Ep. 94 - John Weaver

Update: 2016-11-07
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John Weaver, veteran Republican strategist, talks to David about how he sees the election unfolding and what the result will mean for governing in Washington, what he thinks John Kasich will do next, and how a career in politics takes a personal toll on individuals and their families.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at today the the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the the among the pantheon of maverick strategists in the Republican Party John Weaver rises to the top of the list he was involved in John McCain's come insurrection against the party establishment in the year two thousand worked with McCain again in two thousand and seven leading up to his presidential campaign he was involved in Jon Huntsman is campaign in two thousand and twelve for president and this for Governor John K Cik who stood apart from a lot of the Republican field his willingness to take on Donald Trump and maybe a big part of the discussion after the election if as expected Hillary Clinton should win John came by the Institute of Politics the other day and we had a chance to talk about where we've been and where the Republican Party maybe go the the Weaver welcome and welcome to the Institute of Politics good to have you um tell me about Texas you're a Texan and you grew up in Texas how did you had you get from here to there from life in West Texas was it that's right thanks David I'm honored to be hearing big fan of the way you approach politics thank you thanks we have a rigid and I like less I grew up in a small town in West Texas my parents were blue collar working folks my father's family pic on in our case all the travel the cotton picking circuit in Arkansas and the Panhandle of Texas my grandfather actually was from the Midwest Ohio who was very well read and growing up he received every magazine you can get Newsweek Time Mother Jones Human Events very curious Mother Jones everything I mean he was left right middle and so it is or was was he was he working or fields as well but was very curious intellectually and um I would race home from school and we would watch the news underneath an apricot tree the backyard about the Vietnam War all the issues that were raging in our country back then and saw one to be involved in politics but also love sports I ended up going to Texas A M to be a sportswriter and had no money so I took a job after writing a very favorable story about a college professor running for Congress Phil Gramm he offered me two hundred dollars a month in a place to live over his garage apartment and fast forward to today no sports writing of course and now that's too bad they don't exactly know the beater for the World Series exactly as I work for I worked for Phil we had a very narrow Democratic primary for Congress where we got into the runoff by nine votes would finish second made the runoff by nine votes he was a Democrat he was a Democrat a conservative Democrat obviously that was his first election to Congress I worked on a second one out of college I went straight to the Air Force for three years and then he called me asked me if I could find a way out which idea to serve in these reserves for six years and was his political director when he ran for US Senate for John Tower see that you may remember the nasty that he resigned from the party switch parties yeah well we should there's a little bit of history there was that he became the Democratic sponsor of Ronald Reagan's tax cut that's right and that didn't sit well of a lot of Democrats right now he was the bowl we will I guess is the term that these justices likely writing helped get President Reagan's economic agenda passed through Congress Center tower surprised everyone by announcing he would not run in the woods before you get to John let me ask you this about yourself presumably your family were Democrats they were yeah and did you consider yourself a Democrat I consider myself a Democrat yes we had a hard time with present quarter at the time but I did as much as did most of Texas look I've lived through Texas seeing ago from the bluest of blue states to purple to red and now we're back to see a purple again now I will get to that so Graham decides to run for that Senate seat now he's Republican or Republican as you said he quit retain his Republicans right now is Republican and he runs for the Senate that's right there and lead dog it was the Democratic nominee who still in Congress today in Congress today populist popular Democrat from from the Austin area and Ronald Reagan was at the top of the ticket in Texas was in nineteen eighty four nineteen eighty four of our mutual friends Paul Begala James Carville were doing dog yes Mark McCann and was working for Doctor Das a lot of those rascals and so we want obviously and then I went to work for Bill Clements and his comeback bid for governor in eighty six in Texas Texas' political director we merrily want them then they asked me to run the state party which for twenty five years old which I did and then ran the Bush campaign against a mock caucus in Texas which was really the start of my career if I could put the figure in place because the Bush family which they were so paranoid about Lloyd Benson remember Dukakis picked Benson Dukakis Benson ticket went up sixteen points ahead of us in Texas it was Fool's gold we all knew it but because President Bush had lost a Lloyd Benson in the Senate race in nineteen seventy they were paranoid about that and so as a young man of twenty seven years old I was reporting to Secretary Baker at a conference call once a week with Hamas backer sector baker et-cetera and so I didn't have to report to the normal channels I got the extra attention and because of that and we won my crew got pushed back you up but it's interesting cause you came out of mostly communications to UK merit from the communications o same way I got into a campaign work of but running a campaign of the presidential level in a state is largely a tactical assignments so you needed to master the other elements of the campaign well I like you David I mean there's not a job in politics you have and on and so did you learn tactics and in all of that but the end of the day is a communication business even the tactics are related to communicating how you how you group people together how you organize a fun race dog expectation and I think people come at it that from that approach have a have a leg up and what you learn from from Baker and in that group discipline from Baker as you can imagine yes and I heard from him pre op the through the years he's a he's a tough character smart guy think the world of him but disciplined message discipline campaign displaying what you began the day implementing finish make sure you've implemented by the end of the day I should ask you about the the intervening decade be because in two thousand you ended up on the other side of the Bush family working for John McCain so would you do in between in between helping my own company and had a number and erases them centers of like um eighteen senators as clients scatter around the country to Gen console consulting them and they range from people like Trent Lott to Jeff sessions is funny today actually and and but I got involved with pilgrims presidential campaign and Phil was not my first choice but being a Texan and have got my career with Phil felt obligated to work for him and John McCain was our national campaign chairman and there was so much fear in our campaign staff and dealing with Senator McCain did end up being assigned to me is the only person to be the John McCain was spurring the campaign so I traveled with helm he and I were often on the with Phil Gramm on its strategy and tactics because while Phil was a very good Texas politician in a very good Senate strategist he was a terrible tragedy for myself Bobby game became close to the john and after we lost and after the nineties what drew you you are thrown together but what were the qualities they use some McCain that you like I like his ardor of like his frankness I thought quite frankly following President Clinton that somebody like John McCain would be a breath of fresh air and if we could win a primary that he would win a general election one way it so I tried to get into see him several times to get him to run for president and his staff rebuffed me that would allow me and didn't a welt that ally was some yahoo from Texas who knew him from the Graham campaign which was a disaster they didn't want Iran because he a great committee assignments they are nice life and finally called the other blue and said I never hear from you trying to see all the slots in each day finally granted terrible about life was simply so they finally granted like ten minutes in the hallway and ninety seven and I said Look here's a plan for how you can run in the primary here has written version of it I'll volunteer for free bus travel the country and go do this and he took it call me two months later agreed to it and the Shah became close to John and that was it was great fun campaign to presume that the time that George W Bush your governor was going around for president we had heard rumors of that and quite frankly having known Jordan is having known Georgia long time I could imagine that to be honest with you but you know he had his team Karl Rove was his stride and you guys are sort of well we had up you know we're not friendly so I guess is way to put it kindly put it in any of that I didn't think George Utley were on was wrong about that but he Governor Bush did call me being in ninety nine XP Well I was working for John came to talk to said McCain would make a great president to do with with George was a tough race good race well I mean you you're minimizing it was like you was an incredible race because McCain sort of upended most of the rules of campaigning campaigned with the press literally sitting with the press the whole time I mean it's unthinkable it is today well today and it's a shame actually the straight straight Talk Express was his bus which we dreamed up over a glass of bottled or low one night about how to what we name this boss you know what happened by accident like to say that was planned out but we decided to a bookstore near sure we need to get some traction there and we invited the press on and on because McCain nationally three percent because of who his father was having a prisoner of war him coming back he knew some of the big fee reporters Johnny Apple great press relationships beyond what we had and they wonder I was going to be with them today people would be pretty cynical and he was also very quotable he was very quotable he's very quick very smart man and so we turned that into a fourteen hour roving press conference basically what we're being outspent six to ten to one Sowers our way to compete and the Bush campaign decided to put George in a bubble which is worse than they could I don't know that they didn't have confidence in order to something totally opposite of what we were going but you know we were able to take New Hampshire and in one by nineteen points and one point we draw sixty six to three so you know you get a feel good about now I'm in I remember very very well because there was a sense that Bush was on the ropes and then came the South Carolina primary I always said this was like the biggest invasion from the north since the Civil War with the kind of K Street into doubt and was seen as a kind of a threatening figure by some of the institutional forces in Washington yeah you know they were so afraid McCain Feingold as you remember that one of the campaign finance campaign finance reform and so we had every special interest entity spending money against his tobacco from religious leader scorer quote lecture Falwell and Robertson whatever spending money against us I think in South Carolina we were outspent thirty six to six thirty six million to six million on the night of the New Hampshire and actor in a primary Tim Russert gave us the exit polls him so we went up to tell John the outcome he said Great what could happen next and we said Bill Salter and I in unison said the pianos were four March daughters John McCain's longtime their alter ego yes great guy so if South Carolina and it's you know you grew up in Texas you're a tough campaign you learn you know you learned to give in to take and you have to grow thick skin but what we endured what he and his family endure or something that really scared me quite frankly the nasty the scale of the nastiest the personnel gather informations about an illegitimate and on sale to move it but children however decide that they phone calls were made in leaflets passed out that he had a daughter with a hooker from the Philippines and yet they have a daughter with dark skin that they had adopted from Bangladesh who was with us on the campaign trail so they would use as evidence of the daughter that he had from that liaison and um you had to battle with the Confederate flag going on with the same time it toxic stew that he took a position against he took a position against us he regretted it came back later apologize for or against taking the flag yet he did he took a political position which we recommended that he did quite frankly was the wrong thing to do he went back and apologized we felt like we had too much going on with her everything else to take that on as well that's a tough one because the thing you is marketing was this candor this felt like it is the straight talk and that seem like a that seem like a very political position to say it is it was was a political position and he remembered the day Bob Schieffer interviewed him on Face the Nation of Lee and John got up and made a statement he look like he was back on oil so he kind of gave away as it was in the Iowa loss at Carolina we won Michigan but you know to be Bush we had a documented three rounds to win two of the first three Did you know South Carolina that probably just the thing was lost probably because of resource allocation now that night together a team to go we're going to go kick their ass in Michigan and Michigan was a pretty tough race but we won that about forty five but at that point John he decided he was going to live with him McCain Feingold rules even asked other side was not there so there was just no way that we could live off of hard dollars while the Bush campaign was living off anything that they can get and so dragged on until the middle of April but it was time for and when McCain came back what would you do between two thousand two thousand and just work your business work the business he decided to go back in the Senate though anyone to pass the legislation he cared about so I stayed on with his pack and led the effort on McCain Feingold which we pass which we pass will get a discharge petition in the house and yard that has had to get signatures do something to the floor but we got that passion with enough public support we a town hall meetings where the country force the president to sign it which he did in the middle of night and the patients' Bill of Rights which was passed to the Senate et-cetera So what Ted Kennedy quite a bit and worked with him on immigration that was he did work with Senator Kennedy on a host of issues he came back at the time he was the most popular political figure in the country and up until nine eleven there was talk about whether or not he could run against the present primary cause of September tenth President Bush's approval rating was low thirty s right I'm not eleven changed all that is assured of them and them and it was pretty tough kind of the Bush the Bush White House leaned on my clients called my clients told they couldn't use me so I briefly switched parties and them because we'd worked with Dick Gephardt others and became close with deck but at the same comic and it was leukemia that's all I was in and out of treatment for the next three years basically um and then by the time to get past the past the two thousand and four convention they look like John could run again so I resumed activity running than ever before you get to that and I want to talk to you about that um you've been pretty candid about not just the challenges of matches your political challenges not just the challenge of dealing with leukemia but the toll that the politics took on your personal life and your family and I only raise that because I identify with it and I don't think people realize how seductive this life is and how exacting it is and so I wanted to ask you about that well it's a touchy subject because I look back now and speak for myself you put things as a priority at the moment of your life that was history in reflection would not be the most important have a fantastic daughter who's twenty two Syracuse graduate in Los Angeles making her own way and I didn't give her the time that she needed now are closer today but I didn't give her that he and the first wife passed away with most sclerosis so I was so great was it was tough though and in hindsight not tell this to young people involved politics now don't make gods of the people you work or go put people on pedestals give it your all to make sure you prioritize what's important when you take a short break and we'll be back with John Weaver rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust leisure best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision skip the bank skip the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty just to pick up on a new point you know my book a couple years ago about my life and politics and I talked about this the you know I think I'm embarrassed about the sacrifices that they asked my my my wife to make my children in May and at the time you think well that this is really important you know in which it requires the sacrifices and um and that there was a mistake and I think you write to impart that advise to young people going into this work is to maintain a sense of balance and you know families forever families forever it's even worse now though because at the time when we're in tough races like South Carolina yep took it personally when people say bad things about you nothing like this being said now on social media and that damage to families and in politics is very corrosive now it keeps people away you know I've got death threats I don't take them seriously the family takes him seriously because he's a coward who live in a basement or something but it's it's it's it's not a star a good place now you um you worked with McCain in two thousand and seven toward the two thousand and eight race McCain seems to me and correct me if I'm wrong that he made some decisions along as to what he would have to do in order to become the Republican nominee because he'd rattle the cage of the Republican establishment and ended with some glee over time but it seem like he made sort of his piece with President Bush and the Bush political operation he had been critical of the tax cuts that Bush passed in the midst of the war and had taken some other positions that were antithetical the administration and he he moved it seem like he moved and made his accommodation with the administration in order to smooth the way for is his nom is an affair I think it's to some degree it's fair and we started that and two thousand and four you look at the landscape he was the present was having a very difficult times you may remember and there was talk about dropping Cheney from the ticket and said McCain's numbers were still I called the call Mark McKenna said it's crazy that McKenna was now who you worked with or worked against it is in now was now on the Republican side working as a chief media guy for Bush right so called Morgan said is crazy to have John McCain in silence we can help you and he arranged for Mark and Carl Rove still have some coffee outside the White House where we cleared this up and got John on the road from the president made a difference war ultimately um he you know he did come around on the tax cuts even though he had been critical before but in going into o seven yet remember that he was for the surge when it was on the popular yes okay so that was hurting us with independent voters and he was four he was the lead author of McCain Kennedy immigration yes twice one time we pass a doubt the Senate second time was a failed which was a scourge with base voters and radio talk show hosts which we were getting killed on both sides were losing independence support and there will be her along with our base and for the nominal front runner that was a very difficult place to be so in his mind I don't know that he saw that he was taking the accommodating route because fighting for the surge against Rumsfeld at the time and fighting for immigration reform against the base or party he thought he was like taking on lawn watering walks yeah no i listen i manage to navigate even then navigating your way through the Republican labyrinth is precious is this just raises not easy mom you didn't finish the campaign with him what happen there it was him it was a thirteen year marriage that would come to and you know we had people in the campaign team at the center would come to me goes Why are these three people always calling me criticizing what's going on it does that represent a split in the campaign I would say if you have ninety seven people here are three people here why are you representing that as a split many of the people who ultimately end up in around on the crop are involved in that he and I would say that the senator the senator just felt like I need to make a change and that's what it was difficult he asked me to stay on with a totally different view or to take the campaign Terry Nelson I wanted to break from the White House to start talking about the economy in a way that was different than what the Bush White House was talking about others wanted to go in a way that was more in tune with President Bush it was a basic disagreement and what he made that decision to ditch his campaign it's um I've not been in in these positions I'd say two things one is it's the fact that you of you lasted for thirteen years was kind of remarkable because my experience has been that when you go through losing campaign with the candidate um oftentimes that's the end of the relationship even if you had a great relationship and even if you did a splendid job because um you know the the notion is well with this a new deal when a new team and so on so that that becomes of it but it's hard to emotionally it's hard to detach yourself when you poured yourself into something like it is it was hard to watch because look there to John McCain's letter to the box racers to John Weaver's there's a big there's a big one we want to live up here as we live here sometimes we live in the basement we don't want to live in the basement dearly but sometimes that happens but I think John McCain of two thousand today John McCain or John McCain might not of selected Sarah Palin might have given Brock Obama a better run for his money yeah hemispheres as you pointed out were not great with the bush in the twenties for a Republican and then you're the crash of that crash in the new Governor Palin is running but I think could make it more competitive and I think everyone associated with the campaign would feel better about themselves if you run a big campaign to be the way to be Brock Obama be bigger than him not to be smaller you hooked up in two thousand and twelve with the with Jon Huntsman so you continue to seek out this or a maverick candidates of what changed in the Republican Party between the particular between two thousand and two thousand and twelve that made it difficult for a Huntsman to find space well you know you you would leave aside his own liability or deficiencies as a candidate
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Ep. 94 - John Weaver

The Axe Files with David Axelrod