David Axelrod and Newt Gingrich Interview at University of Chicago: 2012 Through a GOP Candidate's Eyes

Former speaker of the house and 2012 Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich sat down with former White House senior adviser, Obama 2012 campaign manager, and new MSNBC correspondent David Axelrod at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics last night. They discussed, among other things, the election, the future of the Republican Party going forward and some of the policies being discussed in Washington today.

Sitting quietly in the audience, it didn’t take long for me to figure out where most of the student body at the University of Chicago falls on the political spectrum. Before the event got underway, I was hearing comments like, “Boy I hope he says something crazy,” and “Yeah there were a lot of douchy Republicans on campus today for this.”

At the start of the discussion, Axelrod was pretty passive with his questions and tone. Toward the end of the night, he was in full-on debate mode with Gingrich while taking as many potshots at the GOP as he wanted (which the audience ate up).

The questions started off with the 2012 election. Gingrich made a critical distinction that I don’t think has really gotten enough attention since the election.

“When the Republicans swept Congress in ’94, Clinton came to the correct conclusion that if I take this wave head on, I’ll get beat,” Gingrich said. “He realized that he had to move to the center, brought on Dick Morris and told his liberal staff this is what we got to do to move to the center. He got beat once before in 1980. It’s not fun getting beat and he didn’t want to get beat again.

“What was impressive about what (the Obama White House) did is they decided they weren’t going to move to the center at all or go moderate after 2010. They decided (the GOP) are nuts, we’ll get nothing done over the next two years, dig our heels in and let the country choose. It was a very bold and courageous decision and speaks a lot about how much things have changed between ’96 and ’12.”

Immigration

Gingrich then lambasted Romney’s “incompetence” as a presidential candidate.

“You don’t have to pick a fight with Rick Perry (during the debates) over whether we’re going to pay for illegal immigrants’ children’s education,” Gingrich stated, “and then pivot over towards me and pick a fight with me about grandmothers self-deporting.

“It didn’t make any emotional sense when I said, ‘Let’s be honest, we’re not going to deport someone who’s been here for 25 years,’ and Romney and Santorum say, ‘Well let’s self deport them.’ It’s anti-human!”

War on Women

Axelrod then moved on to the infamous “War on Women,” and what an issue birth control became during the 2012 election.

“What happened was after the HHS decided that subsidized birth control would get covered under the new Affordable Care Act,” Gingrich explained, “Someone asked (Rick) Santorum if states could deny subsidized birth control, and he said, ‘Well, I guess under the Tenth Amendment, they could.’

“So we go into a debate in early February, and George Stephanopoulos says, out of the blue, ‘How do you feel about Connecticut vs. Griswold?’ Now this is a 1963 Supreme Court case on the right to purchase contraception. And every single Republican candidate is staring at Stephanopoulos thinking he’s lost his mind. I mean there’s been no serious effort at all to outlaw contraception. It was an 18-minute segment of the debate, and he kept coming back to it.

“So this leads to Sandra Fluke, who has a radically ideological opinion on it, which leads her to getting hounded by pundits like Rush Limbaugh, which makes her a heroine among those on the left who are staunchly pro-choice, and next thing you know we get to the next debate and we’re being grilled on this new ‘War on Women.’”

Taxes

Axelrod then mentioned the moment during the GOP debates when no Republican would raise their hand to support one dollar in taxes for every $10 in spending cuts and how exit polls show “a healthy majority supporting raising taxes on the rich.”

“If any Republican candidate had said, “Oh sure, I’ll raise taxes,’ they’d have gotten killed in the primaries,” Gingrich responded.

“You’d have gotten away with a no new taxes pledge if you spent the summer and fall broadly outlining waste in government: let’s look at Solyndra, let’s look at Ener1, and say no new taxes until we’re done cleaning up government first. According to Gallup, that’s a 70% issue.”

Axelrod then went on to list how Ronald Reagan “raised taxes 11 times” and “asked if it’s fair if a millionaire pays a lower tax rate than a bus driver,” then asked Gingrich if Reagan could’ve won in today’s Republican Party.

“Sure,” Gingrich said.

“With those positions?” Axelrod asked.

“No,” Gingrich responded, which got a lot of laughs and cheers from the audience.

Gingrich then went on to clarify how Reagan slashed the income tax rate from 70% to 28% when he was president and mentioned how he was dealing with a Tip O’Neill-led Democratic Congress throughout the 1980s. He also explained how Reagan spent a lifetime campaigning from his days at General Electric to three presidential runs in ’68, ’76 and ’80, so he knew how to speak with audiences and connect with people and built a strong support system all throughout those years to get his agenda passed.

Was the Loss Poor Messaging or Extremism?

Axelrod then asked, “There seems to be an emerging consensus amongst the Republican Party that 2012 was just a tactical defeat, that the messaging wasn’t up to snuff and the field operations weren’t up to snuff. Do you agree that the Republican Party’s problem is just a tactical problem?”

“What the news media has been telling us is that ‘change’ means become a liberal party,” Gingrich responded. “Become a party that the New York Times editorial board will like. Well there already is a party the New York Times editorial board likes.

“After Watergate, Reagan said what the party needs right now is bold colors, not pale pastels. What I think both parties need right now is not better messaging or PR, but bold solutions. In the 60s and 70s, they used to say that the Democrats were the party of solutions and the Republicans were the party of ‘no.’ Then in the 80s and 90s, the Republicans were the party of solutions and the Democrats became the party of ‘no.’ Now both parties are the party of ‘no’ and no one is coming up with bold solutions anymore.

“Look, bureaucracies don’t work. I don’t care whether you’re conservative or liberal, bureaucracies don’t solve problems. No one in Washington is seriously looking at how to overhaul these bureaucracies.” He also mentioned that Republicans have to be more than the party of opposition. As bad as Obamacare was, they didn’t offer any solid alternatives, and if they just want to repeal everything without replacing it with anything, it won’t win any elections.

Role of Government

Axelrod then said that while the Republicans of the 1990s wanted to limit government, they understood there was a role for government. He asked Gingrich if most Republicans are now in favor of getting rid of government altogether or do they understand the proper role of government and to define what that role is.

Gingrich went on to explain in great length how the right is struggling to properly define what government should and shouldn’t be doing. He wasn’t as strictly constitutionalist as … say a Ron Paul would be on that question. He acknowledged how people like their entitlements, they like their Medicare, they like their Social Security.

But he did explain how the private sector and charities can fill in with certain services and products as well, and while government can supply and subsidize resources, they shouldn’t get to monopolize the patent on anything.

They touched up on the looming sequester cuts and any further possible spending cuts which Axelrod equated to “gutting investment in education, infrastructure,” and the like, and Gingrich illustrated how the sequester should be used as an excuse to overhaul the Defense Department and the intelligence community, saying that, “I’m a hawk, but I’m a cheap hawk.”

Axelrod spent the rest of the night pretty much taking cheap shots at the GOP while rubbing the 2012 election win in Gingrich’s face, going so far as to claim that, “Republicans watch an episode of Mad Men and think they’re watching the 6 o’clock news.” He really laid it on thick that he believes the GOP are outdated, sexist and racist. Even when Gingrich was trying to explain how Republicans have to understand that we have to embrace new election models (acknowledging that whites made up 92% of the electorate 20 years ago and 72% today) because this is no longer the world of 1980, Axelrod interrupted, “Or 1950.”

Axelrod – the founder and director of the university’s Institute of Politics School – was definitely a god to the student body in attendance. Something tells me the legacy of Dr. Milton Friedman's "Free to Choose" and Chicago School of Economic thought has been lost in that campus' past.