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David Axelrod On All Things 2016 –And Hillary’s “Dishonesty” Problem

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David Axelrod joined me to open today’s show:




HH: I open the show with one of my new friends from the world of television and broadcast, David Axelrod. Of course, he was the Karl Rove of Team Obama. He is the brilliant strategist for President Obama’s two presidential campaigns. He’s now the leader of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and he is sadly a Chicago Bulls fan, so he’s doomed to be disappointed by the Cavs this year. David Axelrod, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to speak with you.

DA: I am a sad Chicago Bulls fan. Actually, we’re not what I thought we would be, but good to be with you.

HH: Good to have you. I saw you earlier with Jake Tapper, and I want to cover some of the same ground, but I want to start with eight years ago, President Obama, then-Senator Obama, you’re five days away from Iowa. What was the, I remember this from Believer, your wonderful autobiography.

DA: Thank you.

HH: But remind people of what the mood in the campaign was, and what’s going on right now at Team Hillary and Team Bernie?

DA: Well, our mood after we won the Iowa Caucuses was we’ve got, we’re in great shape. We’ve got five days to the New Hampshire primary, polls had us up double digits, we flew off from Iowa after winning this great victory in the middle of the night, and landed before dawn in New Hampshire, and like a conquering army arriving to negotiate the terms of surrender. And you know, we, in part, were caught up by our own hubris. We, I think, assumed too much. And at the same time, Hillary Clinton, who had been, you know, up on this pedestal of frontrunner, really redoubled her efforts there, campaigning very close to the ground, was very impactful and very strong in the closing days of that campaign. But at the end of the day, Hugh, I think what happened there was the people of New Hampshire quite sensibly understood that if they had voted for Obama, if he had won that primary, he would effectively have ended the nominating contest. It would have been a crippling blow to Hillary Clinton. There was no one else who could really challenge him. And so after just two contests, this guy was just four years out of the Illinois Senate, would have been anointed, as it were, by the voters of New Hampshire as the nominee of the Democratic Party. And they just weren’t willing to do that. And instead, they, she won by a couple of points, and that ushered in what would be the longest nominating fight in the history of presidential politics.

HH: Now do you expect the voters of New Hampshire to do the same to either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, whoever doesn’t win in Iowa a week from yesterday?

DA: You know, I think it’s a little tougher there because of the nature of the Republican race. First of all, Cruz has his own discreet constituency. That’s smaller in New Hampshire, but he’ll probably hang onto it. And then there’s this other interesting fight that’s going on that’s completely apart from Trump, who’s been sailing above in New Hampshire, and that’s the fight to win the establishment lane. Since we spend time watching each other on television, I should confess I saw you on TV this morning talking about the fact that you felt that there would be a candidate who emerged from the other league, as it were, from this establishment lane.

HH: Yes.

DA: Well, New Hampshire is the proving ground for these candidates. They’ve all put great effort into New Hampshire, because that’s the state where independent voters can participate. It’s more hospitable to the establishment center-right candidates. So Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio are all competing very hard there. And you know, whoever wins in that lane will move on. The others have much dicier chances. I think Rubio is fortified. He can probably move on. But anyway, but he really needs to finish first in that group to be a strong contender along with Cruz and Trump.

HH: Yeah, I call that the American League, because they have the designated hitter, and they are beating each other to death over there.

DA: Oh, they are right now.

HH: But let me go back, if you saw the CNN New Day, I keyed in on this moment of last night’s debate. I’d love your suggestion on how Hillary Clinton ought to have answered this question. She did not answer it well, in my view, but let me just play the question from last night that got my attention.

Q: It feels like there is a lot of young people like myself who are very passionate supporters of Bernie Sanders, and I just don’t see the same enthusiasm from younger people for you. In fact, I’ve heard from quite a few people my age that they think that you’re dishonest. But I’d like to hear it from you on why you feel the enthusiasm isn’t there?

HH: Now David Axelrod, I described that as a high hard fastball at the head this morning.

DA: In fact, I heard that kid had your business card in his pocket. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but anyway, look, I think that was a really tough, it was a tough question. But you know, my view is there’s no great way to answer that question, because if you actually engage on the substance, you know, and say well, actually I am quite honest, you know, I pay all my parking tickets, I drive the speed limit and so on, not that she’s driven in a while, but you know, I think that you get into a, it’s a slippery slope. It’s a quagmire. So she did, I think, what she should have done, which is to divert the question to her own message. But it’s obviously an awkward question to get. Now the truth of the matter is I think the reason young people have gravitated to Bernie Sanders is that I think young people naturally gravitate to the guy who says you know, let’s have a revolution, let’s blow up the system and build something better, let’s, you know, we want faster results, deeper results. That’s a natural thing, and that’s not a constituency that Hillary Clinton’s going to appeal to, because she is, by nature, an institutionalist. She thinks of progress as something you grind out through the system. And you know, that may be the reality of governance, but it doesn’t make for compelling campaigning.

HH: Now I asked this as a technical question, not as a partisan one, because I find it a technical, I have been told by Republican oppo researcher experts that her big three vulnerabilities is she is perceived as dishonest, perceived as corrupt as a result of the Clinton Foundation money, and her record of failure at State, including Syria, Libya, Egypt, Russia, PRC, you know, you name it. Forget whether you agree with me or not. As a technical matter, the first one is the hardest one. How do you restore an image of honesty that’s been so badly dented that a kid would stand up and basically call you a crook to your face?

DA: You know, I’m not sure that, you know, it’s akin to my answer before. I’m not sure that there is a strategy for changing that. I think what generally happens in these elections is as people gravitate you, they tend to rationalize their views. You know, you find a candidate who is gaining, you know, people change their ratings of them, they change their views of them. I think, Hugh, at the end of the day, this race is going to come down to, in the general election, bigger questions about the direction of the country and who people most identify with in that regard. And you know, while there’s no doubt that she’s got vulnerabilities on that end, there’ll be plenty of vulnerabilities on the other side as well. And at the end of the day, I think it’s going to be about bigger things than that.

HH: So who is the best candidate for the Republicans to nominate, assuming Hillary is the nominee?

DA: Well, I think that the conventional wisdom, which is always suspect, but let me just recite it anyway, is that that would be Senator Rubio, and it would be him, because he has the ability under this theory to reach a broader constituency than a Cruz or a Trump, who are deeply disliked, Trump more than Cruz, even, among swing voters. Trump has so walled himself off, pun intended, from Hispanic voters that you know, he already would be in deep trouble in a general election, because you look at states like Colorado, Florida and some others, and the fastest-growing constituencies are in the Hispanic community. So I think he’d have a problem. Rubio would have fewer of those problems, but I do think he has some problems that have been underrated as he’s been presented as this kind of center-right candidate. I think that his answer in the first debate, you know, in which he said he would, he supported a ban on abortion even in cases of rape and interest, no exceptions, essentially. He went farther than any Republican candidate has, nominee. And I think that would be difficult for him. His position on immigration, there’s something for everyone to dislike in that he supported it before he didn’t, and so he’ll be attacked from both ends on that. So I think he has vulnerabilities, but he’s also shown himself to be a very talented performer. We’ve seen it in the debates. You’ve seen it close up and personal. And you know, he has skills, and then there is the generational issue. He’s, you know, half, a quarter of a century younger than Hillary Clinton, and would, and even more than Bernie Sanders, though I’m pretty confident that Hillary Clinton’s going to be the nominee. So that, you’d think, could be advantageous. She could turn it on him and present him as kind of the callow youth in a dangerous world, and that’s always possible. So like I said, conventional wisdom would say it’s him. But you know, I’m not sure that that’s the case. There are others, you know, John Kasich has run a great general election campaign in the primary.

HH: Yes. I want to stay on Hillary Clinton for a moment…

DA: Yes.

HH: …and the generational issue, because here’s the second most interesting thing I think she said last night.

HRC: We’ve been sorting our way through this, because it is kind of a unique situation. I’m happy people are looking at the emails. Some of them are, you know, frankly a little embarrassing. You know, you’d find out that sometimes I’m not the best on technology and things like that, but…

HH: David Axelrod, sometimes you’d find out I’m not the best on technology. Not really the way to win the millennials, is it?

DA: Well, no. And I mean, I think that whole answer, you know, that’s just, you know, she’s not really nailed this very well so far. You know, she said, and you know, I disagreed with you earlier. I thought she handled it about as well as she could, the young man, and I thought she turned it about as well as she could. And I thought on the whole, she had a very strong night. This was the one answer that I thought was not particularly good, in part because Chris Cuomo asked her if she had exercised poor judgment, and she said no. And back in September, she said she had made a mistake and she apologized for it. Well, you know, you’ve got to square up your story here. And so last night, she was a little more defiant on this. But it’s, again, you know, it’s not exactly, you’re not going to emerge from that question triumphant.

HH: No, you’re not. Let me ask you, I was on Morning Joe when you revealed you did not know about Hillary’s server.

DA: Yeah.

HH: I asked Bill Dailey on Meet The Press did he know about it, and he said no. I asked Austan Goolsbee yesterday on this program, and he said I never sent her emails, I only saw her at cabinet meetings. So this serer was hidden from everybody. And now, there’s an FBI investigation. As a practical matter, David Axelrod, not assuming one way or the other, but just assume for a moment that you agree me, but just assume for a moment she is indicted. Can she run for president indicted?

DA: Well, first of all, let me just, before I respond to your more provocative point, let me just say that it’s different to say this was hidden from everyone than to say that we didn’t know about it. I wouldn’t necessarily know about it. I didn’t really give much thought to where her emails were coming from, honestly. That wasn’t my job. It wasn’t my focus. It certainly wasn’t Austan’s focus. You know, you could argue that Bill, you know, this chief of staff might have more awareness of that, but I don’t anybody would have, why would you assume that someone had their own server?

HH: You wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. Nobody knew.

DA: Right, so it wasn’t hidden, but it wasn’t, what it wasn’t, it wasn’t disclosed to us. That is true. I don’t, look, I don’t expect that Hillary Clinton is going to be indicted. And you know, I would be doing her and myself a disservice, and you a favor, if I entertain that hypothetical, so I’m not going to do it.

HH: (laughing) Okay, well, let me go to a non-hypothetical. Robert Gates on this show on Friday…

DA: Yes.

HH: …and I know you esteem the former SecDef, as I do, said that the server was of great concern to him, and that there was a high degree of probability that the Russians had compromised it. When you hear someone of the stature of Robert Gates say that, what do you think in political terms happens to Hillary Clinton?

DA: Well, I think the question is how much of this is baked in the cake? I mean, one of my objections to the answer last night was of course it was poor judgment. I mean, it was poor judgment because of the potential that something like that could happen. And you know, my sense was she had sort of acknowledged that earlier, and you might as well embrace that, because it’s the fact. But I also think that this, I know that it is, it is still very, very resonant on the Republican side of the aisle. I do think generally, the story is sort of baked in the cake now. So I don’t know that Gates is saying what he said, you know, as much. And I do have great respect for Gates. I think he actually has great respect for Hillary Clinton. They worked very well together in the administration. My sense was that they were friendly, they were close, and they had great mutual respect, but he can speak for himself on that.

HH: But you would agree that if she is indicted, that’s not baked into the cake, right?

DA: There are lots of things that would change the circumstances. I mean, she could, you know, she could take a machete out and menace you on national television, and I think that would hurt her chances, at least with some people.

HH: Well, Donald Trump said he could shoot someone, Donald Trump said he could (laughing)

DA: Yeah, exactly. Donald Trump may be the only one who could get away with mayhem, apparently, and not upset his supporters. But you know, as I said, if I go down that road, then I’m acknowledging a hypothetical that I honestly don’t think is going to happen, and I think the answer to your question is obvious.

HH: Okay, we disagree.

DA: I mean, the answer is obvious, so it’s good enough coming out of your mouth.

HH: All right, let me ask you, then, a completely different, but a parallel question.

DA: Yeah.

HH: Hillary’s refusal to admit poor judgment or having admitted it, she was in favor of it before she was against it, I remember when the Jeremiah Wright tape surfaced. You had President Obama go out and give the speech that put distance down, and admitted poor judgment in attending the church. Isn’t that what she needs to do and stick with that story in the way that the President did back in the day?

DA: Well, you know, the truth of the matter is the way that unfolded, Hugh, when he gave the initial speech at Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he really didn’t say, he didn’t concede that he made a mistake. He condemned some of the words that Wright had used, and he had said, and to this day, he says he didn’t hear him say those things. But he definitely, you know, he tried to put them in a larger context. It was only after Reverend Wright went on a tour around the country repeating those words and saying more provocative things that the President said, you know, this is where I get off the train. And he and his family resigned the church. But it’s a different set of circumstances, obviously, because this was about what someone else had done. And you know, she’s taken responsibility for what she’s done, and people will make whatever judgment they make of that.

HH: David Axelrod, it’s always a pleasure.

DA: Good to be with you, my friend.

HH: Look forward to seeing you on the…

DA: Hope to see you soon.

HH: Talk to you soon.

End of interview.


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