Friday, October 11, 2013

David Axelrod talks Obamacare, Ted Cruz and political leadership in Toronto

On Tuesday I attended the Exceptional Speaker Series in Toronto; it's a fundraiser for Reena, which provides support children, adults and senior citizens with developmental disabilities. Hosted by National Post publisher Paul Godfrey and moderated by former Ontario PC leader John Tory, the keynote attraction was David Axelrod, a former political strategist and senior adviser to U.S. President Barrack Obama.

It was a fun evening. Axelrod and Tory had a good back and forth; well, more Axelrod taking some fun shots at Tory, as you'll see in the Storify of live tweets of the event.

Another interesting occurrence: one of the questions from the audience turned out to be from Sun columnist (and former Ontario Conservative candidate) Sue Anne Levy, who decided to direct her question to Tory instead of Axelrod. It was the day of the AG's gas plant report, and Levy asked Tory what he did to "inflict Dalton McGuinty" on Ontario, with his gas plants and what not. The audience quickly began to drown her out in a chorus of boos, Tory declined to answer, and Axelrod, who had pointed out the "frantically waving" person who wanted to ask a question, joked he would no longer point out frantically waving people.

Really, though, the theme was leadership, and making the difficult decisions in the face of political adversity. Axelrod lamented the impact his industry has had on politics, leading politicians to put polling ahead of principle. He offered some interesting anecdotes from inside the Obama administration as they pursued health care reform. There were heated internal debates all the way through, and several times Axelrod and others advised the President to abandon the effort, warning it could cost him re-election. But Obama refused to change course, saying this was about something bigger.

Political leadership isn't about winning, said Axelrod, it's about putting principle ahead of personal interest. It's something we need more of in modern politics. Of course, you have to win to have the chance to lead. Tory's own run in Ontario on separate school funding was a principled position (I think he should have stood on ending funding instead of extending it to all) that, arguably, cost him the election. So I'd say there are no easy answers here, except to say for principled politicians to succeed, we need engaged citizens to value principled politicians.

With the U.S. government shutdown ongoing, Axelrod also had some interesting comments on current affairs in Washington. He took a few shots at Tea Party Calgarian Senator Ted Cruz, saying Canada is certainly not the lesser for his renunciation of Canadian citizenship.

But more interestingly, he observed that what is happening in congress (a minority of Tea Party Republicans hijacking the party and the agenda) is happening, in part, because political rewards in their system aren't aligned properly. These politicians are in safe seats, so there's no risk there. And they're happy to stay in the minority and take extreme positions, so there's no need for them to moderate in order to appeal to a broader constituency.

It leaves the broader Republican party in a bind. Axelrod said the leadership is taking steps to make it easier for a moderate candidate to win their next presidential primary, including having an earlier primary so the candidate (who probably had to go right to win) will have more time to pivot to the centre once nomination (as Romney tried and failed to do). The problem though, he said, is Republicans have a "Cruz missile" heading their way.

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