underscored by his current work as director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, where one of his goals is to encourage young adults to get involved.

“We have the ability to shape our future, and the way we do it is through politics,” Axelrod told Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy. “Politics at its best can make a great deal of difference,” he said. “It’s our opportunity to seize the wheel of history and, ever so gently because it’s hard to turn that wheel, turn it in the right direction.”

Axelrod, 60, worked in 150 campaigns in his career and worked with politicians who lived up to the ideals he espoused – and some who did not.

Who stands out for positive reasons? Axelrod mentioned Paul Simon, who was a senator from Illinois from 1985 to 1997; Harold Washington, who was mayor of Chicago from 1983 to 1987; Deval Patrick, who was governor of Massachusetts from 2007 until the start of this year; and Tim Vilsack, who was governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007 and has been secretary of agriculture through the Obama presidency.

And who stands out on the other side of the ledger? He named Rod Blagojevich, who was governor of Illinois from 2003 to 2009, before going to prison for soliciting bribes for filling political appointments, and John Edwards, former senator and presidential candidate who later became immersed in scandals involving both campaign finance and his personal life.

Obama, the key political figure in Axelrod’s career, remains someone Axelrod admires. He told anecdotes of his close relationship with Obama, dating back to Obama’s days as a community organizer in Chicago. Axelrod first worked on an Obama campaign at the start of Obama’s successful campaign to win a US Senate seat in 2004. He stayed very close to Obama until after the 2012 presidential campaign.

He said that at that point, he felt 150 campaigns were enough and he’d never have another political partnership like the one he had with Obama. So he took the University of Chicago position, with the thought that “the best thing I could do was to try to inspire young people to get into the arena.”

Gousha asked Axelrod for his thoughts on how the 2016 presidential race is shaping up.

On the Democratic side, Axelrod said, there is a “high likelihood” that Hillary Clinton will win the nomination, but that shouldn’t be taken as a given. “Inevitability is not her friend,” Axelrod said. In the lead-up to the 2008 nomination, Clinton ran first in a way that was too cautious and then later in a way that was more energetic and open to some risks. Axelrod said she was a much better candidate in the latter mode, but by then, Obama had done enough to win the nomination. Clinton’s success in 2016 may be shaped by whether she is more like the candidate of 2007 or the candidate of 2008, he said.

On the Republican side, Axelrod focused on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who he said is, at this point, in the top tier of a crowded field. He said Walker is “a very practiced and accomplished politician” who has drawn enthusiasm in the Republican base.

But Axelrod compared running for president to taking part in the high jump or pole vault events at a track meet. In the early going, you can look great clearing lower bars. But as things proceed, the bars get higher. Campaigns, he said, are enormous tests of what kind of person a candidate is. Walker “has to be taken seriously, but he has a lot of prove yet in this race,” Axelrod said.

Axelrod had one specific observation regarding Walker: He said he was concerned that in the past, Walker wanted to run campaigns largely himself, acting as the main strategist and tactician. “You can’t run for president like that,” Axelrod said. In the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Obama acted as the chairman of the operation but not the CEO, Axelrod said. “That’s a pitfall for Walker,” Axelrod said.

Video of the session with Axelrod may be viewed by clicking here.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jack Gebhardt

    An hour with David Axelrod — he was humorous, thought-provoking, articulate, well spoken, thoughtful, respectful, and for me a pleasant surprise. In my opinion, the media creates this divisive environment where we think these pundits are completely inflexible in their partisan views (and maybe they are). Today’s “On the Issues” with Mike Gousha was enjoyable as always, and Mike did a fabulous job of directing the conversation. Again, my hat is off to the Marquette Law School and to Dean Joe Kearney. Both Mike and Joe offer great leadership for our community to have a forum for civil debate. Thank you gentlemen and Marquette.

  2. Sophia Williams

    There’s a good and bad side to everything. You just have to try to see the cup half full! I’m interested in checking out David Axelrod’s new book.

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