Continuing the wide-ranging political conversation that heralded the launch in January of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago , director David Axelrod, AB’76, returned last week to introduce another bipartisan panel of political experts with diverse perspectives on the 2012 presidential election.
The spirited dialogue featured Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan; John Heilemann, national affairs editor for New York magazine and author of Game Change; Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post; and Steve Schmidt, a political analyst for MSNBC and senior strategist for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. David Gregory of “Meet the Press” moderated the conversation.
Such discussions are designed to be a major component of the non-partisan institute, which will officially begin operations in 2013, after the current presidential campaign. The institute also will provide expanded opportunities for student internships in public service and a program of visiting fellows.
Axelrod kicked off the event by noting that he had met earlier in the day with students interested in the non-partisan institute’s mission, and he was “excited and eager” to begin his formal duties as director after the 2012 election. Before he introduced the panel, Axelrod also led a round of applause for education policy leader Darren Reisberg, who will serve as the institute’s inaugural executive director .
“He’s not only a great organizer and a great leader for this effort, but also a great example for our students,” Axelrod said of Reisberg.
Throughout the lively panel discussion, titled “Campaign 2012: A Halftime Update,” panelists discussed the state of the presidential campaign, as well as broader questions about the role of government and mounting cynicism in the electorate.
All the panelists agreed that President Obama and Mitt Romney, the expected Republican nominee, should count on a close race.
“The election is a contest between economics and demographics,” Heilemann said, noting that Obama, though he faces a weak economy, “has big leads with big, growing segments of the electorate.”
Romney’s task in the coming months is clear, Schmidt argued. “He has to be a balm to the anxiety of the country.”
In Robinson’s view, Obama’s decision to come out in favor of same-sex marriage produced “a crackle, an electricity” that brought positive reminders of Obama’s 2008 campaign. “I think candidates have to be who they are,” Robinson said.
When the subject arose of how Romney should pick a running mate, Schmidt gave a frank critique of his own team’s selection of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate. “I doubt that we will be the last campaign that made a politically expedient pick for the vice-presidency,” Schmidt said. “But we’re going to be the last for a while.”
The panelists all expressed concern about voters’ deepening cynicism and frustration with government. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all proposed to ease the bitter partisan divide in Washington, but “the system . . . has rendered three good, well-intentioned men, who all came to Washington with the same mandate, totally incapable of doing that thing,” Heilemann lamented.
Some panelists were hopeful that the role of outside groups in this election might foster serious discussion about campaign finance reform. “I really do believe this election . . . is going to be a tipping point,” Granholm said.
Schmidt pushed for greater transparency, rather than caps on campaign donations. “If you want to see a reform, I think you want to put the money back into the candidate committees, and back into the political parties, and you want to have an instant disclosure around the money—not necessarily limits,” he said.
Axelrod, who currently is senior strategist for Obama’s re-election campaign, did not take part in the panel discussion. But as with the institute’s first event in January, he and other panelists stayed afterward to talk with many students and other audience members at an informal reception. He concluded the event with a non-partisan call for students to seize opportunities to play a part in the political process, regardless of their personal perspectives. “The whole point of this institute is to encourage you, whatever your point of view, to get involved,” he said.