GREENSBORO — Why did Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016? Which party will come out on top in the upcoming midterms? And what should we make of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation fight?
Political strategists David Axelrod and Karl Rove tangled with these issues and each other as they kicked off the 2018-19 season of the Guilford College Bryan Series on Monday night. The Greensboro Coliseum event was moderated by Chuck Todd, who hosts NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday mornings.
Axelrod, a Democrat, helped Barack Obama get elected president in 2008 and served as an adviser for the first two years of his term. Karl Rove, a Republican, is the long-time player in Texas politics who helped George W. Bush win the presidency in 2000.
The two partisan operatives talked earnestly about elections and polls, presidents and politicians, red states and blue states, history — Rove compared today’s events to the 1896 presidential election, the subject of a book he wrote recently — and the media, among other topics. They agreed on some things, disagreed on others and joked about a few other things.
The only time either seemed to get mad was when Rove complained about a 14-year-old picture of him with his arm around Kavanaugh, the federal appeals judge and potential Supreme Court justice. The problem, Rove said? Lots of people are confusing Rove with the guy who served as independent counsel during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
“This is the third time in the past week I’ve been mistaken for Ken Starr,” Rove said as the audience laughed. “He is 15 years older than I am, for god’s sake!”
The meat of the night was politics.
On Trump: In their quick autopsy of the 2016 presidential election, neither Rove nor Axelrod directly mentioned economic distress or racial animus, two factors that many believe led to Trump’s victory.
Instead, at Todd’s prompting, they suggested what the two parties might have done differently to head off the rise of Trump, who managed to run against both the Obama White House and the establishment wing of the Republican Party.
Rove said the Republicans erred in 2005 in tackling Social Security reform, which ultimately failed, instead of immigration reform.
“If we take on immigration, we’d be in a better place as a country on the issue,” Rove said, “and Trump would not have been able to use it.”
Axelrod said the Obama White House’s major achievements during the second term were in international affairs — the Paris Accord on climate change, the nuclear deal with Iran, renewed relations with Cuba.
“As you go down the list — I have a place in rural Michigan — I’m wondering what on the list related to my neighbors, many of whom I think voted for Obama and may have voted for Trump,” Axelrod said.
On the midterm elections: Political experts suggest that Democrats might retake the House of Representatives in November but will remain the minority party in the Senate.
Rove and Axelrod generally agreed with that scenario, so Todd threw out a what-if: What if Democrats fail to win a majority in the House? Or what if Republicans lose control of both houses?
Axelrod said a failure by the Democrats would suggest the power of incumbent office holders remains stronger than any blue Democratic wave. It also would mean that Republican voters were more enthusiastic than recent polling has found.
Rove said a Republican catastrophe on Nov. 6 would mean that the Democrats were able to run successfully against the president.
If that happens, Rove said, “The Democrats have effectively made the argument that we need a check and balance on Donald Trump and people say, you know what, we ought to do that.”
On Kavanaugh’s confirmation: Both said they believe Kavanaugh will end up on the Supreme Court. But they said the recent partisan fights over Supreme Court nominees will leave a lasting scar.
Rove said this and previous episodes have tarnished trust in the high court, which most Americans have long seen as outside and above politics. Axelrod wondered out loud how the nation can move beyond such bitter political differences.
“At the end of the day … in a democracy, the responsibility ultimately rests with us,” Axelrod said. “We’ve got to demand more.”