Rachel Maddow: Romney Is the 'Tallest Midget' in the GOP Field

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At a lively forum in Chicago, David Axelrod, David Brooks, Rahm Emanuel, and others discuss the 2012 election, Facebook, and more.

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CHICAGO -- They weren't as surprised as Newt Gingrich presumably was with word that an ex-wife was going public about matters of the heart and loins.

But Rachel Maddow, David Brooks, George Stephanopoulos, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel were briefly silenced Thursday when a discussion on politics at the University of Chicago was interrupted by two protesters unhappy with the mayor.

Grievances intelligible only to locals were declaimed from an auditorium balcony and halted an already lively gathering which saw Mitt Romney tagged "the tallest midget" in the Republican field and President Obama accused of having "snookered" one of the assembled pundits. But the outburst provided unintended affirmation of the raison d'être, as university eggheads might put it, for the gathering: unveiling a new Institute of Politics to be headed by David Axelrod, the journalist-turned-political consultant and top re-election adviser to Obama.

As the protesters railed, one realized how Emanuel, the lone working politician on stage, must confront arduous choices daily as he manages big-city decline amid shrinking revenues, staggering pension obligations, high unemployment, and a culture of high expectations which can't be met.

When confronted in more civil fashion about controversial moves during a question-and-answer portion, he adeptly deflated his critic in the audience with a measured, systematic explanation of the balancing act he'd confronted and why he did what he did.

"Don't curse the outcome" of elections, "change the outcome," Axelrod said earlier in detailing his purpose in creating a nonpartisan institute which will be aimed largely at instilling undergraduates with an interest and sophistication in how the political system does, and can, operate.

And for more than an hour, a standing-room-only assemblage glimpsed bright practitioners and observers providing a tiny preview of a gambit that won't actually materialize until next year. What amounts to a quasi-challenge to the Kennedy School at Harvard will go through a year-long gestation period as Axelrod completes what he says is his last campaign and then settles down at his alma mater, thinking big and relying on an ample Rolodex.

No surprise: Romney and Obama were in the spotlight Thursday, even if there was scant consensus.

"I sort of feel like he's the tallest midget," Maddow said of the Republican frontrunner. "I think he will win by virtue of the fact that his competitors suck."

Castellanos, who worked for Romney as an adviser during his failed 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination, was short of ringing in his defense of his onetime client. He's the only candidate who can win on the GOP side, he said, because Gingrich, "the only guy who can compete with Romney," has a plateau when it comes to getting votes. He said he expects the former speaker will collapse either before or after this weekend's South Carolina primary, even if he is "harder to kill than Rasputin."

"David Axelrod doesn't want a referendum on the president," Castellanos said as Axelrod sat in the front row with his family and top university officials. Romney is hard to love but also hard to hate, Castellanos argued. "There's a lot of Styrofoam in him."

If anybody in a rather savvy, mostly invitation-only audience somehow hadn't realized it, Emanuel is a pretty shrewd, if at times acidic, practitioner -- all the caricatures as a bombastic and profane political gunslinger aside. Repeatedly deriding Romney as "Mr. Fix-It," he said with almost professorial certitude that the best Republican candidate isn't even in the field: those would have been either New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Brooks was a bit chagrined by the uninspired consensus around Romney and made an intriguing case that the very characteristics he is criticized for now -- coming off as an "organization man" and bloodless consultant -- will be strengths among prospective moderate and independent voters in a general election. That will be especially true, he suggested, if Obama makes what he thinks is a fatal tactical error and continues to tack to the left and bash the supposedly notorious "1 percent" of Americans who are wealthy.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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