- Show Notes
David Axelrod, the chief strategist for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, is the director of the University of Chicago’s non-partisan Institute of Politics and the host of The Axe Files podcast. He talks to Preet about Tuesday’s midterms, what taking the House will mean for the Democrats and for President Trump, and what we can learn from the campaign of Beto O’Rourke.
Plus, Preet reacts to the forced resignation of Jeff Sessions.
[00:04:17] PB: I’m Preet Bharara.
[00:04:22] BB: These people were high character people and that’s why they got as far as they got. They were really preaching the gospel of community and not playing that game of divide and conquer.
[00:04:36] PB: That’s David Axelrod. He was the chief strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. He’s now the director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago the host of an excellent podcast called The X Files and the senior political commentator at CNN. I speak with him about the only thing on anyone’s mind this week. Tuesday’s elections in what democratic control of the House means for the next two years.
[00:04:58] That’s coming up. Stay tuned.
[00:05:04] Hey listeners we have two more shows coming up in our fall tour. I’ll be in Los Angeles with Kumail Nanjiani on November 29. But first we’re headed to WashingtonD.C. for a show with Chuck Todd on November 15th. That shows at the Lincoln Theatre right next to the original Ben’s Chili Bowl. It’s going to be a great night. There are limited tickets left so please visit Cafe dot com slash tour and get your tickets now. That’s cafe dot com slash you are support for our live show is brought to you by the new Showtime documentary series enemies. The president Justice and the FBI. See you inD.C.
[00:05:41] PB: Hey folks so we’re taping this at our usual time Wednesday about lunchtime and I like many of you, I’m extremely exhausted. I’m very tired. I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night but I had a couple of thoughts to share about the election. Before we get to the interview today you know I know that there are some people who are disappointed in some of the races. I have disappointments too and I have other races that I’m happy about. But overall as I said on Twitter this morning I’m not disappointed I’m elated because there’s now a check on this presidency and I think that’s very important for both Democrats and Republicans for both conservatives and liberals. I think it’s extremely important and I think we should be happy about that and not let that get drowned out by particular races that you thought would go a different way. The other thing I want to say is you know separate apart from individual races and how they unfolded. You have an increase in the number of people who can vote as a legal matter. In Michigan they passed a motor voter law that lets people register to vote when they have an interaction with the DMV. And then something else that I’m incredibly excited and pleased and gratified about that I’ve been mentioning on the show a number of times and that was a ballot initiative in the state of Florida. I know some people are disappointed in the Florida governor’s race and there’s a recount happening in the Senate race. But another very important thing happened and that is the ballot initiative on the Rean franchise meant people who have been convicted of crimes in Florida passed under that balance sheet of large numbers of people who’ve been convicted of crimes with some exceptions like for rape and murder. Once they paid their debt to society they can then vote in future elections. It passed 64 percent to 35 percent well above the 60 percent threshold that was required. Five million people in Florida voted in favor of the ballot initiative. Only2.8 million voted against here’s another point I think that’s worth making turnout. When people are engaged increases and we saw all over the country huge amounts of additional people coming to vote young people not just people of my advanced age. That’s a positive sign too. It is my sense that once you get people to begin to vote once they’re registered to vote and they’ve done it once they’re more likely to do it again. So that’s another good thing. We also saw a much more diverse group of people running for office particularly women. There are all sorts of folks who may not have been you know the most famous candidate running didn’t get all the attention oxygen on the cable news networks but all over the country at the federal level and also the state level. More women ran more people of color ran and a lot of them won. You’ll hear David to me talking about one of those people in our conversation. And the final thing I’ll say about the election is take a moment to appreciate the fact that we have free elections and that people abide by the results of those elections. Yesterday was difficult for a lot of folks no matter what side you’re on. There were lots of suggestions of what people should be drinking to get through the evening. But the anxiety you feel and the detention that courses through you is a virtue of our election process that there are no preordained results upsets happen as they should. And I’ll summarize that point with something Gary Kasparov tends to say before and after every election. Former guest on the show who tweeted in the last day the following. Win or lose treasure the spectacle and power of truly unpredictable elections America.
[00:09:08] It’s a privilege that most of the world has never known amen to that.
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[00:12:06] PB: David Axelrod thank you so much for being with us. So happy to be here on an eventful Wednesday.
[00:12:13] DA: Yes.
[00:12:14] PB: So how much sleep did you get?
[00:12:17] DA: Very little. And you know why? Because I’m a junkie for this. All my life , election day was the biggest day of the year. And so once I got off the air at 1:00 am I just went back–and keep refreshing all the election results sites and waiting to see what’s happening on the West Coast, and watching– I mean I’d say about 5:00 in the morning.
[00:12:41] PB: 5:00 in the morning. So you’re tired, but are you sick and tired?
[00:12:46] DA: No never. One of the things that I woke up thinking was that we’ve done a terrible disservice to the really, really inspiring candidates who won yesterday and–they really are. I mean all over the country. You know there’s a young woman in the western suburbs of Chicago, really ex-urban and rural Chicago district that’s 95 percent white probably–young African-American named Laura Underwood, who worked on health care issues in the Obama administration, has a preexisting condition, was so outraged by the effort to undo the ACA that she ran for Congress against a long term incumbent. No one ever thought that that guy would lose and she won. There are stories like that all over the country and they kind of got eclipsed by the Senate races. But there is a wonderful new group of people–many of whom are first time candidates who got elected yesterday–and Preet, I also think we did a disservice to Beto O’Rourke to Andrew Gillum to Stacey Abrams. It’s been decades since anyone in Texas did as well as Beto O’Rourke. No one would have predicted that a year ago. You know the notion that Andrew Gillum, who nobody believed would be the nominee, would fight to a near draw in Florida–where by the way every one of the last few governors races have gotten Republican by just about the same margin.
[00:14:25] PB: Right.
[00:14:26] DA: And then Stacey Abrams in Georgia. A black woman in Georgia running a really, really close race. You know these are inspiring people who are not done.
[00:14:39] PB: No not by long shot. You’re getting to a point that I mentioned on Twitter this morning and we’re taping this. I should mention to folks on Wednesday about lunchtime that even though there was remarkable success all over and stories that are inspirational and the House was taken back by the Democrats, there’s a sort of lingering bad feeling. And some people seem more disappointed than elated. I’m elated for the same reasons that you’re saying one should be. And so I guess the question is glass half full half empty kind of thing. You know the story with Abrams, O’Rourke, and Gillum, all of whom I think were hopeful, positive, idealistic candidates–
[00:15:23] DA: Yes!
[00:15:23] PB: But they came up short. And so what is the lesson other candidates are going to learn from this?
[00:15:28] DA: I think the wrong one I’m afraid. Because they came up short, but they got farther than anybody ever thought they would. You know everybody focuses on the policy prescriptions that they were offering and they said their defeat was a repudiation of the left. I think first of all–again they got so much farther than anybody thought that they would–but the reason they did was less about the particular policy nostrums they were offering and more about their approach to politics. I think people are tired of division, tired of this grinding, kind of awful scenario that we have to live with on a day-to-day basis. And they want to believe that we can be a community. And the thing about those candidates are without in any way sacrificing their principles. They also campaigned with an open hand. And they went to places other people didn’t go.
[00:16:34] PB: Would you say these folks–Abrams, O’Rourke, Gillum–are in the mold of your former boss Barack Obama or are they something?
[00:16:40] DA: I would, I absolutely would. The thing that really struck me and–you know I didn’t see any of them campaign and I watched [indistinguishable] I saw more of O’Rourke because more of his stuff was online. Watching him, the thing that was so striking to me was the fact that he treated everybody with respect. He went into every community in that state and he didn’t make assumptions and he treated people with respect. You know when President Obama said–when he was campaigning–it’s that the character of our nation is on the ballot. These people were high character people and that’s why they got as far as they got. They were really preaching a gospel of community and of mutual respect and regard and shared interests and not playing that game of divide and conquer.
[00:17:32] PB: I don’t know how you’ll take this question. I’m a big fan of all three of those people who ran. But do we, particularly progressives, engage in a bit of hero worship and want our politicians to be something more heroic than just sort of good people with good character, who are inclusive and who have good policy ideas?
[00:17:51] DA: I think it’s a very good question. I think there is a romanticism to progressivism. I mean, you know, the Right is just propelled by resentment. At least right now.
[00:18:04] PB: Especially now.
[00:18:05] DA: I don’t want to do what I accuse others of doing. The fact is I know a lot of very, very fine people who are conservatives, who you know many of them are not fans of the president. I mean–and I’m not even sure he’s a conservative, he’s a Trumpist.
[00:18:20] PB: He’s a party of one.
[00:18:23] DA: Yeah. He has no real allegiance to any particular idea. He mines resentment for his own personal use. Yes there is an element of that. But I also think, Preet, that it takes charismatic appealing leaders to combat what we’ve seen. I think across this country people were elected yesterday who are exactly what you say. Not all of them are going to be candidates for president of the United States. Not all of them will be governors and senators, but they are going to be earnest good stewards and promoters of practical progressive ideas and values. And that is really important. So Donald Trump is formidable. He gets treated by some of our friends as a kind of you know buffoon.
[00:19:15] PB: People infantilize him and they underestimate him everyday.
[00:19:20] DA: Totally. The guy has an innate genius for the exploitation of grievance and the modern media environment. He understands it at a level that few do. It’s going to take you know an equally gifted person to challenge him in 2020.
[00:19:39] PB: So I take from what you’re saying that if you were in the business of political consulting and you had a bunch of clients who are thinking about running for the House or the Senate or governorships or the presidency in 2020 going forward that you would encourage them to embrace openness and idealism and inclusiveness and all of that. What do you think your equally talented counterparts in the Republican Party would be saying to future candidates on that side given the discussion of the caravan, given you know how people talked about crime?
[00:20:13] DA: Well if they were smart what they were saying is in the short term there is profit in this. In the long term, there’s doom for the party itself. Now there may be places in this country where that’s going to be a winning formula. When you look at the results yesterday, the president will herald his results in some of the states that he’s won before. He really didn’t do particularly well in some of these purple states. We’ll see what happens in Florida, there’s a recount now. But he may prevail there–largely because he had a governor’s race with a lot of resources who actually tried to distance himself from Trump at the end.
[00:20:57] PB: Right.
[00:20:58] DA: But in the other states all the sitting senators won handily. He lost the governor, was a long term Republican governor in Wisconsin. They lost the governor’s office in Michigan. There were pickups in Pennsylvania, a number pick ups because of redistricting. But Governor, Senator [?] won overwhelmingly. So his appeal is limited to his core base. But it’s not a growing base. And I think that the long term prospects for caravan politics is diminishing. It’s interesting to see some of the places where Democrats won House seats yesterday.
[00:21:42] PB: Like where?
[00:21:43] DA: You know Oklahoma, South Carolina–the woman who cleaved so closely to Trump that she beat Mark Sanford in the primary lost her seat yesterday.
[00:21:52] PB: Do you think the progressives in some of these difficult red districts in red states should be campaigning as progressive? So for example I’ve had Doug Jones on the show and I think he’s a terrific guy and he campaigned and won as a moderate in Alabama and Joe Manchin the same in West Virginia, but then you had Beto O’Rourke get very close by appealing to a larger audience in Texas, people who haven’t voted before, because there are Democrats in the cities and in Texas. Is the Doug Jones strategy the one of the future? Is it the better Beto O’Rourke strategy? or does it sort of depend on the candidate?
[00:22:27] DA: You know they reflect their environments. Texas is very tough. Texas also includes some of the biggest and most vibrant metropolitan areas in the country, which is where O’Rourke really ran up the score. I mean I think you know there’s no doubt that the Democratic base is now metropolitan areas, including suburban areas around the country. And if you have them that the O’RourkeDoug approach is probably going to be successful. And I think that ultimately you know it’s also important to be authentic. I don’t think Doug Jones is playing a role. I think he is who he is.
[00:23:06] PB: Right.
[00:23:07] DA: And so he is authentically more moderate. You know I don’t like using these terms because I don’t know what they mean exactly. I figure he’s pretty passionate about things like health care just like everybody else. We know he’s passionate about things like civil rights, but he reflects his state. And you know someone interesting–I had Pete Buttigieg, this young mayor from South Bend.
[00:23:33] PB: Yeah he’s terrific.
[00:23:35] DA: At my Institute of Politics in at the University of Chicago. There was a forum after 2016 on the future of the Democratic Party and some kid stood up and said ‘Why should I support Joe Manchin?’ And Pete said ‘I guess my view is I’m for the most progressive candidate who can win.’ And it was an interesting way of looking at because the fact of the matter is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would not get elected the senator from Alabama.
[00:24:09] PB: She would not not.
[00:24:11] DA: But Doug Jone’s is a fine guy and 90 per percent of things you would probably agree with him. So you say I’m not going to support him because of another 10?.
[00:24:24] PB: No no. I remember no six. I was working in the Senate on the policy side, but I would overhear conversations about politics when I worked for Senator Schumer. And there was a lot of anger on the part of progressives that you know the Senate campaign folks were pushing Bob Casey in Pennsylvania who was a more–again to use the word that you don’t like–moderate candidates.
[00:24:43] DA: One of the most decent honorable human beings I’ve ever met.
[00:24:47] PB: And you know Senator Schumer said at the time, “We need to have the majority to both be a check on the president and to get certain policies enacted. And he is a vote, even if you don’t like everything he stands for.” And you know what, in 2006 the Democrats took back the Senate.
[00:25:03] DA: And Bob Casey has on so many issues been the pivotal vote for things that people who consider themselves progressives believe are core issues. Health care being one of them. And it’s a really good example because I’m happy about Casey in the United States Senate and I don’t agree with everything that Bob Casey does. But fundamentally decent human being. I’ve got to take this story about him. Now you’ve got me going. In, 2008 he called Barack Obama when Obama was running president. He said, “I want to endorse you.” It was on Easter Sunday, I remember and we were having a difficult primary with Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania and Bob said, “Everyone is ganging up on you and I want to be for you.” They had a long talk. Obama was very appreciative. And then the Reverend Wright story broke like in the next few days. And this says a lot about both these guys. Obama called Casey back and said, “Bob if this is going to create political problems for you in state. I want to release you from your commitment.” And Casey didn’t skip a beat analyst and he said, “I’m as strongly for you today as I was yesterday.” And he spent 6 days on a bus with us in Pennsylvania campaigning in a primary he knew we were going to lose. And you know I learned a lot about him from that experience, about both of them really.
[00:26:43] PB: So going back to what your former boss, the former president said about America’s character being on the ballot, what do you then surmise was the answer to that question–how did character do on the ballot overall?
[00:26:57] DA: It depends. I mean there are several dozen new members of Congress, most of whom are, as I said, splendid, inspiring often first time candidates who I think are going to bring a new character to the Congress. There are six new governors around the country, who are going to make a big difference in their states and one of the failings of the Democratic Party–and I take responsibility for some because I was there for part of it over the last decade–has been an inattention to what’s going on in the States. You know I know I think half a dozen state legislative chambers changed hands as well. I think that you know it obviously was a mixed verdict in states that Trump carried; by large numbers Democratic senators lost. The truth is that has been the pattern for some time now, going back many cycles. That these states tend to go tribal and align themselves with their presidential choice. So you know, clinically you would said, “Yeah you know if Donald Trump cares a state by 20 points probably that person’s not going get reelected the Senate” and that’s what happened.
[00:28:20] PB: Right.
[00:28:20] DA: You know I would have loved to have seen people repudiate his tactics, which were beyond contemptible in every each and every state. But I suspect that part of the reason why some of these congressional candidates won in races that were unsuspected is because people there did say, “that’s not what I want, that’s not what I believe.”
[00:28:43] PB: But there’s other there’s other stuff too right? So you’ve mentioned a couple of times health care and Ezra Klein of Vox said something interesting before the election. Or maybe the morning of the election. He said you know Obama in part lost the House in 2010 because of Obamacare. And wouldn’t it be strange if Democrats won back the House in 2018 because of Obamacare. Do you think that’s what happened?
[00:29:07] DA: I do. Health care is the single biggest issue that people cited in the exit polls for their vote. Democrats overwhelmingly won those voters. And beyond that there was three states –I think Utah Nebraska and Idaho — where people voted to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act even as Republicans were winning. But I actually think John McCain saved us from a larger disaster when he turned his thumb down on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. So I thought health care was a big, big issue. And I think Democrats would be wise to continue to make that a centerpiece– and not just for electoral purposes–but because the country demands it.
[00:29:55] PB: Let’s talk about the future a little bit and what all this means for the next couple of years and beyond. House leadership. Should Nancy Pelosi become the speaker again?
[00:30:06] DA: It’s a complicated question for me because I worked with her and I saw her. There wouldn’t be an Affordable Care Act without Nancy Pelosi. You know we wouldn’t have expanded Pell Grants without Nancy Pelosi. There’s so many things that not would have happened but for the fact that she was there and she is a brilliant tactician within those four walls and strategist. I mean she is as good a legislative leader as I’ve seen within those four walls. But you know she bears the scars of a couple of decades of prominence and battles, she’s been made a negative icon. And you know the fact that so many candidates chose to renounce her as part of their candidacies speaks to her as a liability in terms of the outward facing portion of the job. The other thing is there is a generational issue, you’ve got all these young members coming in. You’ve many younger members who are there and they look at the leadership and the leadership is all nearing 80.
[00:31:14] PB: There’s no opportunity for advancement. I mean I think one of the big problems in the House and in the Senate on the Democratic side, the Republicans are a bit better about this, is committee chairmanships are basically based on seniority. So you’ve got to wait till you’re 80 before you can lead a committee.
[00:31:30] DA: Yeah.
[00:31:30] PB: And do you think that should change?
[00:31:33] DA: It is a real problem. My sense of Nancy — you know I had her on my podcast — and I asked, her father was as you know Mayor of Baltimore, her brother was Mayor of Baltimore, she grew up with the ward politics of Baltimore. Everyone things of her as this effete San Franciscan, she’s a tough veteran of the ward politics of Baltimore. I said, “what’d you learn growing up in that household?” She didn’t skip a beat. She said, “I learned how to count.”.
[00:32:02] PB: Right. Right.
[00:32:04] DA: And she knows exactly where she is. My guess is that she also understands that she’s going to have to make some changes if she has a chance to stay. Because you have a couple of–probably close to two dozen members who said they absolutely won’t vote for her, and that means on the floor as well. And so she can’t get elected speaker that way and so that’s a knotty problem because these members are not going to want their first act to be defying the pledge being made to their constituents.
[00:32:37] PB: Right. So who else is there?
[00:32:39] DA: Well she will have her own candidate, I’m sure. If the one thing I know about her is that she’s certainly not going to cede the speakership to the people who are trying to get rid of her. That would be completely unlike her and I suspect she wouldn’t want a good [stewart?]. So I don’t know. I mean there was talk for example that if she couldn’t be speaker that she might support Adam Schiff for that job. But I mean that’s speculation.
[00:33:07] PB: And Adam Schiff has another important job, which is a good segue to my next question. You know a guy like me who basically used to issue subpoenas for a living and investigate people for a living. So maybe I’m overly intent on investigations and uncovering fraud, waste and abuse and other transgressions, but I’m not in the House and I don’t have a committee chairmanship. So there’s this question about investigations and I saw Mitch McConnell already this morning, preprepared talking point, warn the Democrats against what he called “presidential harassment” which is an ironic phrase for a lot of reasons. We don’t need to go into, but then I saw another very smart person who you and I both know: Ron Klain. So Ron Klain says in his in his piece in The Washington Post among other things that for the first hundred days no subpoena should be issued, no hearings should happen and kitchen table, bread and butter issues are what Democrats should focus on. And there’s plenty of time later. And there’s something to be said for that. What do you think should happen?
[00:34:06] DA: I think there’s a lot of wisdom in what Ron said and I was asked about this last night on the air and my reflexive reaction was: it’s bad to lose the House because there is an instinct on the part of the House to play the oversight role they’re supposed to play. I don’t know. I think leading with a positive agenda for their constituents will appeal to new members and to the public. And it’s the right thing to do. You know all this stuff about “we’re going to get the president’s tax return” and all that stuff that doesn’t interest me very much. I do worry about some of the things are going on for example in agencies like the EPA and the relationship between industry and the decision-making there–because that affects people’s lives. So I guess what I’m saying is: I would be prudent. I would be deliberate. I would make kitchen table issues, as Ron suggests, front and center but I wouldn’t be dogmatic about it.
[00:35:08] PB: Let me end bying ask you a couple of things. One is you know politics is sort of visceral and even though, as we said earlier in the conversation, that you know maybe we put politicians too high on a pedestal, but the reverse is also sometimes true. We demonize folks. That’s just natural but is there anyone in particular who lost yesterday that especially pleased you. Want me to go first?
[00:35:32] DA: Yeah go ahead.
[00:35:33] PB: Dana Rohrabacher.
[00:35:35] DA: Well yeah that’s an easy one. I should associate myself with that. I was kind of disappointed that Steve King escaped by three points in Iowa because you know that would have been a wonderful message if the guy who is Trumpier than Trump on these divisive issues in invoking racism and so on had lost. It was extraordinary that his race was so close….I’m going to go with your choice just because I’m too tired to think of my own.
[00:36:10] PB: All right. I’ll forgive you your laziness this once. Final question to you and I’ll let you go get a nap if you can. What kind of person can win in 2020? Is someone like Beto O’Rourke capable of mounting a legitimate campaign, so is it going to be O’Rourke?
[00:36:26] DA: Yes I think and I think there will be a lot of pressure on him to do so. I always felt like if he came within an eyelash of winning in Texas that there’s desire to see him consider that. So I think he will consider it. I think the ability to take the place for the character of our country to people both through the language we use and the manner in which we campaign is really important. But you know I have to say, Preet, I’ve never felt the need–for everyon wants to know who’s the person, who is going to be the candidate. You know sometimes campaigns are necessary. Sometimes we need campaigns to see who emerges, to see how people deal with challengers, to see how people present their case. I think this is one of those times. I could not sit here and tell you as we speak today who the ideal candidate. And I think Democrats do themselves a disservice if they rush to judgment on that. Let’s see how people perform, let’s see how people handle you know the bright light and the pressures of a candidacy. You know Beto, as an example, acquitted himself very well in a high profile race. Running for president is different, but you know it be interesting to see him out there and there are many others. So my advice would be: let’s get everybody out on the field who feels they have something to offer and we’ll know.
[00:38:04] PB: DAVID AXELROD Thank you. I know and very little sleep and with all sorts of other obligations you have. Yes. Thank you. Thank you. Thanks so much David. Get some rest. OK. Well that’s it for this episode of stay tuned if you like the show rate and review it on Apple podcasts. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show.