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Rove And Axelrod Teach New Generation Of Political Strategists


We don't need to remind you, but we will. Tomorrow is Election Day. And our next two guests know that today, the day before, is just about the most important day of any campaign. Karl Rove and David Axelrod are two of the most well-known political strategists in America. Rove led President George W. Bush's campaigns to the White House, and David Axelrod did the same for President Barack Obama. Now, they never faced off against one another. And in fact, what connects them is not politics at all.

DAVID AXELROD: I was reading Karl's autobiography. And I learned that we had this thing in common other than our involvement in politics. And that thing was that we both had parents who had committed suicide. You know, for years I had never talked about it. I'm sure Karl probably didn't either. I emailed him. And I said, we ought to do something together because if the two of us got together to talk about this, it would get attention. And that would be positive.

GREENE: And, David Axelrod, you lost your dad when you were how old?

AXELROD: I was 19.

GREENE: And, Karl Rove, you lost your mom when?

KARL ROVE: When I was 30. When David sent me an email, it was completely out of the blue. We never met each other. And I got this email. And attached to it was a really sweet and moving story that David wrote as a young journalist a few years later about the experience. Like David said, you know, when I wrote the White House memoir, I didn't plan to include that in there. But my editor said, you know, you can't show up at the age of, you know, 35 helping Bush run for governor, so you got to sort of explain who you are. And so I put it in there. And it's amazing. To this day, it is the thing that - more people will come up to me in an airport and say, I read your White House story, and I lost a loved one to suicide.

AXELROD: And the one thing about sharing something as sad but real as the loss of a parent to suicide is that it underscores the fact that there is something that transcends politics in that we have a common humanity. And too often, that gets lost in today's, you know, maelstrom. You know, I have enjoyed the opportunity to get to know Karl and to share our stories. And it's been the root of a friendship.

GREENE: And that friendship has now led to another collaboration. Axelrod and Rove are teaching a MasterClass together online. They are trying to prepare a new generation of political strategists. They're projecting a message of unity at a time of deep division in the country. But it is important to remember that both Rove and Axelrod are known as tough, shrewd strategists who wanted to win.

Is anger a good motivator for voters?

ROVE: Well...

AXELROD: Well - go ahead.

ROVE: Go ahead, David.

GREENE: David Axelrod ended up going first.

AXELROD: I don't think ever in our republic did people stream to the polls simply to affirm the things that they felt good about or agreed about. And so therefore, stressing some of the contrasts between candidates is an essential part of the campaign.

GREENE: Karl Rove also did not deny that stoking anger can be an effective tool.

ROVE: Anger is sometimes more an affirmation of something that's positive and sometimes is a constructive force if properly channeled.

GREENE: Karl, do you see your party unified behind this president right now?

ROVE: I think we're - right now we're at a point where if a Democrat criticizes Republicans, all the Republicans will circle the wagons. And if a Republican attacks a Democratic president, all the Democrats will circle the wagons. So our politics are broken, and we've been broken for a little while. I mean, very few people know the election of 1800 ended in a tie in the electoral college. Think about where the country goes through November and December and January and mid-February and doesn't know who the president is until February 17. And he's sworn in on the 4th of March.

GREENE: You're trying to say, look at history, that what we're going through today - it ain't nothing.

ROVE: Well, it's something. I mean, look; we have the lunatic in Florida who attempts to send bombs through the mail to Democratic leaders. And the first thing that happens when the president comes out and condemns it is Senator Schumer and Congresswoman Pelosi attack him. What if - what would have happened if people - if Republicans and conservatives had started blaming Bernie Sanders and the Democrats for the lunatic who shows up at the Republican congressional baseball practice and begins to shoot people, including the third-ranking Republican in the House?

GREENE: David, does Karl have a point? I mean, should Democrats maybe have not gone at the president so quickly in this moment when he tried to unify the country or offer unifying language?

AXELROD: I think that in these moments, our leaders have an obligation to lock arms as one and respond as one. But you can't do it episodically. You can't issue a statement and condemn what rightly should be condemned and then go back hours later on the stump and start talking about the enemy of the people and start deriding people in caustic, personal terms.

GREENE: I want to finish by asking you both the same question. I mean, you've talked about this moment in politics. You've talked about that you feel like both parties are broken, the political system is in trouble. But in truth, both of your parties are really energized. And isn't that a good thing in the profession that you're in? And how do you reconcile that?

AXELROD: To the extent that we're talking about a voter turnout that may be the highest in half a century - if it turns out that way, I think that is important and valuable. And, you know, the worst outcome is one that is nonparticipation. So the fact that people are engaged and they care and they see significance in casting a vote I think is a very important thing for the country.

ROVE: I think David's absolutely right. If you look back, the last time we had - it looks like we're going to be back like in 1966 in midterm turnout. And that signaled a period where participation in politics was growing and where change came about it. And every time we have a realignment in American politics, it seems that one of the things that it's based around is increased citizen participation.

GREENE: You're both taking this energy as a sign that the country wants to come together more and that these broken politics aren't going to be forever.

AXELROD: No, I wouldn't say that. I mean, I do think that there are some people who are going to come to the polls who are voting for that reason. But I think that it is a reflection of people believing that their votes actually matter, that there's meaning to this election, that elections count. And I think that's an important thing.

GREENE: Karl Rove, David Axelrod, thank you guys so much - appreciate it.

AXELROD: OK, good to be with you.

ROVE: Thank you.

GREENE: They are teaching an online MasterClass together on political strategy.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUDY ROYSTON'S "PRAYER (FOR THE PEOPLE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.