Let’s not overstate things. David Axelrod, the top former campaign strategist to President Obama, is no supporter of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump and his “anti-Muslim screeds.” But it seems that the veteran political animal can’t help but admire — from a purely strategic standpoint — the way that Trump has grabbed and held on to the GOP pole position.
The two men, fellow Twitter addicts, shared what you might call a digital bro hug Wednesday following the fifth Republican primary debate.
Axelrod’s “nice words” were really more like mixed words. In an appearance on CNN, he lamented that Trump “operates by his own set of rules” and is “not held to fact checks.”
“And yet,” Axelrod added, “he seems to survive these debates.” He went on to say that Trump appeals to fed-up, non-college-educated white voters — an assertion that polls support — and noted that “he articulates that frustration in the kind of terms that they use. And he’s very, very good at it.”
We've witnessed this kind of internal tug-of-war before. In an interview with ABC News last month, for instance, Axelrod made sure to say, "I believe he would be defeated handily in a general election matchup with Hillary" Clinton. But he also said that Trump's "kick-ass, call-names style has found an audience, particularly with non-college-educated white men, who have responded with enthusiasm to Trump's nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-trade jeremiads. In an era when so much seems out of our control, he is the proverbial strongman, assuring everyone he'll take care of everything that ails us."
In another recent appearance on ABC, Axelrod said that Trump "has been able to project a kind of strength — unrestrained, you know, as impulsive and unrestrained as he is — people are responding to that." He added that he has "always had this theory — and it's what informed my view on why Obama could win in 2008 — that people choose the remedy to what they have; they never choose the replica. And there is no more of an anti-Obama kind of figure, in terms of personality, than Donald Trump."
It’s as if Axelrod has a Rihanna song stuck in his head (Trump may be bad, but he’s perfectly good at it) — you know, the kind you can’t stand yet find irresistibly catchy.
Tweeting about Trump during the debate in Las Vegas, Axelrod was alternately snarky and complimentary.
In many ways, Axelrod’s appraisal of Trump is the opposite of his assessment of Clinton, the Democratic favorite. He’s much more closely aligned with Clinton ideologically, of course, but often questions her skill as a campaigner, as he did during a debate last month.
Thus, the president’s former top adviser appears conflicted — agreeing on policy (more or less) with his party’s No.1 White House contender while marveling (more or less) at the political appeal of her Republican counterpart.
This is great for Trump, who will surely amplify any positive vibes emanating from Axelrod, as he did with Wednesday’s tweet of gratitude. The appearance of gaining a big-name fan on the other side of the aisle — even though the truth is much more nuanced — can only help Trump appeal to a broader base of voters and look like a stronger-than-expected politician.