Pre-Steak Fry conversation with Axelrod

David Axelrod, Senior Advisor to President Obama, is one of two Davids who will be speaking this Sunday at Senator Tom Harkin’s annual “Steak Fry” in Indianola.  (The other David scheduled to be there is David Plouffe.)

Axelrod spoke, by phone, with Radio Iowa late this afternoon.  

Henderson: “Let’s talk about what’s happening on the ground in Iowa first.  Chet Culver is trailing.  Iowa’s three Democratic incumbent congressmen by no means have a cake-walk to November.  How and why have the fortunes of Iowa Democrats changed from 2008 to now?”

Axelrod:  “I’d say a few things about the governor’s race.  I can only tell you I’m a veteran of the Vilsack campaigns and in 1998, a little later than this in September, the headline in The Des Moines Register was ‘Experts: Vilsack has no chance’ and we were 20 points behind so I’m always reluctant to draw too many conclusions, but I also think it’s true that Iowa is not immune to the same forces that are animating politics everywhere. You know, we’ve had a difficult couple of years.  We inherited an unholy mess when we walked in the door and, more than us, the American people have been through a difficult couple of years after a decade in which most middle class people were treading water or falling behind so you know that puts pressure on the incumbent party.  We may not have created the mess, but, you know, we’re responsible for cleaning it up and while we’ve made some good progress from the time we arrived when the…last month of the Bush Administration we lost 800,000 jobs, we’ve had eight straight months of private sector job growth and we’re getting stronger but not fast enough for anyone’s liking, particularly when we lost eight million jobs during that recession and that has an impact and, you know, there’s no two ways about it.

“But ultimately these elections are about choices.  There’s not referendums on either a party or on the state of the economy, they’re a choice between candidates and governing philosophies and the Republican Party’s made it clear, the chairman of the Republican Campaign Committee said, ‘Our goal is to go back to the very same agenda we had before this president took office.’  The other day Mr. Boehner said, ‘Let’s go back to the 2008 Bush budget.’  They want to go back to the situation where interest groups, big corporate interest groups and Wall Street — essentially — got to regulate themselves and write their own rules and the kind of policies that caused the $237 billion surplus that Bill Clinton left to become a $1.3 trillion deficit that we were handed from George Bush — nobody wants to go back to those policies.

“And I think when people focus on the choice, then, you know, you’re going to be a little surprised at the result.  We Obama people, perhaps more than any, appreciate that the conventional wisdom is often wrong.”

Henderson: “You brought up Tom Vilsack.  If Mr. Emanuel leaves the White House to run for mayor, would Tom Vilsack made a good chief of staff?”

Axelrod:  “Well, I don’t want to, first of all I love Tom Vilsack and I think he’s been one of the greatest ag secretaries in the history of this country and that was reflected in some of the great statistics about rural America and kind of progress we’re making there.  That’s one bright spot in the economy and a lot of it has to do with the resources and the efforts that he’s directed as secretary of agriculture.

“Having said that, I’m not going to speculate on a vacancy that doesn’t exist. Until Rahm makes a decision, I don’t think there’s any point in conjecturing on what might happen next and, you know, Rahm hasn’t made a decision yet.”

Henderson:  “Let’s go back to races for governor, specifically.  What impact would there be on President Obama’s reelection and on the important task for redistricting if key states have Republican rather than Democratic governors?”

Axelrod:  “Well, obviously that’s going to have an impact.  You know, it’s an important year and governors have a disproportionate influence over legislative maps and congressional maps, so that’s important.  But, you know, the most important thing is how people will then govern and, you know, I’m not an Iowan and I can’t comment on the politics, the sort of history of gubernatorial politics and the nature of it now, but it does strike me as slightly odd that in searching for new answers that will help create a brighter future that people would turn to Terry Branstad, who I remember as a young reporter covering back in 1982 running for governor.  That’s 28 years ago, so, you know, but I understand he’s got a familiar name and, as I said, this is a year in which there’s a lot of discontent generally and there’s an inclination to choose change.  There, too, I’m sure people will focus in on the choice and they’ll make a choice at the end based on the candidates and not their first impulse.”

Our conversation started just after six o’clock Friday night (eastern time).  Axelrod shared that he’ll be in Iowa on Sunday for his “Meet the Press” appearance.    The final question was about what Axelrod intended to tell the crowd he’ll address Sunday afternoon in Indianola, Iowa Democratic Party stalwarts who’ve watched the president’s first year and a half in office from afar.

“You know, I got my start in politics after leaving the newspaper business, managing the campaign of a fellow named Paul Simon of Illinois who ran for the senate the same year that Tom Harkin ran for the Senate in Iowa,” Axelrod said. “The two of them were the only Democrats to defeat Republicans that year in the midst of the Reagan landslide and they did it against all odds because they were men of conviction, people who understood who they were and what they were fighting for, understood that we are a better and stronger country when everyone has a voice — not just powerful interests and Tom Harkin has lived by that principle for 26 years, through high tide and low, and I admire that and I think there’s a lesson in that.

“I’m also pleased to come out there because four years ago it was at this very event that I think, in some ways, the Obama for President campaign was born.  He got such a warm reaction at the Harkin Steak Fry and such encouragement that he came back and said, ‘You know, I think we maybe have to start thinking about this seriously because I’m hearing it, and the Iowans were so friendly and encouraging.

“And all through 2007 whenever the pundits and the pollsters said we were waging a futile effort, we drew encouragement from people in Iowa who really didn’t care much about that and were more interested in what they could do, together with us, to change the course of the country and they, more than anybody else, helped make Barack Obama president and they, more than anybody else, are responsible for all the things we have been able to accomplish.

“…All of these weren’t just the accomplishments of Barack Obama, they belong to Iowa Democrats who helped change the direction of the country.  Now it’s incumbent on us to keep moving forward because it’s very clear that the other side — and they’ve made it explicit — wants to go back and wants to go back to those very same policies that put our country in a ditch.

“So my message is not to be discouraged, to take heart from our own experiences.  We know what it’s like to be written off by the pundits and the Washington insiders and we’ve fought through that.  Tom Harkin fought through that in 1984 and in many battles since.  We fought through that in 2008 and we’re going to fight through that now — as long as we all recognize what’s at stake.” 

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.