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David Axelrod On Tom Perez And The Future Of The Democratic Party


The Democratic Party has a new leader, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez. He was elected yesterday to chair the Democratic National Committee. To talk about what this could mean for the direction of the party, we're joined by David Axelrod. He was senior adviser to President Obama. And he's now the director of the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics. Good morning.

DAVID AXELROD: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, David Axelrod, Tom Perez and Keith Ellison, his main challenger, came to represent two very different wings in the party. Ellison was affiliated with Bernie Sanders and the Progressive Caucus. Tom Perez identified with and was endorsed by the, quote, unquote, "establishment Democrats." What do you think this victory means for the party?

AXELROD: You know, what was interesting about it is that you're absolutely right. They were supported by different power bases within the party. But when you - they had a long campaign. And during that campaign, very few differences emerged. And, in fact, there was some unanimity of thinking about what was needed. And what is needed is to rebuild the party from the bottom up. The Republican Party now controls 32 legislatures, 33 governorships, obviously, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate and the presidency.

And there is a sense that there needs to be a 50-state strategy rebuilding the party from the bottom up. And both Perez and Ellison promised to do that. And at the end, despite this heated campaign for leadership, they seemed to come together. Ellison is accepting a role as deputy chair. And they locked arm in arm and marched forward. But there's a lot of work to be done here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, there's a lot of work. And maybe they're arm in arm. But, certainly, Ellison's followers seem to be pretty upset. It was a pretty tumultuous vote yesterday. There's a lot of energy right now on the left coming from progressives, the more liberal wing. Is there a danger that having Perez in charge disconnects the Democratic leadership from their energized base?

AXELROD: You know, that's the - that will be his task, to try and unify the party. Tom Perez is quite progressive. So it's not as if, philosophically, there's a big leap for him to relate to these rank-and-file Democrats who were for Ellison. I think one of the concerns that they had was that they felt that the process was stacked against Bernie Sanders, who supported Ellison and whom Ellison supported in the primaries last year. And one thing that Perez has done is reassure everyone that the process will be straight and transparent. And he needs to live by that in order to reassure these voters. But there's going to be this debate, which is - how do you approach Donald Trump?


AXELROD: Do you resist everything? That is the mood of activists within the party. It creates some problems, for example, for the 10 senators who are running in 2018, Democrats who are from states that Donald Trump carried. And...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I'd like to know your thoughts on that. You know, there are two strategies, as you mentioned, either complete obstructionism versus collaboration where possible. What strategy do you endorse?

AXELROD: Well, I don't think you can start from the position that if Donald Trump were to surface, for example, a massive infrastructure program that President Obama has been trying to encourage for or tried to encourage for six years, and he can get the Congress to go along with it - that Democrats should necessarily oppose that - just as one example. Will that happen? I really don't know.

I mean, it runs counter to the sort of fiscal philosophy of Republicans in the Senate, who tend to be more favorable to tax cuts and deficit spending for tax cuts than for investments like infrastructure. But in the main, I think that this will write its own script because I don't think that there are going to be a lot of areas in which Democrats and progressive politicians and rank-and-file voters are going to find common cause with President Trump.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, one of the things the GOP took a lot of heat from Democrats was for taking an obstructionist approach to Obama's presidency. Just briefly - we have about 20 seconds left - are Democrats being hypocritical when they also endorse this kind of tactic?

AXELROD: Only if they're not open to cooperation on things like an infrastructure bill. I think that there are things that the Trump administration are doing that Democrats have to oppose just on the basis of principle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. David Axelrod is a former senior adviser to President Obama. Thanks so much for being with us.

AXELROD: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.