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tv   Overheard With Evan Smith  PBS  March 12, 2016 4:30pm-5:01pm PST

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funding for "overhead" with evan smith is provided in part by m.f.i. foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and from the texas board of legal specialization, board certified attorneys in your community. experienced, respected, and tested. also by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. and viewers like you. thank you. i'm evan smith. he's a reformed political consultant with more than 150 local, state, and national races to his credit. most famously the campaigns to elect and re-elect president barack obama. his just published memoir "believer: my forty years in politics," is a new york times bestseller. he's david axelrod, this is "overheard." [applause]. >> actually, there are not two sides to every issue. >> so i guess we can't fire him now. >> i guess we can't fire him
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now. the night that i win the emmy. >> being on the supreme court was an improbable dream. >> it's hard work and it's controversial. >> without information, there is no freedom. and it's journalists who provide that information. >> window rolls down and this guy says, hey, he goes to 11:00. [laughter]. >> david axelrod, welcome. >> good to be here, evan. >> congratulations on "believer." >> thank you. >> this is a wonderful book and deserves to be a bestseller. >> thank you so much. >> i hope you're very happy with the success. i want to talk about -- i got to talk about rahm emanuel first. we're sitting here, less than 24 hours as we sit here after the first round, it turns out a first round of the primary for mayor in chicago in which your old friend, your old running buddy rahm emanuel did not clear the 50% threshold. >> right. >> and so it has to go to a runoff. we have seen in texas and elsewhere times when the person who was presumed to win got just below 50, but then when the runoff came it was the opposite result. so why should we feel good about
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rahm winning in the next round? >> well, first of all, you know, the presumption wasn't necessarily that he was going to skate by here. it was always going to be close. it was a multi-candidate field. >> right. >> five candidates. one of them spent a couple million dollars of his own money. >> yeah. >> another was supported by some unions in chicago, so it was a competitive situation. and each of them had a claim on some constituencies. >> he was favorite, though, you acknowledge. >> yes, absolutely. >> as the incumbent. >> yes, he was. and of course he led the field. but now you've got 20 some oddps a free agent vote because they voted for other candidates. >> right. >> and you also have a large number of people who didn't vote in that election. >> correct. >> who are going to play here. >> the rules will permit someone in the first round who did not vote. >> oh, yeah. >> to come back around and vote in the second round. >> yes, and there are many of them. so that will be part of it. but, look, the race was all about rahm in the first round. >> yep. >> there were four other candidates, nobody really got a tremendous amount of focus. >> yeah.
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>> now there are two candidates in that race, rahm and his opponent, a fellow named chuy garcia. >> chuy garcia, county commissioner. >> county commissioner. he'd been an alderman, a state senator, been in politics for a long time, but not very well known. and in the next six weeks people are going to measure the two of them and decide who is up to this and who can lead the city forward and who has the resilience and the determination to do a really tough job. and i think rahm's going to do well in that. >> now help me understand a little bit about the dynamics of the politics in this race as they relate to the larger politics of our country and of your party right now. so mr. garcia is running to the left of rahm emanuel, or he would say that. >> no, i think he would. >> so how is this not an elizabeth warren-style assault on, say, a hillary clinton or on a traditional democrat which we're seeing actually candidly in both parties. not only somebody running at a traditional democrat from the left, but a traditional republican from the right. >> yeah. >> how do you not, or how do we not view this as something more along the lines of what we're seeing elsewhere? >> well, you can, but i think that the issues facing chicago, and frankly there are unique
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issues facing every city. >> yeah. >> are such that they sort of overwhelm the kind of national meme. chicago has tremendous challenges, fiscal challenges, that were left to rahm emanuel when he got elected mayor. we've got tremendous problems at the state. the state finances are among the worst in the nation. >> yeah. >> and a new governor who wants to cut a great deal, which is going to hurt the city. and so there are a lot of factors here that transcend this sort of left, right meme and go to how we going to solve these problems? and i think that's where the focus of this race is going to be in the next six weeks. >> you're not working for rahm, you're just -- >> i'm not working for rahm. >> a rahm friend. >> exactly. >> you're on team rahm. >> yeah. if you're a friend of rahm's you're on team rahm, yes, unless you get an unlisted number. >> i was going to say woe betide the person who doesn't go on team rahm, right? >> yes, yes. >> they get -- four letter words begin to fly. so i love this book for a bunch of reasons. i love it, in particularly, because it really is 40 years of politics.
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it's not seven years of politics --. >> yes. >> or eight years of politics. your most consumer-facing experience as a consultant is working for president obama. >> right. >> most people know you for that, but i'm an old northwestern university guy. i lived in chicago when harold washington was mayor. >> yeah. >> and died. so to hear harold washington's name and jane byrne and ed vrdolyak, it really took me back. >> yeah. >> that environment to come of age politically for you as a consultant must have been amazing. >> incredible. incredible. you know, evan, i grew up in new york city. in fact, my first political experience was as a 5-year-old in new york city when john f. kennedy was campaigning for president in 1960, ten days before the 1960 election, which tells you how long ago it was that a democrat was campaigning in new york city ten days before the election. >> had to campaign. >> exactly. >> right. >> and so, you know, i had a great interest in politics even as a kid and i got involved in the campaign for his brother bobby and other candidates when i was just a small kid. but i chose to go to chicago to go to school, in part because it was such an interesting political town. >> yeah. >> they had just had the
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democratic convention in 1968 that was a calamity. the daley machine, the old richard j. daley machine was still around. richard j. daley was around. >> yes. >> there was a budding black independent political movement at -- around the area where the university of chicago. and i thought, boy, this would be a really interesting place to be. >> yep. >> and that's why i went there. at that time i worked at the university of chicago. now i run an institute of politics there, but at that time there was no such thing. >> yes. >> and i couldn't find anybody who wanted to talk about anything that happened after the year, like, 1800. >> yeah. [laughter]. >> and so for that reason i started working for newspapers, in part, to slake my interest in politics. and it was an incredible education. >> yeah, to cover that group of politicians at that moment. >> yes, it was quite a time to be there. >> now, leaving journalism to go into politics, which you did after a while, that is something that we see much more these days, and in some ways it's more out of necessity. a lot of reporters with the business downsizing, they think this is the time to jump off. there's no job security to stay in journalism. it wasn't quite --. >> yeah, politics has a lot of
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job security. >> huge job security in politics. [laughter]. >> but you know that back then that was not always --. >> no. >> the case. >> in fact, i had a very good job. at a very young age i became the political writer for the paper. >> right. >> i got a column. i was a city bureau chief. and i had a pretty good position there, but i sort of saw the leading edge of the changes that were coming in journalism. >> right. you talk in the book, in fact, about how the owners of the paper were changing the new ownership, new leadership at the paper. >> right. >> it wasn't the same paper. >> it wasn't sort of the front page mentality that i was raised in as a young guy coming up at the paper. >> yeah. >> and i didn't want to do journalism in a way that i didn't feel comfortable with. i didn't want to compromise in ways that i thought i might be asked to compromise, but there were people at the newspaper, editors who took me and said you could be -- you know, you could be the editor of this newspaper --. >> right. >> -- someday. you're destroying your career, you can never go back. you know, they all called it going over to the dark side --. >> right. >> -- is what they referred. >> you seem to have turned out okay. >> yeah, it worked out.
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and i must say, you know, and i'm still very close to a lot of my old colleagues, because i literally grew up at the "chicago tribune." >> right. >> and, you know, i saw what happened there to many of them. and, you know, they see the wisdom of my move. >> it occurs to me now, though, that one of the things that you've been very good at over the years has been dealing with the press on behalf of whichever candidate you were working for and probably having had the experience of being on the other side of the desk probably gave you insights into what motivates reporters and how to work with them that most people wouldn't have. >> yes, and part of my job was to explain to people in public office what the job of reporters was. >> right. >> because they often didn't understand that. >> yes. >> and, so, i hopefully have been a conduit between the people i worked for and reporters. and most of my friends still are. i have many, many friends in journalism. i like journalists, i revere journalism. >> yeah. >> and that does separate me from a lot of folks in politics. >> all right. so barack obama. so barack obama.
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you saw something in him early that some people, it's not fair to say no one saw. you know, you recount the story in which john kerry is considering endorsing him and john kerry points out to you, you know, i saw something back when i asked him to be the keynote speaker back in --. >> yes. >> but the fact is not everybody saw something in barack obama. >> well, you know, one person did. this woman who introduced me to barack obama back when he was just returning from law school, harvard law school, to chicago. i got a call from a woman named bettylu saltzman who was a great friend of mine. doyenne of liberal politics in chicago. >> yep. >> and she said i want you to meet this young man. he's a remarkable guy. and i said, okay, but, you know, why do you want me to meet him? and she says, honestly i think he could be the first black president of the united states. this was in 1992. >> and then would have been 1992. >> right. so now i take her to the track with me whenever i go. [laughter]. >> but --. >> right. >> but he -- and i went to meet him. and as i wrote in the book, i didn't walk away humming "hail to the chief," but what i did sense was -- the thing that struck me was that he had -- he had been the editor, or the president of the "harvard law
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review." could have written his ticket at any law firm or corporation in america and secured himself for life, and instead came back to chicago to run a voter registration drive and work for a small civil rights firm. >> right. >> and, you know, to me the world of politics, it divides itself into two categories. there's the more numerous category of people who run for public office because they want to be something. >> yeah. >> and the more admirable, smaller category of people who run because they want to do something. >> are they mutually exclusive, mr. axelrod? is that the case? i mean, do you believe that it's not possible to do well by doing good? >> no, no. i do. and i also think that there are people who both run for office because that's their identity, but they also want to do things. but here's the difference. >> yeah. >> i think the people in the second category understand that there are actually worse things than losing elections. >> yep. >> and that's running for office. and i wrote in the book about a time when we were in the white house and we went over to talk to the democratic caucus about -- i say we. i just sat in the back and he
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talked to the democratic caucus. >> technically true, we were both there. >> yes, exactly. we were both there. he did the work. >> yeah. >> about the health care bill. >> yeah. >> and made a great speech. was off the record and closed door, one of the best speeches i have heard him make. and we got back in the car and we're driving back to the white house and the president's staring out the window and he turns to me and says, what are they all so afraid of? and i said, i think they're afraid of losing their jobs. >> yep. >> and he said, well, what's the point of being up here for 30 years if you never do anything? and i said, you know, i understand you feel that way, and i think they would love to do good things if they can, but if it's a choice being doing good things and being up here for 30 years, they would rather be up here for 30 years. >> yeah. >> and that's really true of most of the politicians, generally, and in washington. >> yeah. >> and that's been kind of a disconnect at times between him and some --. >> is that not the disease that afflicts politics right now? this idea that once you get up there you become the thing you despise? you run against government not working well and you get into office and then you become part of the problem rather than part
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of the solution. >> i think that -- sadly, i think there is a lot of that. and i don't want to in any way suggest that -- i don't want to tar everybody with the same brush --. >> yeah. >> because i have met some exceptional people and i continue to meet exceptional people. >> both parties. >> both parties. both parties. but there's no doubt that in washington there's a pathology there that's very, very thick about that suggests that, you know, who's up and who's down and where you are in the daily gallup poll --. >> yeah. >> -- and tracker. and it is the most important thing. >> right. >> and it makes it very difficult to deal with some of the long-term challenges we face. >> now you understand the case that was made against this guy being a successful candidate for the nomination then ultimately for the presidency back in the day. he managed to confound everybody's expectations. maybe not yours, but most people's expectations in terms of what he had done to prepare for this. he had been in the senate for a very short period of time. >> right. >> he had been in politics for a very short period of time.
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when you think back now, do you have more clarity about why it worked than you might have? at the time you believed in him but you had no proof of the case in front of you. now you actually have the proof of the case. what do you think it was? >> well, i actually think we had some good clarity. i wrote a memo to him that i recount in the book in 2006 that i think proved out, you know, people -- i believe in what i call the replica and remedy theory of presidential elections. when you're replacing an outgoing president, people always choose the remedy to what they have --. >> yep. >> even when the president's popular. and george w. bush wasn't popular in 2006 and 2007. and the people viewed him as highly political. they viewed him as seeing the world in these, kind of, manichean black and white terms. and they were looking for someone who could transcend that politics, who saw the nuances and the complexity --. >> complexity. >> -- and the gray and could deal with them. obviously they were looking for someone who would end the war in iraq --. >> right. >> -- which was a big issue
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then. in every single way, obama was the greatest and starkest contrast to bush. and, you know, the irony and -- maybe it's a sad irony of the 2008 election is people also were hungry to transcend this red state/blue state politics that we've fallen into. >> yeah. >> the great polarity, the gridlock that they saw in washington. and, of course, that's one thing that we haven't been able to accomplish. >> well, i want to come back to that. that actually is a great way to talk about what's happening now and going forward, but stay back with bush for a second. >> okay. >> every presidential election is ostensibly about the next four years, but really it's about the last eight, right? or the last four. >> yes, yeah. >> did obama beat bush in '08 or did he beat mccain? i know the literal answer, but in some ways the timing of that election and what had just preceded it was really the road map to getting --. >> well, no, there's no doubt that i think mccain was, by choice and not by choice,
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carrying the bush banner --. >> right. >> -- into that election. and it was, at that time, a tattered banner. and let me just say, and i say it even when i'm not in texas, one of the things that impressed me, and i wrote about it in this book, was how president bush handled the transition when we did win the election. because, as you point out, we ran very much against his policies. >> against him, right, yeah. >> and, yet, he could not have been more gracious to us, to the president, all our counterparts. >> and frankly for the first few years you almost never heard president bush utter president obama's name in a negative context or any context. >> obama said to me -- i didn't write this because it happened after the time-frame of the book, but president obama said to me both president bushes have taught him lessons in how to be an ex-president. >> gracious. >> he's going to remember. but, so and i wrote in the book about my conversation with george w. bush the day of the inauguration. >> yeah. >> and i had been on television and i said how gracious, that he had been a true patriot, you know. >> yeah. >> and i tried to explain to him what i had said, and he said i don't watch tv. and i said, well, i'll tell you what i said.
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and he could not have been -- he put his hands on my shoulder and said, axelrod, i've been watching you. so now i'm like, i'm wondering what's coming next, and a little nervous about it. >> right. >> and he said, and you're all right. you're going to do all right here, but this is going to be the ride of your life, so hang on because it's going to go by faster than you can imagine. which is a really gracious interchange. and one of the things that i would like to encourage is this notion that we can disagree in our politics without hating each other. >> right. >> that we can disagree without impeaching each other as americans. >> yeah. >> as patriots. i have no doubt that george w bush loves this country as much as anybody. >> you're not going to go all rudy giuliani, are you? >> no, i'm not. no, i'm not. >> yeah. >> and i suspect if rudy giuliani had the opportunity, he probably wouldn't do it again either because it's turned out to be kind of a disaster for him. >> a little bit of blowback on that. >> yeah. yeah. but, so, you know, i think that's important. and, plus, when you serve -- i work 20 feet from the oval office. when you spend a couple of years there you have respect for
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anybody who's held that office because it is such a challenging office. >> yeah, we really don't know what it's like. >> it's unbelievable, the pressures of it. >> you talked about the polarization and all that, so let's ask about that, specifically. so, he came into office, the president came into office saying i want to end this whole red state/blue state thing. you coined the now very famous, maybe one of the most famous phrases ever associated with a presidential campaign. "yes, we can." that came from you. can you look back, honestly, as it relates to bringing the country together, and say yes we did? because now, as i --. >> i feel like that's a rhetorical question. [laughter]. >> well, you think the only way to answer that is no? well, i'm sitting here going --. >> no, no, but first of all understand "yes, we can" and the campaign was more than that. >> of course. >> because dealing with the polarity and the gridlock was about not just, you know, everyone sitting around and holding hands and singing kumbaya. it was about how we can get things done and move the country forward. on the scale of getting things
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done and moving the country forward, i think history's going to be very good to this president. >> right. >> on the scale of were we able to cure that problem, the answer is obviously no. and i think there are a lot of reasons for it. the main reason is, you know, and this is the paradox of 2008 --. >> yep. >> we swept in on a platform of bipartisan cooperation. we swept in a huge democratic majority in both houses. and the republicans were flat on their back, and mitch mcconnell and the republican leadership made a shrewd, if not entirely admirable judgment that, okay, fine. we've got an economic crisis. this president is going to have to make a bunch of judgments and decisions that are really unpopular to deal with it. it's going to take a long time for the economy to get better, and if we're going to win in 2010, the best posture for us is to say, okay you guys do it. and then we can oppose everything they do and blame them for the lack of results. >> well mcconnell couldn't have been more transparent. >> right. >> didn't he say within about a minute? >> no, i give him credit for honesty. >> make him a one-term president. that's going to be our goal. >> yes, yes. and so they had a very shrewd,
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diabolical strategy. and the other element of it was they forced a president, who said he was going to govern on a bipartisan basis, to largely govern on a partisan basis. >> so you don't put any of this at his feet? >> no, i do. i mean, look. we did, for example, on the health care bill, hold the thing open for six months --. >> yeah. >> -- trying, trying, trying to get republicans to join with us. i remember and i wrote about one day when the president was told that olympia snowe was considering -- a republican from maine joining with us. she wanted some changes. he said fine, i'm happy to do that. he said we can call it the snowe bill, i don't care. and finally he said, you know what? she can move into the white house. michelle and i will take an apartment. [laughter]. >> so that's how much he wanted. and he worked at it. but there was really a policy of non cooperation. could he have been more solicitous of some of the politicians on the other side? perhaps. but i think it's a fallacy to say that we were one beer, one golf game, one, you know, movie in the white house theater away
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from peace and harmony in washington. that's just not the way it worked. >> and the reality is george bush came in saying i want to be a uniter, not a divider and it didn't work out much better for him --. >> right. >> -- in those eight years either. hillary clinton is a main actor in this book because you ran against her -- the campaign ran against her campaign in '08. and i would say that the comments you make about her in the context of the campaign. the campaign's comments and your observations after the fact in this book are quite devastating in terms of the case against her. >> well, that wasn't a good story for her, the 2008 campaign. >> well, it wasn't. and this is my point. you could sum the case against her in '08 up as inauthentic and stale. now there may be other attributes or other adjectives you could put in there. what is to say that that won't be the very case against her in 2016? >> well, what's interesting to me about the 2008 campaign is that you can really bifurcate it into two campaigns for her. >> yeah. >> i think in 2007 she was a very poor candidate and the terms you use may apply. >> yeah. >> i think more than anything
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the term i would use is cautious. she was sort of encased in this presumption of inevitability and unwilling to be venturesome and revealing of herself. and then we won the iowa caucuses. >> yep. >> and then, you know, as kris kristofferson said, you know, freedom is having nothing left to lose. >> we say janice joplin said that down here, but that's okay. [laughter]. >> yeah. >> it's okay. we'll edit that out in post, that's fine. >> yes, please. i don't want to create enemies down here, but i probably have enough. >> that's okay. >> but the -- but she was a different person in 2008, much more revealing of herself. >> yeah. >> much more connecting. >> and more formidable as a result. >> oh, absolutely, yes. i can speak to that very, very much. but the other thing is that it was clearer what she was running for. you know, part of the problem in 2007 was that the candidacy got out in front of the rationale for it. and you see a little of that now, this ready for hillary. >> ready for hillary, right. >> which i always say, ready for what?
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people don't know yet. and this is the burden that she has to answer when she -- when and if she steps forward here. so the two challenges are really be clear about what the rationale is and where she wants to lead the country. and the second is be that person she was in 2008, which i really think is the authentic her. >> yeah. >> i've known her for a long time. i've worked with her. >> right. >> she's been the patron saint of my wife's epilepsy foundation. >> yeah. >> i have a child badly damaged by epilepsy. and hillary really helped us get this research foundation going. you know, i have a lot of respect and a high regard for her. >> you will support her without hesitation if she runs. >> yeah. first of all, i think she's going to be the nominee of the democratic party. and i, you know, elizabeth warren is also a great friend of mine. i was instrumental in persuading her to run for the senate. of course she says she's not running. >> right. and i believe her. >> yeah. >> i believe her. i think hillary clinton's going to be the nominee of the party. i think it's important that she win. >> who's the nominee of the republican party? >> you know, i know, but i don't feel like i can tell you. >> no, no, come on. [laughter].
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>> you know, this is public television. we have a limited viewership, so if you tell us it will stay in the room. >> all right, i'm going to tell you but i want everybody to keep it to themselves. >> yeah. >> no, look, i think the truth is nobody knows the answer to that. the interesting -- to me, the most interesting story in the republican primary is what jeb bush is trying to do. >> yep. >> because he seems intent on sticking to his position on immigration reform. >> yep. >> on sticking to his position on education reform and the --. >> common core. >> -- common core standards. >> yeah, right. >> and these are red flags for the right wing of the party for senator cruz and his contingent. >> and for the primary electorate, right? >> yes. and, you know, what's happened, evan, in the last couple of elections is that you had center right republicans, john mccain and mitt romney, who made faustian bargains with the right wing of their party in order to be the nominee, and in that way rendered themselves unelectable. >> yep. >> bush is saying, no, i'm not going to do that. so the real question is, he could be a formidable nominee if he can be the nominee. >> right. >> i don't know the answer to that.
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>> it's all about getting through those first few months. >> right. and now you see people like scott walker, the governor of wisconsin, who seems to be -- you know, has a foot in both camps. >> yeah. >> and, you know, has risen to the top of the flavor of the month club that you get in presidential races. >> well, it's early. >> it is. and that's something that i would stress having been through this process many times. presidential politics is like pole vaulting, you know, you look good clearing the early heights but then they raise the bar. >> yeah. >> and it gets harder and harder. >> right. >> and it's -- you know, it's a ridiculous process in many ways, but in some ways it's exactly what it should be because the pressure mounts, the tension mounts. >> yeah. >> and in many ways you're tested in ways that presidents are tested and you find out who people are. i said in 2011 before the last race that presidential races are mris for the soul. and you really learn who people are during the course of this. >> we have ten seconds left. who would you like to run against among these republicans running? if you could pick one, who would you like to see her run against?
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>> you know, if i say that, then i'll doom their chances. >> is that right? you don't want to elevate them? >> yeah, so i don't want to do that. >> no? >> i don't want to elevate them. >> does it rhyme with ed ooze? [laughter]. >> let's just say i think he'd be a fine exemplar for the republican party. >> congratulations on the success of the book. it is so wonderful to get to hear the stories told by you in this book. thank you. >> i appreciate it. great to be here. >> good to be with you. thanks so much. [applause]. >> we'd love to have you join us in the studio. visit our website at to find invitations to interviews, q&as with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes. >> the people who drop off in those non-presidential years tend to be younger minorities. >> yep. >> more democrat than republican. so that's what influences these elections in presidential years. and because of the array of
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seats that are up and the fact that it's a presidential year, there's a pretty good chance that the senate could change hands again. >> funding for "overheard" with evan smith is provided in part by m.f.i. foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. and from the texas board of legal specialization, board certified attorneys in your community. experienced, respected, and tested. also by hillco partners, texas government affairs consultancy and its global health care consulting business unit, hillco health. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. and viewers like you. thank you.
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