ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Much has been made in recent days of the divisions between the establishment and the populist wings of the Republican Party. You might think that would put the Democrats in fine shape as they begin to plan for the 2018 midterms and look ahead to the 2020 presidential election. But Democrats have problems, too. They're still struggling to come up with a message that goes beyond opposition to Donald Trump.
David Axelrod was the architect of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign strategy, and he was a senior adviser to President Obama during his first term. And he joins us now from Chicago. Welcome to the program.
DAVID AXELROD: Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: Republicans are divided over some very big issues - immigration, free trade, health care, who needs a tax cut and what to make of the leadership of Donald Trump. Are Democratic divisions comparably deep or problematic?
AXELROD: I think there are divisions within the Democratic Party. I don't think they're as deep or problematic. But I do think the Democratic Party is more unified generally on principle. But I think it's very difficult for a party to develop a message absent a leader. It's always the presidential candidate who emerges who defines the party. The Democratic Party went through a very tough period in the 1980s. Bill Clinton came along, redefined the Democratic Party. Barack Obama defined the Democratic Party. And there will be - someone will emerge and redefine the party for the future.
SIEGEL: Let me run a Democratic message passed you, the message of Senate Democrats. Here's how it was summed up by the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York.
CHUCK SCHUMER: Simply put, what do Democrats stand for - a better deal for working people, higher wages, lower costs and the tools for a 21st-century economy.
SIEGEL: A better deal - sounds to you like a message that wins seats next year and the White House two years after that?
AXELROD: Well, I mean, I think it's jargon, and people will recognize it as such. And what will engage people are real ideas. You know, we live in revolutionary times. Technology, globalization has created enormous opportunity for some and great challenges for many others and disruption in the lives of communities and people. We have to start offering real solutions to these things and not just slogans. And people have lost faith in Washington as a place where those solutions are going to come from. And it's going to take candidates with ideas that resonate to change that attitude.
SIEGEL: If in fact what the Democratic Party will need before it can make a coherent case with a coherent message is a leader who will who will say that, who's that going to be? Who's out there? Who is capable of leading the Democratic Party in such a way?
AXELROD: Well, all I can say is that five years before the 2008 election, you could stop a hundred people on the street and ask them who Barack Obama was, and none of them could answer the question. So first of all, there will be no dearth of applicants.
One thing that encourages me is I see this new generation, particularly of veterans who are now getting interested in politics and running for leadership positions. I think that's a great wellspring of possibility. One thing Donald Trump has done is he has reinvigorated a sense of activism at the grassroots and a sense of participation. What we've seen in the filing for congressional races, for example, is an absolute deluge of candidates, many of whom are raising an enormous amount of money. And I think that's a measure of enthusiasm that is a positive sign for Democrats entering 2018.
SIEGEL: But which would you rather see, a seat that conceivably could be won by a Democrat currently held by a Republican in which there are six Democrats running for the nomination and all of them raising money or a situation where the Democrats have united behind a single candidate who is getting whatever money is to be had?
AXELROD: Well, the old theory is that you go, and you recruit a candidate who matches the district and has the best chance to win. You drive everyone else out of the race. That's simply not going to happen in this environment. But whatever happens, there's no doubt that Democratic enthusiasm is up. Republican enthusiasm is down, which is why Republicans are so panicked about passing this tax bill just to say that they have an accomplishment.
I mean, all the ingredients are there for Democrats to do well at least in the House elections. The Senate elections are more difficult because of the nature of the map. And I think the major reason for hope is this incredible influx of energy, of money, of candidates. And for that, I think Donald Trump deserves some credit.
SIEGEL: David Axelrod, thank you very much for talking with us today.
AXELROD: Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: David Axelrod is now head of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.