In the new episode of our “educational” series The Audit, Dave, Josh, and their study buddy Senator Nina Turner audit the next seven lessons of David Axelrod and Karl Rove’s 24-part MasterClass on campaign strategy and messaging. If this MasterClass was a meal at the Cheesecake Factory, they would have just finished their entrees and are now waiting for dessert — and everyone feels terrible.
For some inexplicable reason, this week David Axelrod gushes over former President Ronald Reagan, which prompts the study group to discuss whether these people actually believe in anything other than being a part of some whitewashed version of history. On top of that, Senator Nina Turner dishes on why she doesn’t hang out with her counterparts on the Beltway.
A rough transcript of this episode is available here.
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In addition to The Audit’s podcast content, their creative team does extensive research on each season’s subject matter. This season, they delved into Axelrod and Rove’s history, even though they certainly, definitely, absolutely, did not want to.
Please enjoy The Audit’s comprehensive research below.
The Axelrod-Rove Master Class, Part 4
If geofencing — targeted messaging based on location — sounds bad when Karl Rove praises the process, here’s a New York Times article about how the Democrats use it for their own nefarious purposes. But its use in law enforcement is even more sinister. Police organizations have used it to collect “suspects” by assembling names of people who were in proximity to a crime scene, which makes it easier to obtain warrants for these people’s arrest. Some higher courts argue that using geofencing for this purpose is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights.
Ah, the Presidential Debates, the once-every-four-years ritual when West Wing liberals settle into their couches with popcorn and Twitter feeds. Rove insists that the American People aren’t that interested “in the snappy response, or the sort of towel-snapping that goes on in a lot of debates,” but every example of successful debate moves that these guys then provide are snappy comebacks from one candidate or another.
The only exception is Axelrod describing Joe Biden’s elaborate vice presidential prep in 2008: hiring a former actress to impersonate Sarah Palin, and building a duplicate debate stage… to minimize surprises for Biden. Such efforts make sense if you’re preparing astronauts for emergency-in-space procedures — but practicing for a debate with Sarah Palin? How fragile was Biden even back in 2008?
Keeping the Campaign on Track
Axelrod and Rove deliver similar stories about disruptive supporters and the damage they can wreak on campaigns. They also offer two different solutions to the problem.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright affair was the biggest crisis of the 2008 Obama campaign. In February, Rolling Stone ran the story “The Radical Roots of Barack Obama” (later retitled “Destiny’s Child”), where Wright was compared to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Obama subsequently asked Wright to not deliver a convocation at his campaign announcement, although Wright did attend a private prayer session with Biden earlier that morning. Wright then kept a low profile, and avoided interview requests from ABC News. But some helpful soul informed ABC that DVDs of Wright’s sermons were available in his church’s gift shop, and within a few days, the angrier clips were airing on ABC and Fox News. Axelrod notes, “If we had known about these jeremiads, we certainly would have encouraged the church to remove the tapes from their gift shop.”
In response, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said things like “For Pastor Wright to have given his first sermon after 9/11 and to have blamed the United States for the attack, which happened in my city of New York, would have been just intolerable for me.” John McCain, on the other hand, went easy: “Obviously, those words and those statements are statements that none of us would associate ourselves with, and I don’t believe that Senator Obama would support any of those, as well.”
So Obama did what he likes to do: In Philadelphia, he delivered “one of the most thoughtful, honest, and inspiring speeches on race ever delivered by an American political leader,” according to Axelrod. The speech united the country and afflicted the comfortable — but above all it kept Obama’s campaign viable against Hillary.
Rove’s story is very similar: During the 2010 presidential campaign, he had “an outstanding local veteran, very prominent in the South Carolina veterans community, very active in Veterans Affairs and a good guy, well-meaning,” who introduced Dubya by attacking John McCain. He offers this as an object lesson in vetting your spokespeople.
The speaker was J. Thomas Burch, chairman of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition. More likely than not, Rove picked him because he’d attack McCain. He’d used the same tactic in Texas; forcing Bush to behave politely and respectfully to Ann Richards, while letting others launch the smears. This was during the South Carolina primary, when Bush was defending Confederate flags and a rumor spread that McCain had fathered a Black child.
Protests from five Vietnam-vet Senators went unheeded, and Bush refused to denounce Burch. Turned out this “well meaning good guy” used his position as attorney at the VA to run a phony charity called the National Vietnam Veterans Association. In 2018, Burch was sentenced to prison for embezzlement.
Two disruptors, two solutions. Axelrod tells us to do damage control by coldly cutting disruptors loose, and then distracting people by delivering a long, reassuring speech. Rove, on the other hand, doesn’t talk about damage control — his strategy was to sit tight, admit nothing, and never apologize.
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