A sadder but wiser Axelrod packs his bags

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 12:00 AM

It was, perhaps, inevitable: Twenty months in Washington, and David Axelrod has caught the bug.

This startling revelation occurred Monday afternoon, in a webcast interview with Politico's Mike Allen, who noticed that President Obama's chief strategist was "looking trim" and asked Axelrod his secret.

"Well, the real secret," the newly lanky Axelrod explained, is "the first day I went on vacation I got sick and I learned I had a parasite."

Oh, no! Was it a lobbyist? A defense contractor? One of those nasty social climbers?

"I want to make clear," Axelrod continued, "that this happened outside of Washington. This is not a commentary on Washington that I have a parasite."

Well, we in the capital are relieved to know that we are not the source of Axelrod's digestive distress. But if Washington didn't take those 25 pounds off of the 6-foot-2-inch Axelrod frame, this town did take something else from Axelrod and his boss: the notion that they would arrive and that the culture of politics would change.

In that sense, Axelrod, who announced a few days ago that he will return to Chicago in the spring, is leaving in defeat. It's not really an electoral defeat: Though Democrats will probably experience a shellacking on Nov. 2, Obama's prospects for 2012 will surely rise with the economic cycle.

Rather, it's the notion that Obama, who declared on election night that "change has come to America," has failed to change Washington, a belief shared by 53 percent of Americans in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll.

The very fact that Axelrod was appearing at an event sponsored by Politico (along with Google) was evidence that he had capitulated to the political culture he and his colleagues vowed to change. They once boasted that they could reach voters directly, ignoring the media obsession with horse-race politics. But here was Axelrod, paying respects to a media outlet that gleefully embraces the horse race.

"I do get frustrated with sort of the group pathology of Washington sometimes," he told Allen, "the who's up and who's down and doing everything through the prism of the latest poll and election. I'm not staring at you for a reason, Mike."

Allen pointed out that Axelrod's side has benefited at times from those pathological things.

"Yeah, but at the bottom line this is a very critical time in the history of this country," he replied. "And we shouldn't just tunnel everything down into kind of the board-game of politics. When people ask me about Washington, I say what my mother used to say to me when I was a child: 'I love you, I just hate some of the things you do.' "

The strategist allowed that he had become immersed in dealings with the media filter he and his colleagues once boasted they could ignore. "The media environment has evolved over time," he said, "to the point where you have to spend a lot of time dealing with these white-hot stories that a week later have faded into the rear-view mirror and nobody can remember, and that takes up more energy than I'd like."

In a smart and well-timed profile of Axelrod in the current issue of the New Republic, Noam Scheiber describes an idealistic Axelrod made "very dour," as an administration colleague put it, by the Washington culture. The campaign he designed for Obama to run against Washington in 2008 ran headlong into the Washington dealmaking necessary to get items such as health-care reform through Congress.

As Scheiber wrote: "During the campaign and the first months of the administration, it had been possible to believe Obama wouldn't have to choose between his twin goals of passing legislation and taming Washington. But, over time, a combination of structural factors (the effective 60-vote requirement in the Senate) and circumstances (a Republican Party determined to oppose him at every turn) made the choice inescapable."

So Obama gave up on taming the political culture, and Axelrod is heading home from what he calls the "hothouse of Washington" without the change he sought. "Something I know now more than ever," he told Politico's Allen, "is there's a different conversation in this town than you hear at, like, Manny's, the deli where I hang out in Chicago. People don't talk about, I hate to say, the Politico over lunch. In Chicago, they're talking about their kids and how they pay their bills and how their businesses are going and the normal things that people care about."

Obama's promise of change in Washington was a noble idea, but ultimately either naïve -- if he really thought he could fix this town -- or cynical -- if he knew he couldn't but told voters he could. It's unfortunate, but probably unavoidable, that Axelrod leaves here without having made Washington more like Manny's.

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