Spirited election panel previews new Institute of Politics

University Communications

On an afternoon when the University of Chicago announced the creation of the new Institute of Politics, a panel of prominent political figures also marked the occasion with informed analysis, humor, and spirited disagreements over the 2012 presidential election.

The Jan. 19 panel, “2012: The Path to the Presidency,” gave a glimpse of what incoming institute director David Axelrod, AB’76, plans to be a regular part of the new initiative when it begins operation in 2013. The institute will focus on non-curricular avenues for students to pursue interests in politics and policymaking. The extracurricular activities will include high-profile speakers, visiting fellows, and expanded internship opportunities.

“The Institute of Politics will offer an intellectual destination for students, scholars, and leaders who will bring with them a broad spectrum of political beliefs and experiences,” President Robert J. Zimmer said at the news conference that opened the event at International House.

In the panel discussion that followed the news announcement, a broad range of political beliefs was on display as the panelists gave their views on the ongoing Republican primary contests and rated the field’s chances against incumbent President Barack Obama. The powerhouse panel featured New York Times columnist David Brooks, AB’83; Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos; Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel; and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.” George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC’s “This Week” and “Good Morning America,” moderated the discussion.

The spirited give-and-take included the upcoming State of the Union address, with Maddow urging President Obama to offer small-scale, specific programs for ordinary Americans. Emanuel and Castellanos argued that Obama should play to his strengths as an inspirational leader.

Candidates “want credit for what they’ve done [in the past],” Emanuel said. “Don’t do it. Get everybody’s eyes focused on the future.”

A bemused Castellanos responded, “I find myself here, one, advising President Obama, and, two, agreeing with the mayor of Chicago.”

‘An emotional homecoming’

The event began with a focus on the future, as Axelrod and University leaders described their aspirations for the institute to create new career opportunities for students and to further enliven intellectual exchanges about politics.

Axelrod, a College alumnus and top strategist for President Obama, described the announcement as “an emotional homecoming.”

Axelrod said he hoped to encourage students’ passion for public service, and urged them to take an active part in their government. “Don’t curse the outcome. Change the outcome,” he said.

The Institute of Politics will be a resource for the entire University but will have especially close ties with the College and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. Colm O'Muircheartaigh, dean of Chicago Harris, said the announcement would “energize the whole the University.”

Dean of the College John Boyer called the Institute of Politics “both a lever and a fulcrum for the future,” adding that “[Axelrod’s] homecoming … is an extraordinary win for the home team.”

Student government vice-president Meher Kairon said the Institute of Politics will offer “essential opportunities” for students, and added that it is an ideal fit for UChicago. “This is a place that has always encouraged an uncommon approach to big problems,” she said.

“It is a big election”

Following the announcement, Axelrod introduced the panel, which he described as “a preview of attractions to come” at the new Institute of Politics. The panelists were in agreement about the enormous stakes of the 2012 election, which comes in the midst of what Emanuel called “an inflection point” for the country.

“It is a big time, it is a big election, it is about big things,” Castellanos agreed.

Both Obama and the GOP presidential field came in for criticism from the panel. Maddow wryly remarked that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney would win the nomination only because he was the “the tallest midget … His skills really look great because they’re measured against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.” But Brooks said some of his hopes for Obama have not been realized, and he criticized what he described as the president’s increasingly populist tone.

“People do not want to talk about inequality, they want to talk about opportunity,” Brooks said.

Castellanos, who managed Romney’s 2008 presidential bid, acknowledged weaknesses in the current campaign, particularly Romney’s discomfort in discussing his finances.

Still, he felt Romney would fare better in the general election than he has in the primaries. “He’s hard to love, but he’s hard to hate,” Castellanos pointed out.

Brooks, too, felt Romney’s moderate views would serve him well in the general election, but noted the “invisible cold wind” between Romney and voters.

Looking for fresh ideas

Despite the bruising primary race, Castellanos wasn’t concerned about the future of the GOP. He was especially hopeful that the party’s young Hispanic leaders, like Marco Rubio, would help Romney win the general election. “We seem to be doing well for a party that’s doing so poorly,” he said.

Maddow, too, acknowledged the GOP’s success. “The conservatives have won the framing and messaging battle,” Maddow said. “We have given in to the idea that there is nothing good to get out of government.”

There was no consensus, however, on how President Obama could most effectively fight back. Brooks wanted to see bold new steps that would stave off fears of national decline.  

“If it’s about national decline, you have to have big policies,” Brooks said. “Somehow getting at the mixture of social anxiety and economic anxiety, and giving an opportunity talk, is a lot better than basing your entire policy on taxing the top one percent.”

Maddow felt the nation was “inspiration-ed out,” and pushed for more functional, pragmatic ideas from the president. “We’ve heard ‘let’s bring the country together.’ We’ve heard ‘It’s not red states and blue states, it’s the United States.’ Show it,” she said.

Despite the occasional criticisms of the president, his campaign strategist didn’t seem to mind. Axelrod stayed for more than an hour at the reception that followed the event, talking with a crowd of energized students and other members of the university community.

“This was the panel of my dreams, and you can see why,” Axelrod said.

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