PROVO — David Axelrod, known as Barack Obama's top attack dog during his re-election campaign against BYU alum Mitt Romney, spoke at Romney's alma mater on Tuesday.
In what would have been considered improbable in 2012, several thousand BYU students, faculty and staff rewarded Axelrod with a 45-second standing ovation.
It was a fitting metaphor for Axelrod's message.
Agreeable and humorous during a 38-minute speech in which he talked about his post-election friendship with Romney, and expressed confidence about America's future, Alexrod encouraged students not to give up on the political process despite what he called "the rancid nature of our politics."
During a question-and-answer session afterward, he even provided a brief piece of advice on how to defeat Donald Trump in 2020.
Axelrod didn't mention Trump by name during the campus forum in the Marriott Center. He did refer to a Washington Post poll released last weekend that showed the percentage of people who say they are no longer proud of the way America's democracy works has doubled to 36 percent from 18 percent since 2014.
"Too many people today believe that the political system is a corrupt, inside game," he said. "Too many people believe that it's more about parties than country."
A week before state and local elections, Axelrod urged students to get involved in politics by at least learning local issues and voting. He quoted Robert F. Kennedy, who said, "The future’s not a gift, it’s an achievement."
"The way we achieve a future in a democracy is through politics," Axelrod said. "That’s how we make the decision of which direction we take. That’s how we grab the wheel of history and steer."
He said young people shouldn't be put off by disagreements, saying, "That's democracy. That's the way our whole system was set up."
But he said the Founders' spirit of debate and compromise is needed today.
"I think the worst thing that's happened to our country is this notion that we can't disagree without being disagreeable," Axelrod said, "that we can't disagree on issues without trying to dehumanize our opponent or disqualify them as patriots and Americans."
Axelrod was Obama's senior strategist in both of his presidential elections and a senior political adviser throughout his presidency. Now the author of "Believer: My Forty Years in Politics" is the director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, where he encourages students to engage with multiple sides of issues and seek to improve the political climate.
"I have hope for the future because I work with young people every day and I believe young people in this country want a better kind of politics and will demand a better kind of politics, so I’m here today to urge you to use your gifts, your enormous talents, the talents that are being cultivated here at the Y., to make this country better and stronger and help heal our democracy."
He asked students not to get trapped in a social media silo in which everyone shares their views.
"Democracy demands our participation. Whatever it is that you care about, and I know you care deeply about the world, is going to be impacted by the decisions that they make in Congress, state legislatures, city councils. You have a choice. You can either turn away and leave those decisions to someone else, or you can lean in and demand a better kind of politics, a politics that is based in honest debate and mutual respect."
Axelrod regularly bashed Romney during 2011 and 2012. A year after the 2012 election, Romney invited Axelrod and his wife Susan to talk to his campaign donors about epilepsy, which afflicted their daughter.
"That was the beginning of a friendship," Axelrod said. "I consider him a friend. I got to know him not as a cardboard cutout, not as a caricature, but as a human being and as a man."
"I read he may have one campaign in him," Axelrod said Tuesday, referring to reports that Romney might run for U.S. Senate if Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, does not seek re-election. "I want to say, for his own protection, we still disagree on a lot of issues, but I never for a second doubt how much he loves this country."
Axelrod said one problem with politics today is networks and news organizations "looking for eyeballs, they’re looking for viewers." Trump understood, Axelrod said, "that he's good TV."
"There is a perverse reward for being incendiary. Donald Trump’s great inspiration was that if you’re outrageous, you get covered. And he dominated the Republican primaries. Now I think there were people who agreed with what he was saying, but he got exponentially more air time than the others, because he was like Technicolor and they were like black and white."
Asked what advice he'd given a Trump opponent in 2020, Axelrod said candidates will have to stifle the impulse to match Trump's "level of rancor."
"I honestly think people will be tired of that by 2020," he said. "What they’ll be looking for is a candidate who can appeal to our common values, who can appeal to our common concerns, and who can somehow knit the country back together. I would probably urge people who are running not to try to become a Democratic version of Donald Trump, but rather to offer a genuine alternative to him."