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The Story Of The Democratic Party, As Told By New Podcast 'The Wilderness'

With Eric Westervelt (@Ericnpr)

The way forward for the Democratic Party. Jon Favreau’s popular new podcast, “The Wilderness,” explores how the Democrats lost their way and how to bounce back.


Jon Favreau, host of the new political commentary podcast, “The Wilderness,” a 15-party documentary series that consults historians, strategists and politcians to tell the story of the Democratic party. Chief speechwriter for Barack Obama from 2006-20013. Founder and host of “Pod Save America.” (@jonfavs)

Listen to “The Wilderness” here.

Interview Highlights

On how his work as a speechwriter informs this podcast

“When we started thinking about doing this podcast, you know, ‘Pod Save America’ is a conversation about current events, news — it’s in the news cycle every week — and I thought if we’re going to take a look at the Democratic Party and we weren’t going to tie it to the news cycle every single day, that it would be good to take a look back at how we got here. And I do remember when I used to write speeches with Barack Obama, every time we’d work on a speech, there’d be a big section in the speech about how we got here before he talked about where we need to go from here. And I think that provides some good context because part of the problem with today’s media environment, because it moves so quickly, is that you wake up every day and it’s like history begins anew every morning. And you forget that there were a lot of decisions and transformations that got us to this place. And if we don’t have that history as context, it becomes a lot more difficult to figure out how we move on to the next thing.”

On how the Democrats frame their message

“When a party’s out of power, the party doesn’t have the White House, it’s harder to get your message through and to have it break through. And the president has a bully pulpit and so he has an ability to control the news narrative. And President Trump is better at that than most presidents. I think the Democrats have a hard time breaking through. I think if you look on the ground at the various races Democrats are running right now, they are talking about what they’re for. They are talking about their vision for the future. They’re talking about their policy agenda. We don’t always see that come through in the news coverage, or at least in the national news coverage. I think you actually see it a lot more in some of the local news coverage. But I think Democrats are doing a better job of talking about what they’re for than you might think from sort of the political narrative.

“Yet, I also think that Democrats can never be too good at talking about what they’re for. I think it’s super important to give voters a reason to vote for something because, look, a lot of voters in this country, most voters in this country have made up their minds about Donald Trump. They either like him, or they don’t like him. There’s not a lot of people who are in between on Donald Trump right now. So that’s already out there. And I think you can remind people of the damage he’s caused, of the stakes in the election of what might happen if Trump and the Republicans keep power — that’s all fine. But just constantly attacking Trump all time, that’s just — I think Democrats would be wise to use their energy talking about the policy they’re proposing that would actually fix problems in the country and improve people’s lives.”

On whether the party is presenting a coherent, unified message ahead of midterms

“I think we’re getting there. I’ve been saying that we may be in the wilderness, but we are not completely lost. The silver lining here is that Donald Trump has been a huge motivator for Democrats in a way that I haven’t seen since the early days of the Obama campaign. He’s also been one of the best recruitment tools that Democrats have ever had in terms of people running for office. We have a record number of people running for office. I think we are fielding Democratic candidates in every single congressional district but maybe a couple, which is unheard of. There’s a record number of women running for office, winning the primaries. Record number of people of color running and winning these primaries as well. Democrats have outperformed the partisan average in a lot of these special elections by about 8 percent so far. So I do think there is a new grassroots energy in the party, and I think the challenge for the Democrats will be can we capture that energy and enthusiasm and translate it into victory at the ballot box in 2018, and then of course in 2020?”

From The Reading List

Vulture: “Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau Has a New Politics Podcast” — “Crooked Media, the liberal political media company founded by former Obama staffers Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor, is primarily built around its popular talk-radio-style podcast, Pod Save America. But today, the team is adding another shot to its game with the release of a new podcast documentary called The Wilderness, led and hosted by Favreau, that they’re describing as being about the history and future of the Democratic Party.

‘Most political news today is about why Donald Trump is bad, and I don’t think we talk enough about the party that needs to beat him — its strengths, its weaknesses, and how it’s changed over time,’ Favreau told Vulture in an email, when asked about the purpose of the project. ‘What does the Democratic Party stand for in 2018? How did we lose nearly 1,000 seats over the last decade, and how do we make sure that never happens again? I wanted to talk about these questions with as many people as possible in a format that allows for more nuance and reasonableness than Twitter or cable.’ ”

Financial Times: “Podcast: The Wilderness — how America’s Democrats fell from grace” — “If political podcasts are your thing, then you’ll probably be familiar with Jon Favreau. Not to be confused with the actor/director of the same name, he was chief speech writer for Barack Obama from 2006 until 2013, since when, after brief detours into communications and screenwriting, he has reinvented himself as a political commentator.

“Early in 2016 he hosted the Keepin’ it 1600 podcast, offering witty and unapologetically partisan commentary on the presidential primaries. Following Trump’s 2017 inauguration, he launched Pod Save America, a hugely successful show in which he and fellow ex-Obama aides Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett and Daniel Pfeiffer examine the Trump administration, mulling over the hirings and firings, the latest in the Mueller investigation and, most recently, the fallout from the president’s meeting with Putin. Pod Save America now averages 1.5m listeners per episode; along with twice-weekly episodes and live tours, there are now four TV specials in the works, to be broadcast during the midterm elections. Favreau may be vehemently anti-Trump, but the 45th president has provided him with a major career boost.”

The Democrats are in the political wilderness. Ask Democratic voters what’s wrong with their party and you often hear: no backbone, no message, too corporatist, too centrist, vision-less. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau’s new partisan podcast, “The Wilderness,” talks to voters, strategists and historians about where the party’s been and where it’s going.

This hour, On Point: Democrats look for a way out of the wilderness.

— Eric Westervelt

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President Barack Obama walks from the Oval Office and across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, Oct. 28, 2016, before boarding Marine One helicopter for the short flight to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Florida to speak at a Hillary for America campaign event. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
President Barack Obama walks from the Oval Office and across the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, Oct. 28, 2016, before boarding Marine One helicopter for the short flight to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Florida to speak at a Hillary for America campaign event. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)