In the new episode of our “educational” series The Audit, Dave, Josh and their new study buddy, Senator Nina Turner, crack open the books once again and begin another audit. This time around they’ll be sitting through the entirety of David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s MasterClass on campaign strategy and messaging. Yes, we’re just as upset as you are.
This week, the study group completed the first three lessons of this terrible MasterClass, which introduces students to the fundamentals of running a political campaign, starting with assessing your candidate. They also explore Rove and Axelrod’s biographies, and how one of them became the chief campaign strategist for one of our worst modern presidents and the other the head strategist for one of our slightly less worse — but not great — modern presidents.
Click here for a rough transcript of the episode.
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To prepare for the podcast, The Audit’s research team digs deep into each season’s subject matter. This season, they delved into Axelrod and Rove’s history, to the detriment of their mental and physical health.
Please enjoy The Audit’s comprehensive research below.
The Axelrod-Rove MasterClass — Part 1
This MasterClass is distilled from a course Rove taught at the University of Utah. He’s the real draw here: Rove is regarded as a ruthless strategic genius, an expert at the Black Arts of mobilizing reactionaries. Books about Rove have subtitles like “Rove’s Secret Kingdom of Power,” “The Master Plan for Absolute Power,” and “Machiavelli’s Shadow.”
In comparison, the main book on Axelrod is his own pleasant-enough memoir, Believer.
Mr. Nice Guy
Axelrod began his political career in Paul Simon’s 1984 Senate campaign. His rep is built on urban politics and electing black politicians, like Harold Washington, John Street, and Barack Obama.
Axelrod’s memoir Believer includes many stories about how his candidates lost. Dick Gephardt sank Paul Simon in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary — and Simon hired Gephardt’s men two years later. A direct-mail smear killed his candidate’s campaign and got Dennis Hastert launched into Washington. Lyndon LaRouche cultists derailed Adlai Stevenson III’s gubernatorial campaign. Fernando Ferrer nearly got the nomination for Mayor of NYC… and then 9/11 cemented Giuliani’s re-election.
Axelrod then ran a guy for governor of Nebraska, only to have Bob Kerrey screw them over and get Ben Nelson elected. And right after Axelrod got him re-elected as Mayor, Harold Washington dropped dead.
In 1970, Karl Rove used an opponent’s stolen letterhead to print event flyers promising "free beer, free food, girls, and a good time for nothing.” In 1973, an opponent leaked to the Washington Post that Rove and others instructed College Republicans on dirty tricks. RNC Chair George H. W. Bush investigated, and a month later, he hired Rove as a special assistant. Two months later, Rove met Dubya, and romance blossomed.
Rove in Texas
1982 brought a slate of Texas Democrats like Ann Richards and Jim Hightower to high office (the “Class of ‘82”), and Mark White defeated Rove’s candidate for governor, Bill Clements. By 1994, their careers would be over, thanks to FBI agent Greg Rampton. The following is excerpted from Scott Horton’s article in Harper’s from 2007:
During the political ascent of Karl Rove in Texas, Greg Rampton had every statewide officeholder (all Democrats) under investigation. To suggest there was no connection between him and Rove is to ignore the juxtaposition of events. The day that Agriculture Commission Jim Hightower was announcing his reelection campaign, Rampton made a point of visiting his office to deliver subpoenas. [...] Rampton spent 9 months inside of Democratic Land Commissioner Gary Mauro’s office, copying phone records and files, and came away with nothing incriminating. When other individuals in various state agencies were about to get subpoenaed, Rove knew about it before anyone else in town and called reporters, including me, to tip us off in advance.
Texas Lesbians, Alabama Pederasts, and John McCain
Rove didn’t abandon the racy talk. During Bush’s 1994 campaign against Ann Richards, Rove ran push polls asking people if they’d vote for Richards if her staff was dominated by lesbians, and a state senator held a press conference on this burning issue.
In 1994, Rove ran Republican candidates for the Alabama supreme court. Incumbent Democrat Mark Kennedy had run or founded several child advocacy groups, so Rove spread rumors that Kennedy was a pedophile.
(Rove’s reliance on gay-baiting is striking given that his adoptive father Louis Rove was an openly gay man known for his genital piercings.)
After John McCain won the 2000 New Hampshire primary, Bush ordered Rove to “do whatever you can to win South Carolina,” since veterans claimed McCain was weak on their chosen issues. Subsequent push polls asked how people would vote if McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. Rumors spread that McCain was gay, and that he’d suffered psychosis from his time as a POW.
The 2000s: Rove in Charge
In 2004, Rove became Deputy Chief of Staff to George Bush, and began developing Republican campaigns from the White House. His influence on the Justice Department may have inspired Rampton-like investigations of Democratic candidates and fundraisers. Most notorious was the investigation of Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, which sent the politician to prison. The following is excerpted from Scott Horton’s article in Harper’s from 2008:
In neighboring Georgia and Mississippi, suspiciously similar charges were brought by federal prosecutors. In Georgia the State Senate majority leader, Democrat Charles Walker, was charged on several corruption counts. An internal Justice Department probe actually concluded that the investigation had been politically motivated. In Mississippi a case was brought against the Democratic Party’s largest funder and three Democratic judges. [...] In a number of other cases, the Justice Department is proceeding with amazing vigor and heavy-handedness against trial lawyers around the country who committed the crime of attempting to raise money for the campaigns of Democrats John Edwards and Hillary Clinton.
Lately, Rove has been consulting, appearing in the news media, and writing books. Here’s Maggie Haberman on Rove’s post-Bush career.
So… are we ready to learn about the Great Game of electoral politics from two acknowledged masters?
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