“We were winning this campaign”: Decoding 2016 with David Axelrod and Joel Benenson

“The first call I made when Barack Obama decided to run for president in 2008 was to Joel Benenson, with whom I’ve worked, and who I knew when we were both journalists,” David Axelrod explained to the crowded room. “I reached out for Joel because he is not only brilliant and incisive, but passionate about his work, and nothing has changed in all this time.”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of David Axelrod’s November 28 conversation with Joel Benenson, an installment in the Institute of Politics’ fittingly titled “Decoding 2016” series, was just how intimate the event seemed. Though the room was crowded to capacity, leaving stragglers standing, the two speakers did not hide the fact that this was not their first meeting. Rather, they bantered back and forth throughout the event, giving listeners the distinct sensation that rather than watching an interview with the former chief strategist for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, they were listening in on a conversation between two old friends.

That’s not to say the night was free from tension. In fact, it seemed that Axelrod’s familiarity with Benenson allowed him to press the pollster harder, disagreeing with some of his answers politely but openly. After walking through Benenson’s truly remarkable career path, from working as a beer salesman to running a presidential campaign, Axelrod launched into the question of the night: how and why the Clinton campaign failed.

“I’ve always believed that authenticity is a leading indicator in a presidential race, and it’s hard to be authentic when you’re very guarded,” Axelrod pressed Benenson, referring to Clinton’s challenges with public perception. Benenson, however, pushed back against Axelrod’s claims, saying, “I think a lot of people who have succeeded are private and try to create some separation between their public and private lives. Particularly somebody who raised a daughter in the White House and under [that] spotlight … I’m not going to second-guess anyone who had to live that.”

“Do you think she has endured unusually harsh scrutiny?” asked Axelrod.

“Oh, I think for thirty years, absolutely,” replied Benenson, earning affirmative nods from the audience.

Though Benenson acknowledged many of the critiques leveled against his campaign and his candidate, referring to the former secretary of state at one point as “the most famous, least known person in America,” he remained understandably defensive. At several points he reiterated what became his refrain throughout the night: “We were winning this campaign.” But according to Benenson, FBI Director James Comey—whose name alone drew jeers from the crowd—“threw a monkey wrench” in the campaign’s plans by reopening the email investigation in the final stages of the election. “You couldn’t have anticipated that, and you could see palpably that that stalled our momentum,” Benenson said.

It was here that Axelrod began to push back. Pressing against Benenson’s claims about Comey, he forced Benenson to acknowledge, albeit half-heartedly, that “I don’t know how much” it changed the election’s outcome. On the issue of Clinton’s image, Axelrod asked repeatedly how damaging her use of a private email server was. At one point, Axelrod responded to Benenson’s insistence that “big things win elections, not small” by observing that “small things add up” over time. He even brought up Clinton’s pneumonia debacle at one point, only to pull back, remarking tellingly, “We don’t need to go there.”

Overall, the night was an enjoyable glimpse inside two undeniably brilliant political minds, whose shared passion for the people behind the politics was visible.  And yet, it felt noticeably incomplete. As Axelrod jumped from issue to issue, it quickly became clear that neither he nor Benenson was ready to offer anything resembling an answer to the question of the night. In fact, by the event’s end it seemed obvious that its central question would remain unanswered for a long time.

Perhaps the only conclusion came from Axelrod himself, who, in response to a student question about whether the Clinton campaign had done enough outreach to working class populations, offered one of his famous political platitudes: “You’re never as smart as you look when you’re winning, and you’re never as dumb as you look when you’re losing.”

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