David Axelrod vs. Steve Schmidt.
Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to President Barack Obama versus Republican strategist and senior adviser to Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.
That was the setup last week at a University of Chicago Women's Board dinner held at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago. And moderator Gloria Borger of CNN didn't lob softballs, asking about health care reform and whether it will cost Democrats control over the U.S. Senate.
"I don't think looking at the polling that I've seen, the results in Florida and so on, that the Affordable Care Act is something that motivates independent voters, but it does motivate Republican voters," Axelrod said. "And I think that the big story in November is going to be about turnout, and the Affordable Care Act is a turnout tool for Republicans.
"But I think Karl Rove has been right about this, and I don't always say that. If all the Republicans do is campaign on repealing the Affordable Care Act, I think they do so at some risk, because I do think for independent voters who do vote, it underscores the obstructionist nature of what's going on in the Congress. I think it's been over 50 (votes) now to repeal the act. And, you know, most people say let's improve it and move on. We have other problems in this country."
Borger turned to Schmidt, now vice chairman of public affairs at Edelman.
"I think it's a big problem for Democrats in the midterm elections," he said. "I largely agree with David's point and Karl's point that Republicans can't simply chant 'Obamacare' and pick up the Senate. Republicans will certainly hold the House and I think have a good chance of taking the Senate. That being said, we've given up six Senate seats in the last two election cycles with a collection of totally nutty candidates, saying really bizarre things. So our capacity to seize defeat from the jaws of victory shouldn't be underestimated."
The audience started laughing as Schmidt began ticking off names.
"There are manifest problems with the implementation of Obamacare. … But Republicans have had no solutions, no answers to a huge health care inflation problem, 40 million uninsured people. And the unwillingness to work, to engage with the president, has yielded a result that I think is really bad policy that is going to need to be reformed over the short term, medium term and long term. But Republicans, at the end of the day, will not be able to win presidential elections and will not be able to put forward an agenda in the country absent actual policy ideas. And simply saying 'Obamacare, bad,' is not a policy agenda."
Onion still targets TV
Onion Inc., the Chicago-based creator of satire for the Web and advertisers, has not given up on producing content for TV studios or networks after Amazon declined to pick up its "Onion News Empire" series last year, President Mike McAvoy said last week.
"I'm sure we'll do something cool later this year," McAvoy said. "We're going to create more content that could live on TV, or that's outside The Onion conceit."
The Onion stopped its print version in its last three remaining markets, including Chicago, in December. It also moved its comedy writers/creative staff from New York to Chicago, consolidating operations in its River North neighborhood offices.
"We did a huge cost restructuring," McAvoy said at a luncheon of the Turnaround Management Association, a group of bankruptcy experts, at The Standard Club. "If anyone's looking for something fun to do, try to move 20 writers from New York to Chicago. Pretty fun."
Finally, the company launched a new business around creating humorous, viral ads for corporate clients, including shoe seller DSW Inc., Hilton, Adobe, Jameson, etc. He said the company's strength is in its comedy writing and now it's just deployed for a different purpose through the in-house ad agency, called Onion Labs.
He described the process, which is used to generate story and ad ideas.
"There's 12 people sitting around this table and one editor in chief," McAvoy said. "And the editor in chief is sitting over 1,200 headlines — 1,200 ideas for jokes — that the staff contributes every single week. And the process is to whittle them down to 200 in that meeting and then to the 10 to 15 stories that will be produced."
He was instructed not to say anything in the meeting.
"But sure enough, the first headline gets read aloud," McAvoy. "I just start laughing. No one else does. It's easily dismissed. Everyone kinda looks at me, almost acknowledging that I'm in the room, but not really. Second headline gets read. Exact same outcome. Dead silence, except for me. I'm not a laugher, and I'm giggling. Sure enough, they finally say to me, 'There's 1,198 to go, and you've got to be quiet now.'"